HomeEventsFrontiers in the Environment6 things we learned about changing people’s minds on climate

6 things we learned about changing people’s minds on climate

About 3 in 10 people in the U.S. reject that the Earth is warming, according to a recent poll. How can they be convinced otherwise?

Our April 20 Frontiers in the Environment presenter addressed that very question. Renowned climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University and CEO of climate consulting firm ATMOS Research, has taken on a second calling: communicating climate change to people who don’t think it’s real. Talk about a tough task.

Here are six key insights Hayhoe shared in her talk:

  1. Understand how polarizing the issue of climate change is. Politically, the U.S. is more polarized than it has been in a long time, with Republicans and Democrats increasingly at odds. Hayhoe presented data from the Pew Research Center showing that, between 1994 and 2014, the voters from the two major parties have become more ideologically divided. She also pointed out that a major predictor of who Americans marry is political party. This means anyone trying to communicate on climate issues needs to act carefully.
  1. Appreciate that people have different ways of thinking. To get through to people in a polarized world, it pays to accept that not everyone will think the same way you do. Hayhoe talked about how scientists, who tend to approach the world with a critical eye for data, differ from many members of the public at large, who tend toward what Hayhoe called “sensing” — looking for concrete anecdotes and examples. And scientists trying to communicate with the public, should scrub their jargon: Words like “theory” or “significant,” which mean one thing to researchers, may mean something entirely different to laypeople.
  1. Recognize that no one is a blank slate. One popular rationale for why many people reject climate science, the knowledge deficit model, holds that people are willing to process information if it’s available. This model supposes that any lack of public support for climate science is simply caused by a lack of information. If people just knew more, the model says, they’d accept climate change as real. Not true, Hayhoe said. She cited a 2012 study published in Nature Climate Change that found that polarization on climate change was actually most severe among people with higher science literacy. She asked her audience to recognize that people have identities and ideologies that filter scientific information, so you can’t engage meaningfully with them on climate without taking those things into account.
  1. Disrupt the narrative. As humans, we think in narratives. We construct stories and explanations around ideas. Hayhoe said that the narrative on climate change is often that people believe in it, that it’s like a religion. So she disrupts that narrative. When she talks to conservative or faith-based groups, she starts by saying, “I don’t believe in global warming.” To change the conversation, she then delves into the difference between science and belief.
  1. Connect with shared values. An emotional connection can go a long way. To really get through to people, Hayhoe said, start by identifying some value that you share. Find a common interest, conviction or characteristic: Winter sports? Religion? Children? Location? If you connect this shared value to climate change, you can reach out from a place of empathy and mutual interest. The key is to explain to doubters why climate change matters — in their life, in their context.
  1. Inspire with solutions. We know climate change is scary. But Hayhoe doesn’t think doom and gloom is the way to get to people. Instead, she said, build bridges to address a forward-looking question: How can we work together to solve this problem in positive ways that are compatible with our values? Inspire people with visionary technology or policy solutions they can get on board with. When looking at policy to address climate change, it sometimes even pays to couch appeals in tangible, local benefits outside of mitigating climate change. If we connect with a shared value and inspire with a bright future, Hayhoe made clear, we have a chance to bring new people into the fold on climate change.

Photo by Oxfam International (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Communications Assistant


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  1. Pingback: Change to a Sustainable Mindset | Pearltrees

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