Thousands of protestors gather in Denver Civic Center Park at the People’s Climate March on Denver on April 29, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. Credit: Marc Piscotty / Stringer

The environmental economist Cameron Hepburn said that if someone wanted to design a pill that would put an end to humanity, it would look a lot like climate change. Not only is climate change the world’s largest collective action problem—with any viable solution requiring coordinated action by international players—but its effects are also spread far across space and time, making it very difficult for humans to conceptualize the problem in the first place (the world doesn’t feel like it’s warming, so we have to rely on scientists to tell us that it is). Making matters even more confusing is the trillion-dollar fossil fuel industry that has fought tooth and nail to persuade the public that climate change is a myth.

The first step towards any sort of climate change solution is admitting that we have a problem. So, how do we convince climate deniers that global warming is real and deserves attention? There isn’t a catch-all answer here, but the solution probably doesn’t include calling climate deniers ignorant. According to the early findings from Jacob Lipsman, a University of Kansas doctoral student researching climate denial in southeast Louisiana, climate denial isn’t as directly linked with a deficit of information as we might think.

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“It seems like people on the left have a caricature of a climate skeptic: an idiot who doesn’t care about anything except driving his pickup truck around. But the people I’ve talked to, even the ones that are pretty anti-climate science, still understand the importance of their local environment,” said Lipsman in an interview with Project Earth. “If we want to get people on the side of buying into climate change, it’s not going to be enough to throw a bunch of charts and graphs their way; we need to understand the social, economic and cultural reasons why they believe what they believe.”

Putting beliefs into context 

According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, about 70% of American adults believe that climate change is happening and 53% believe that global warming is caused by humans. In Louisiana, the figures are somewhat lower, with about 65% of the population believing that climate change is real and 49% believing that global warming is caused by humans. Lipsman asserts that if we want to have any real chance of convincing skeptics that climate change is real and deserves attention, we need to understand the reason behind their beliefs.

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So while it’s true that Louisiana contains a higher than average percentage of climate deniers, it’s also true that the state gets more than 10% of its gross domestic product from oil, natural gas and mining, making it one of the more fossil fuel dependent regions of the U.S.; Louisianians may be ambivalent or opposed to climate policy due to their dependence on the fossil fuel industry, not because of ignorance about science. Lipsman points out that residents of Louisiana are well informed and concerned about issues relating to their local environment; just look at how the state has dealt with it’s coastal erosion problem: a $50 billion 50-year master plan for coastal restoration and hurricane protection that was approved by the state legislature. Although coastal erosion is caused by a number of factors (including rising seas, commercial activity and loss of coastal vegetation), Lipsman points out that residents are more likely to point to non-climate change related reasons for the erosion, thereby averting some of the blame from the fossil fuel industry.

“If an individual or a community is resistant to the idea of climate change for economic or social reasons, climate advocates will not be able to effectively communicate with these individuals about climate change simply by presenting more data,” Lipsman explained in an interview with Eureka Alert. “By better understanding the processes of climate change denial, climate advocates will be better equipped to have an effective dialogue with individuals and communities that are skeptical of these ideas.”

The importance of contextual conversations

Perhaps the greatest climate change convincing effort to date was undertaken by the Paris Climate Agreement, which was signed by 196 countries and pledged to limit rising temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius. So, how did the authors of the Paris Agreement manage to wrangle nearly every country on the planet to agree to the international climate agreement? A lot of it had to do with what Lipsman is finding in Louisiana: understanding the context behind a country’s beliefs.

“One of the lessons learned during the 6-year negation [of the Paris Agreement] is that you always have what I call ‘contextual’ conversations,” explained Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), in an interview with Project Earth in February. “I don’t go to Samoa, or Fiji, or Tuvalu, and speak to them about job creation with respect to climate change, because that is not where their shoe hurts; their shoe hurts with respect to the vulnerability that they have to climate change, with respect with their survival under climate change conditions.” When speaking to representatives from Saudi Arabia about climate policy, Figueres would avoid using the term “carbon” (any mention of carbon would make the Saudis, who sit on a huge expanse of cheap oil, feel under direct economic threat). Instead, Figueres would use the term “low emissions.”

Without having these “contextual conversations,” the Paris Agreement likely wouldn’t have been signed, and Figueres believes that these types of contextual conversations continue to be critical for converting deniers into believers. “If you talk to the current U.S. administration, you don’t talk to them about survival when it comes to climate change, because they will survive; you talk to them about what is important to them, and that is the economics of the issue, the job creation, the competitiveness of the private sector in the U.S.” explained Figueres. “It is not about whether you believe in climate change... it is not about any ideology… it is sheerly a very blunt conversation about what is good for the U.S. economy, today and tomorrow. Period.”

Jerry Taylor, former vice president of the Cato Institute and former staff director for the energy and environment task force at the American Legislative Exchange Council, has a similar lesson to impart as Figueres. For years, Taylor was an avid climate skeptic and worked diligently to discredit climate science, that is until he started to dig deeper in the research he was trying to discredit and discovered that he was on the wrong side of the facts. Taylor is now the president of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank that works in part to turn climate deniers into climate activists.

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In an interview with The Intercept, Taylor explained that to convince conservatives that climate change deserves attention, he presents climate change facts in “a dispassionate, reasonable, non-screedy, calm, careful way,” but he also makes sure to tailor his argument to appeal to a conservative’s belief system. “We don’t call people conservative when they put all their chips on one number of a roulette wheel. That’s not conservative... it’s dangerous, risky. Conservatives think this way about foreign policy. We know that if North Korea has a nuclear weapon, they’re probably not going to use it. But we don’t act as if that’s a certainty. We hedge our bets,” explained Taylor to The Intercept. “Climate change is like that. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. Given that fact, shouldn’t we hedge?”

To have a chance of converting a denier into a believer, we have to be ready with the facts (check out this extensive page for solid climate change arguments), but equally important is the need to have these contextual conversations; to understand why someone believes what they do, and what will convince them, rather than dismiss them as ignorant.

“Climate change is an important issue and its obviously important that we figure out a meaningful way to talk about it,” said Lipsman. “I’m not trying to excuse not believing in climate change, but if we just talk about these people like they’re idiots than we A) aren’t seeing the whole picture, and B) don’t really have any chance of legitimately engaging with them and educating them on the topic.”

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This article was supported by Participant Media, maker of an Inconvenient Sequel.