Environmentalists have a reputation for being self-righteous and a little naggy, which makes them ripe for parody. (Seen “Portlandia”?) The perception that the eco-conscious are trying to take the fun out of life, however, is unfair. It also has some unfortunate consequences: It drives people away. Nagging breeds defiance.
But if you’re serious about the environment and want others to share your passion, don’t be intimidated by the potential mockery or resistance. There’s an extensive body of research on how to persuade those who view science with suspicion — it’s called the science of science communication. Much of the work centers on climate change.
“There is a socially constructed silence around climate change,” says George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network and author of the forthcoming book “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.”
Socially negotiated silences grow up around issues that we simply can’t agree on. But we have to find a way around this stalemate, because the consequences are monumental. Marshall recommends tweaking your language slightly to make yourself sound less judgmental.
“Speak openly of your personal ownership of your convictions,” he notes. “Say, ‘This is what’s important to me, and this is why.’ Don’t get caught up in the scientific discussion. You’re not a scientist, and evidence doesn’t persuade people who reject climate change. What carries power is your personal conviction as a friend, colleague or neighbor.”
Climate change communications research suggests that a person’s views are formed in large part by their social network. When a climate change rejectionist finds he is surrounded by believers, it eases the path toward changing his mind. Say that you, too, were once reluctant to accept the idea of climate change. It helps your audience identify with you.
Now you’ll need a compelling argument to explain why you came around. As Marshall notes, communications research shows that “because scientists say so” is a loser. (President Obama made this mistake last week in his State of the Union address, when he bluntly declared that “climate change is a fact.”)
Stephan Lewandowsky, who studies this issue at the University of Bristol, offers four arguments that have been shown to appeal to the sort of person who rejects the idea of climate change.
First, frame it as a risk-management issue. We aren’t really a society of believers and deniers on climate change; our opinions exist on a spectrum. Maybe you’re 90 percent sure that climate change is real, while your neighbor sets the probability at just 20 percent. A disagreement over numbers is easier to discuss than a fundamentally different set of worldviews. Even if there’s only a 20 percent chance of rising sea levels, intensifying storm systems and crop failure, we ought to take steps to mitigate the risk. After all, your house probably won’t burn down or flood, but you still have homeowners insurance.
Next, talk about nuclear power. “People who are suspicious of hippies and Al Gore accept nuclear as a possible solution,” Lewandowsky says. Even if you’re personally opposed to nuclear power, this is a handy way to open climate-change rejectionists to the idea of managing the risks. From there, you can expand the discussion into other business opportunities that would arise from managing climate change, like hydrogen-powered cars or possibly solar arrays.
Illness terrifies people of all stripes, so it sometimes helps to emphasize the links between climate change and disease. “Mosquitoes now live at higher altitudes and spread farther from the tropics than they used to,” Lewandowsky says, “and diseases like malaria and dengue are migrating from the equator.” Nobody likes malaria, even if they’re not so bothered about the possible extinction of polar bears.
If all else fails, bring up the Pentagon. People who reject climate-change science often find the views of the Department of Defense persuasive, and the Pentagon is extremely concerned about climate change.
“Large areas of the world will be submerged,” Lewandowsky explains, “and residents of Bangladesh and Pacific island nations won’t drown silently: They will migrate. Refugees sow the seeds for conflict.” The Pentagon is already considering the need to shift resources from traditional combat to humanitarian operations to address these scenarios.
Finally, don’t get your hopes up. Changing someone’s mind is a slow, laborious process. Your obstinate uncle, neighbor or colleague isn’t going to slow-clap you out of the room after your irresistible climate-change argument. All you can do is plant a seed. So go do it.