Talking with “climate deniers” and “climate skeptics”

When talking to “climate deniers” and “climate skeptics” (I still do not know a better word) you inevitably get to the point where you feel confused, fogged and uncomfortable. Am I really too alarmist? Fatalistic? Is that all really only half as bad? Am I a fun spoiler? Or is it because of my counterpart, who does not face the facts, does not want to shake himself, does not want to be disturbed? Often such conversations end in mutual frustration.

Venice in November 2019: One remains humorous, even
after the third wave of the flood within a few days

What is happening there? Andrew Winston has created a helpful system in which he (among other things) differentiates between those who simply doubt the facts and those who, while recognizing the crisis, continue to argue and discuss – and thus remain passive. An excerpt from his article can be found here.

Denial and disavowal

The Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA) calls a possible denial of the climate crisis disavowal, as opposed to denial, where the facts are simply denied. In disawoval someone recognizes the climate crisis, but plays down the meaning and minimizes their own emotional vulnerability.

Disavowal”, this is how the authors of the CPA describe it, “is a term covering a complex set of ways of minimising felt emotional disturbance caused by facing reality. It can even enable a person to deny and acknowledge climate change at the same time, but with different parts of the mind. Disavowal is very similar to what the sociologist Stanley Cohen (2001) called implicatory denial, where facts are recognised without any consequent responsibility to act on them. It enables people to avoid feeling disturbed and hence responsible for their actions.

It´s not about information

Someone who really doesn´t want to be touched, will not feel any responsibility or impulse to take action. To deal with this – when you are shaken – is particularly difficult. Even if the reluctance is not directly recognizable (with simple denial, one might end a conversation faster), we are dealing with massive defenses. That also means content-related discussions or arguments are pointless – and frustrating.

Recently, we are more often asked how to handle such conversational situations. First of all, we too fail again and again … Because there is no real contact in defense, we first try to provide contact, as the basis for a further talk. What we know is what certainly doesn´t work: To try to persuade, in an attempt to penetrate with more and more and always new and better arguments.

It´s not about information: Climatologists often overestimate what their listeners do believe. “Experts admonish psychology to consider information on climate change”, says Christoph Schrader at “If there is a conflict between the facts and the values ​​of a human being, the facts will be lost,” he quotes the Norwegian psychologist Per Aspen Stoknes. “Even before someone opens their mouths, it’s decided what I think of their message,” says Stoknes.

And George Marshall, “veteran” of the climate change movement, affirms: “Trust is more important than information.” Friends, relatives, the pastor, or a valued politician are believed. No one believes journalists from the newspaper with the political attitude that is perceived as left, let alone environmentalists who want to take the car away – no matter if these prejudices are right. “

“We do not get people to action by through narratives of enmity. Instead, we need to develop narratives of cooperation, shared interests, and shared humanity. “Marshall, like many others, is convinced that old-fashioned environmentalists must give up air sovereignty over the issue. “It can only work if the opinion leaders in each social group spread their version of climate protection,” he says. In many cases, people might not talk about “climate” but, for instance, about “energy independence”, “clean air” or “weather extremes”. “We’ll see the success in it,” says Marshall, “when people talk about in a way that we personally do not like at all.” And: One must allow it to people to mourn the fossil energy era”, says Christoph Schrader in his article.

So how can discussions be successful? The best way to get in contact with ourselves is to feel how we are doing emotionally and physically. Sometimes it helps to show and communicate our own concern, maybe by saying: “I am particularly shocked by this topic”. Sometimes the defense of the other person might be too strong, so that it would be better to stop the conversation when it becomes hopeless, tiring or even destructive.

A nice example of trying to get into conversation with a whole group of climate deniers can be found here. The US-American physicist and climate scientist Stephen Schneider (he died in 2010, shortly after the recording of this event) here makes the effort to calmly and vividly discuss with a hall full of (Australian) climate deniers. He discusses the most common pseudo-arguments of his listeners and also finds a helpful picture for one of the typical misunderstandings: how can it be, asks a listener, that such a small amount of CO2 that humans produce – low in relation to the naturally occurring CO2 – might really affect the climate in such a way?

It’s like having a bathtub full of water, explains Schneider, as long as the amount of water that drains out is the same as the amount of fresh water that runs in, the ratio is stable. However, if you consistently add just a little bit more than can drain in the same amount of time, it just adds up over time – something we’ve been observing and measuring very closely for decades about CO2.

One sees at the end of this panel that few people change their minds, but also that, if anything, the calm and respectful nature of the scientist reaches the deniers – and even he, who has begun with the best of intentions, is about to lose his composure for a moment – before he goes on to explain and remains human in everything. A thankful attempt and an impressive round.