How to (not) convince a climate skeptic

Looking back at the summer of 2023 will probably have many describing extreme weather, floods, and fires. Like so many other summers lately, many people made first-hand experiences with the climate change that almost everyone has read about, protested against, and had anxiety about. Even if 99.9% of scientists agreeing on  human-caused climate change is not enough evidence for the public, we would think that personal experiences of fleeing from burning hotels or flooded towns would make people believe in climate change and force political leaders to take action. However, even such experiences do not necessarily convince climate skeptics. Indeed, the number of people and politicians doubting the human factor, seriousness, or existence of climate change is still prominent, and even increasing, in some places. How can this be?

Let’s take Norway as an example. Norway and Norwegians represent most of the common criterias that could make people believe in climate change: a highly educated population, high trust in the government and in the media, high income and development, and a long history of left-leaning political values. Still, 39% of Norwegians do not fully agree with the statement that climate change is human-caused. Effective climate policies can be difficult to achieve,  gain support for, and to implement, as they often require some restrictions on freedom of choice, such as consumption or fuel. If 39% do not think that such restrictions are necessary to support and ultimately implement, climate policies become even harder to pass. To address this issue and decrease that percentage, understanding why and how someone becomes climate skeptical is important. Considering that climate skeptics are probably less likely to delve into these topics, I asked a group of Norwegian, educated climate-believers who, at least most of them, seek a career in environmental sustainability, about how they think someone becomes ‘climate skeptical’. After all, it will be their job to convince the climate skeptics. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The second most common explanation for climate skepticism, according to the sustainability-educated group, was that “they don’t trust politicians”. Indeed, governmental trust is important for climate policy support. Effective climate policy is likely somewhat invasive and requires large-scale governmental action. If you don’t trust politicians or the government, you will be less likely to want them to restrict your freedom in the name of climate change. While trust is important, it is not necessarily the politicians who require trust for someone to believe that climate change happens. It is those 99,9% of scientists. Politicians are not climate scientists. When it comes to environmental issues, politicians are arguably just like any other person who makes up their mind about climate change and who the scientists wish to reach. The catch is that those politicians are likely to have some higher education and are good at motivated reasoning as well. So it might just be the other way around – if you don’t believe in climate change, you will likely not agree with or trust politicians implementing restricting regulations. Then, one person from the group argued that climate skeptics “don’t see any change happening from the politicians, so their logic is that if climate change really was a crisis, the politicians would have done more about it”. But then we assume that climate skeptics trust politicians again. This is getting complicated and we are not making sense anymore. 

Finally, another person from the group reasoned that “if you want to find some other reason for climate change, you can. There are so many alternative platforms where you can find ‘evidence’ or logic against climate change”. Another one explained that “I think people, deep down, know that climate change is real. They just don’t want to change anything, so they pretend that it’s not true”. They might be onto something. This is what motivated reasoning and confirmation bias makes you do: identify and remember only the evidence that support your desired conclusion, interpret information in favor of your goal or simply discredit the information that contradicts your conclusion. In this way, you can make sure to avoid learning anything from anyone outside your political or social groups ever again. This is why simply providing information, such as a scientific consensus about climate change, or education might even contradict your goal if you seek to convince a climate skeptic to believe in climate change. In fact, simply providing information might  even increase polarization on the topic, leading us even further from a political solution.

Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

How, then, could my friends and future sustainability-promoters convince climate skeptics, both the public and politicians, to not only believe in climate change, but to support climate policies? Firstly, they might need to challenge their own motivated reasoning and illusion of understanding of climate skeptics. If not, they risk designing solutions focused on solving the wrong issues, such as merely providing education and information campaigns. 

In his book “The Righteous Mind” about why people are so divided on politics, Jonathan Haidt argues that, by understanding where other’s moral arguments come from, we might realize that we are and work in more similar ways than we think. Understanding how to reach, rather than push away, a climate skeptic is essential. Then, ways for communicating about climate change and increasing support for climate policies might become more effective. In that way, convincing those 39% might be possible. 

Anita Kaksrud
Staff Writer