How to get a skeptic to believe in climate change? Scientists are studying that

By Gayathri Vaidyanathan | 08/08/2016 08:53 AM EDT

Renee Lertzman has specific ideas about talking to conservatives about climate change.

Renee Lertzman has specific ideas about talking to conservatives about climate change.

The behavioral psychologist and consultant begins the conversation with an open mind and intent on listening, she said, adding she tries to hear and acknowledge people’s anxieties without an agenda. And her preliminary research has shown that such conversations make Republicans more open to discussing climate change.

"We are talking about anxieties that are under the surface of our awareness," Lertzman said, discussing her work at a recent conference of the Association of Climate Change Officers.


Lertzman, author of the book "Environmental Melancholia: Psychoanalytic Dimensions of Engagement," is one of a group of social scientists who are learning how to move the needle on climate action. Through theoretical study and real-world surveys, they are trying to understand why some people, usually with conservative political leanings, do not "believe" in climate science.

Their attempts are well-timed and perhaps even working, as beliefs seem to be shifting. Most Americans now think man-made climate change is happening, polls show. And in the past two years, the number of Republicans who believe in climate change has jumped to 47 percent, up from 28 percent in 2014.

"That’s a really big shift, so something seems to be happening," said Edward Maibach, a communications scientist at George Mason University.

So what has caused the big jump? Leaders respected by conservatives, such as Pope Francis, have come out in favor of environmentalism, Maibach said. At the same time, social scientists such as Lertzman are learning which communication strategies work the best at getting conservatives on board.

Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank, cautioned that polls do not reveal much about conservatives’ thoughts on climate action. To be useful, the polls have to query people about the costs of tackling the problem, he said.

"Believing that man-made climate change exists, as I do, does not necessarily mean that you think that it is rapid or a serious problem or that the policies to address it will actually do anything or that you are willing to pay the costs of those policies," he said.

To probe how conservatives think, Lertzmann and her colleagues in 2014 launched a messaging campaign that she says was funded by the ClearPath Foundation, a Republican clean energy think tank. ClearPath declined to comment for this article. In its public outreach, the group does not talk about climate change and instead focuses on the potential of fossil fuel alternatives.

Lertzman and her colleagues discovered that conservatives were feeling pulled in different directions when climate change was discussed. People felt anxiety when informed of direct climate impacts, Lertzman said. Alarming messages that trigger shame, blame, fear and anxiety can impede people’s cognitive processing abilities critical to finding solutions, neuroscientists say.

"In the short term, if you want to shame someone into doing a corrective behavior, that can be effective," Lertzman said.

"But what we are talking about are bigger-picture issues, so the emotions that are known to facilitate what we need — strategy, foresight, problem solving, curiosity, interests — in order to access those emotions, we have to feel safe," she said.

To trigger the right emotions, Lertzman and her colleagues developed a script where they circled around environmentalism without explicitly labeling it as such.

The script discussed nature and the merits of the outdoors. It gave a nod to "creation care," an idea in Christianity that humans are responsible for this planet. It acknowledged that people might dislike former Vice President Al Gore and policies that seek to expand government. It is possible to address the challenge on "our own terms" through sustainable energy solutions, the script stated.

To judge whether the message resonated with conservatives, Lertzman and her colleagues gave a test audience a dial that they could turn up high if they liked what they were hearing. As the scientists went through the script, both moderate and staunch conservatives cranked up the dial.

The testing proved the script was successful, Lertzman said. She and her colleagues have shared the dial test results with select audiences, including to pro-climate GOP members of Congress who would like to discuss climate with their conservative constituencies.

The takeaway is that communicators should first acknowledge people’s anxieties and frustration, Lertzman said.

"It is about modeling and having empathy for our audience so that you gain that traction and that connection, and then you move into what the solution may be," she said.

People who deny warming likely experience cognitive dissonance, said Spencer Weart, a science historian and author of "Nuclear Fear" and "The Discovery of Global Warming."

"If I believed in global warming, then I’d have to blame the industries, I’d have to feel ashamed for my emissions, and I’d feel anxiety about the future of my children. Therefore, I won’t believe in global warming," he said in a phone interview.

Their denial is facilitated by the fact that global warming’s effects are remote in space and time. The worst sufferers would be Pacific islanders; Alaskan Natives; people of the 22nd century; or the polar bear, "a vicious predator which is frankly hard for people to identify with," Weart said.

He is not surprised that most polls, such as a March poll by Gallup, show that climate change is last on people’s list of priorities.

Lertzman, who has a sunnier outlook, said she takes such polls "with a grain of salt" because they query respondents about the concerns at the top of their mind.

Among conservatives, concern about climate change is present but buried, waiting to be drawn out by a skillful conversationalist, she said.

The power of images

Potent images or a social campaign that reveals deception by a villain might also help, experts said. The former, however, has been lacking from the public discourse, Weart said. And the latter is just being created through the #ExxonKnew campaign, where environmentalists have accused Exxon Mobil Corp. of willfully deceiving the public about climate change science.

Images of droughts, receding glaciers, floods and rainstorms are cold and impersonal, and too common, Weart said. The only hit "cli-fi" movie was "The Day After Tomorrow," which made a dent only as big as an average superhero summer flick in the public’s consciousness.

Weart contrasted these lackluster images to ones deployed during the threat of nuclear war. Giant radioactive monsters roamed TV screens, and in 1983, some 100 million people tuned in to a television special titled "The Day After" (an inspiration for the later cli-fi movie) that stoked their worst fears.

Similarly, photos of diseased lungs have been deployed to great effect on cigarette packaging, studies have found. It appears that a measured dose of doomsday warning energizes people, provided they are given solutions to enact, Weart said.

"To get political action about something, you need a villain," Weart said. "Nuclear war, you can blame on the Russians or on the nasty generals."

The environmental community has lately cast Exxon Mobil in that role, Weart said. The company is currently being investigated by New York and Massachusetts for allegedly misinforming the public about climate change.

"We are beginning to get there with Exxon, but the fact is, everybody who owns the car or everybody who uses the bus is contributing to global warming," Weart said. "It’s a more personal thing, it’s difficult to understand a villain."

Pointing out villainous deception works as demonstrated in an anti-smoking campaign called "Truth" that was launched in Florida in 1998 and later spread throughout the United States. The campaign used humor and hard-hitting advertisements to get teenagers to pay attention to the message that they are being deceived by the tobacco industry.

It said, "You are the punchline of the joke, and the way you can fight back is to make them the punchline for the joke," Maibach said.

Within two years, smoking by middle schoolers declined by 40 percent and by high schoolers by 18 percent, a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association found.

"It suggests an important opportunity here — the public doesn’t like to be deceived, and revealing the deception will continue to build public support for public response," Maibach said.