What to Say to a Climate Change Skeptic. [Video]

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Simran Sethi: The Psychology of Why and How We Care

Let’s begin this blog with a show of hands.

Who here has ever had a conversation with a climate change skeptic?

Who here is a climate change skeptic?

Who here might be able to imagine the psychology of someone—climate change skeptic or not—who feels overwhelmed and incapacitated by the thought of climate change?

In recent years, Simran Sethi, lauded in 2007 by Vanity Fair as “the environmental messenger,” began to question why so many people, faced with so many facts about our bleak environmental future, still didn’t seem to be acting to remedy the situation. Looking for answers, she dug into extensive psychological research on the human brain, looking for the messages that would be most likely to make us, as humans, pay attention and act. At the same time, she found herself settling into a community in the heartland of Kansas, surrounded by people whose cares, at first glance, seemed to be very different from her own.

The result of both experiences is this powerful TEDx talk, which in my opinion should be shown to every non-profit, every communicator and every person who cares about engaging the public and making change.

So what’s the most important thing you can say to a climate change skeptic (or any constituent that you’d like to reach, engage, and empower)? For starters, stop thinking of them as “climate change skeptic” and think of them as a human instead. Then ask, “What do you care about?” and stop to actually listen.

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anonymous Oct 5, 2012 5:48am

"What to Say to a Climate Change Skeptic"

Well, we have a few right here (skeptics, that is). Y'all have anything to say to us? I'd especially be interested in a scientific non-political refutation of the feedback loop problem since it is, as Mr. S points out, the crux of the problem. I mean, this is, at root, a science problem. As a person interested in truth, I'm willing to follow truth wherever it leads. Fortunately, the feedback loop problem indicates that truth might not be leading Earth to a catastrophic denouement. That is certainly good news, but I don't believe something simply because it's good news. Is there a valid refutation to the feedback loop problem?

I've asked that question before here on Ele, the only place I'm currently spending much time. Nothing but silence on the issue. Could it be that Mr. S is right? That there is only silence because there is no refutation? Any comments to be made here, Ms. Mueller? Ms. Sethi?

Are any of you global warming warners willing to join me in placing truth above political agenda? In other words, are you willing to shift toward skepticism if it turns out there is no valid refutation for the feedback loop problem? Because if there is no valid refutation, the whole thesis of human-generated global warming is dealt a blow, not a fatal blow but certainly a serious blow.

    anonymous Oct 5, 2012 10:21am

    I would simply add that one needs to look at the politically based nature of all of the "solutions" put forward. The carbon taxes don't actually reduce emissions. . . they just make it harder for poor people to have cars. BP won't pay it, you will, and the giant corporations can afford it.
    Whether we agree on the details of climate or not it only takes a few hours of research to realize that the solutions don't help, and in fact hurt the average person. You have to ask yourself why.
    To be clear we need to manage our world in a better way, clean air, water, food, all very necessary. Respect and connection to our planet, necessary. But we have to actually do it. Getting behind a mass movemant might make people feel better, but look at what the result is.

    anonymous Oct 5, 2012 4:11pm

    Can you clarify the particular feedback loop problem? There are many potential feedback loops related to climate change that you could be referring to and perhaps your concern could be better addressed if you were more specific.

    Conversions of climate change skeptics do occur, even when those skeptics receive funding from a Koch brother: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/30/opinion/the-con….

      anonymous Oct 5, 2012 5:29pm

      Hi Dylan, I'm not the expert but, in a nutshell, as I understand it…

      The extra co2 in the atmosphere is only enough to lead to a relatively small increase in global temps. To get the kinds of warming predicticed by computer models, or to blame actual warming on co2 rather than other presumably natural cycyles, you have to assume a positive feedback loop which multiplies the effect of the carbon. Such a feedback loop, though, has not been found. In fact, as Mr S alluded to up above, feedback loops tend to return systems to stasis. In other words, if there is a feedback loop, it might be more likely to be a negative feedback loop that actually reduces rather than increases the effect of the extra carbon. In any case, no feedback loop, neither positive nor negative, has been found.

      That's the way i undersand the problem. Like I said, I'm more interested than truth than political agenda, so I'm quite willing to be proved wrong on this. But so far, no one here has made the effort and I haven't seen this particular and essential problem addressed in the media.

        anonymous Oct 5, 2012 5:42pm

        PS, just read your link, Dylan. Excellent, I think. The author, a scientist doing real science, has found reason to modify his earllier skepticism. But he also points out that many of the claims by warming proponents are somewhat hysterical. He doesn't get into the feedback loop problem, but it's only a short article. He himself, despite the headline and first sentence, seems to have shifted not from allout skeptic to firm proponent of global warming, but shifted the direction he leans from reasonable skepticism to reasonable suspicion that global warming is human caused.

    anonymous Oct 11, 2012 3:27pm

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your comments! I think one of the points of Ms. Sethi's talk is that one of the major blocks to getting all types of people to act on these issues is that we are getting bogged down by complex scientific arguments, many of which end up alienating people—either because they don't have the scientific background to participate, or because they're too busy with the immediate problems in their lives to care. So, going back and forth on whether climate change is or isn't an issue is exactly not the point. The point is that when we are in relationship with people who don't share the same cares or beliefs as us, it's best to start by listening and trying our best to understand their cares, and to begin the conversation from there.

anonymous Oct 3, 2012 9:11pm

You need only compare the tropics to Siberia to recognize that global warming will encourage more vibrant ecosystems with greater diversity of life (as is also born out by the fossil record). For every polar bear that is lost, we will see 10 new species of flowers emerge. So, we should not pretend that global warming is any threat to nature. Nature will thrive.

It just might not be very comfortable for the species we care most about, especially those with ocean front property. Possibly this is where the disconnect arises. Trying to freeze the earth exactly as it was when we grew up is a fundamentally selfish aim, which must be weighed alongside other selfish interests. Yet, many proponents treat it as a higher calling that trumps everything else.

As for higher callings, if plant life were left to its own devices it may have sequestered all the carbon out of the atmosphere. Without the crafty humans to dig it back out from the earth and light it on fire, all life may have come to an end.

anonymous Oct 3, 2012 4:22pm


That was an excellent and well crafted post. Thank you.


    anonymous Oct 4, 2012 8:20am

    Thanks Bob. I am not immune to praise! It's always nice when it happens.

anonymous Oct 3, 2012 3:08pm

Couldn't get the video to go here in Japan. But I gather we're talking about the psychological motivation behind climate change deniers. But NOT the psychological motivation behind climate change believers.

Considering the high correlation between your side on climate change and your side on politics, you have to first suspect a psychological motivation for most people on BOTH sides.

I see three good reasons to be open to the idea of human-generated global warming. 1) the warming part does actually seem to be happening. 2) computer models predict it. 3) a great majority of scientists seem to believe it.

But I also see two good reasons to be skeptical. 1) There's no firm mechanism for human-generated global warming. Increased CO2 in the atmosphere doesn't explain it without a feedback loop that greatly increases the effect of CO2. Such a feedback loop is assumed by proponents but it hasn't been found. Without a feedback loop, CO2 can only be a small part of the cause, the major cause, we have to assume at this point, would be natural cycles. 2) The computer models based on CO2/greenhouse gases predict easily measurable changes in high altitude equatorial warming that clearly are not happening, lending a high level of doubt to the validity of computer models, and the feedback loops they assume..

In any case, global warming either is or is not happening… and if it is happening, it either is or is not human-generated. But we don't seem to have enough evidence to say with confidence which it is. Therefore, believers on BOTH sides must be deriving their beliefs from psychological-political-cultural positions rather than science. But this article seems to assume only side is driven by psychological motivations.

    anonymous Oct 3, 2012 8:39pm

    Mark< haven't had the chance to watch the video yet. I will but is late, and I won't go the half hour just now. Your points, however are clear, and hopefully people will hear them. I will get back when I do watch the video. Most people don't even realize that the feedback loop question is the heart of the matter, so, thanks for mentioning it.
    p.s. solar activity

      anonymous Oct 4, 2012 8:18am

      Am curious what you make of the vid since I can only guess at the content. Glad you confirmed the importance of the feedback loop. That certainly strikes me as essential but I don't know as much as you do. How do qualified and objective 'believers' address the feedback loop problem? Or do they?

        anonymous Oct 4, 2012 5:21pm

        Okay. . . so I watched it. Ultimately didn't need to since your comment hit the crux of the matter. Basically she is talking about the psychology behind confirmation bias, and how therefore it is difficult if not impossible to convince people with facts. Then there is a lot of we're in this together stuff, but what she is really doing is suggesting techniques to get 'them' to think like 'us' At no point does she consider examining the confirmation bias on her own side of the argument. There was some nice stuff about rednecks being environmentalists sometimes that made a decent point, but overall it had a strong tinge of elitism. It was more to do with educating the noble savages, only this time it wasn't a racial thing.
        As far as the feedback loops are concerned; in my experience, most alarmists don't even understand that it is part of the argument. They seem to think that all climate skeptics believe that there has been no warming and that the greenhouse effect doesn't exist. It is true that some people think that way. The actual issue, however is that in order for the disaster that people predict to play out at the rate they say it will ( a rate that we are clearly not keeping up with based on the models) There would have to be tremendous positive feedbacks within the system for the warming to become casastrophic. Not only have these feedbacks not been shown to exist, but it is the tendency for there be negative feedbacks. So what that means is, perhaps some of the warming we have experienced is due to greenhouse gases (carbon only accounting for a small part of that, water vapor being number one) we do not in fact need to destroy the world economy and shuffle everyone into coffin sized homes to change our situation, we could focus on air and water and change things gradually.
        Bottom line, you nailed it without even watching the video.

          anonymous Oct 4, 2012 5:25pm

          And in case it wasn't clear, I have never heard anyone on the alarmist side have any response to or understanding of the feedback loop issue.

          anonymous Jan 20, 2013 1:19am

          "perhaps some of the warming we have experienced is due to greenhouse gases (carbon only accounting for a small part of that, water vapor being number one)"
          OK, wow, I'm sorry, but that one flies in the face of everything I've read about global warming. Before replying I did some research and I was able to find a self-named "peer-reviewed" here: http://www.petitionproject.org/review_article.php that seems to support this view. I dug around a little to find out more about this "Oregon institute of medicine" that. I didn't like what I found. I googled them, and judging from the collection of articles on their own site, and from what other people say about them and their origins, they sound like a right-wing think tank, more than a respected scientific organization. Also, it seems like one of the men who wrote the paper – Arthur B. Robinson – was once a signatory to a petition of scientists against the theory of evolution [1]. (I don't know for sure if this is true, can anyone confirm this? If you're a student in a university, your school may have this book I reference at the bottom). I recommend googling the other guys who wrote that paper, very interesting stuff about them…

          Here's a research paper (one of many) that claims CO2 is a pretty big contributor to the greenhouse effect: http://ajp.aapt.org/resource/1/ajpias/v24/i5/p376… though you shouldn't have any trouble finding more of them (you have to pay to get the full paper, which is very unfortunate, but true of most research articles published in scientific journals). There's also an overwhelming number of credible scientific organizations that support the consensus on global warming. The few that don't aren't really very credible from what I've seen.

          "There would have to be tremendous positive feedbacks within the system for the warming to become casastrophic"

          Can you provide a source for this statement? This also contradicts much of what I've read. I'm under the impression that there are positive and negative feedbacks (negative = feedbacks that counteract GW, i.e.: plant growth), but that the positive probably outweigh the negative. Through all of the research I've read, none of it indicates that runaway feedbacks are somehow a prerequisite to GW, in fact, in another one of your statements, your contention seems to be the RATE at which "they" claim it will happen…not WHETHER it will happen (though you appear to be confounding the two). Yes, the scientists could be wrong about the rate, but that argument goes both ways; it may happen even faster than they think, because of some undiscovered feedback mechanism.

          Melting ice. Ice reflect sunlight, therefore reducing the planet's overall heat. As the planet's temperature increases, the total ice reduces in volume (which is happening, without a doubt), therefore reducing the amount of sunlight reflected, and therefore increasing the temperature, and so on… in recent news, they're saying that the melting of arctic sea ice confirms the "worse-case scenario" of global warming.

          There's a lot of misleading propaganda out there trying to discredit global warming, a good deal of it funded by the petroleum industry. You may have been duped by some of them, perhaps through no fault of your own; they're very good at misleading people. You can read more about it at desmogblog.com, I'd also recommend skeptical science, that's a pretty good site.

          1. James Powell. The Inquisition of Climate Science, Columbia University Press. August 30, 2011.

    anonymous Jan 20, 2013 1:52am

    I want to bring up a point that I think isn't stated enough when "skeptics" are arguing against climate change. Uncertainty aside, what should we do now? We'll never be 100% sure, but the evidence is STRONGLY in favour of GW being anthropogenic in nature[1]. If we choose to act and GW isn't happening, no big deal. The economy might suffer (keyword: might, there's actually research on this that refutes this claim), but I'm of the opinion that it would actually be outweighed in the long-run by the incentivization of alternative energy RnD. If we choose to not act and GW is real, then we're in big trouble.

    Most "skeptics" I find these days say that GW is happening, we're just not the cause of it. If that's true, we're in big trouble. The increased storms, droughts, etc.. are going to happen no matter what we do. So what do you propose we do? Do nothing, and hope some future research proves that the deniers were right? ("Huzzah! We'll be toast soon, but new research shows it wasn't our fault!"). In this scenario, the case for reducing emissions is also a no-brainer.

    1. http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-sc

anonymous Oct 3, 2012 12:55pm

Could you explain to me what is worse about shooting a bird than buying a bird in a supermarket?

When I was in secondary school America was far away from participating in any green movement. When I saw the numbers I felt like an idiot saving energy and water. I am glad there have been huge changes in attitudes in the US.

    anonymous Oct 4, 2012 5:19pm

    Exactly, Muks. Simran is saying that hunters are some of our biggest environmentalists, many with a close bond to nature and in depth understanding of local food systems. There is nothing worse about shooting a bird to eat.

      anonymous Oct 5, 2012 7:39am

      Thanks, Merete. In that case I haven't understood the problem with Simran's friend. Is it his political opinion or the fact that he is criticising global warming?

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Merete Mueller

Merete is a writer and filmmaker, and was once-upon-a-time the Managing Editor of elephant journal’s print incarnation, from 2006-2008. Today, you can find her on Twitter @meretemueller and on her blog To The Bones. Her first documentary, “TINY: A Story About Living Small”, about people who have downsized their lives into homes the size of a parking space, premiered at SXSW in March 2013.