What’s the Best Strategy for Dealing with Climate Deniers?

 The other day, I wrote about a study that attempted to explain why conservative white men (CWM) are so loathe to accept the threat of climate change. It has to do with system justification and identity-protective cognition. Go read it!

The question remains: What should we do about it? The denialism or indifference of CWM toward climate is a huge barrier to getting anything done. In this post, I’m going to argue that the typical strategies are doomed to failure. It may be that the simplest, least clever strategy — kick their [metaphorical] asses — is still the way to go.


Repeat it

The original and still most popular approach to dealing with climate deniers is reasoned persuasion: facts and figures and reports and literature reviews and slideshows and whitepapers. This hasn’t ever really worked, but climate types keep trying, like American tourists in a foreign country who try to overcome the language barrier by talking louder and more slowly.

While the study postulated a lot of interesting things about CWM, one thing it didn’t ascribe to them is ignorance. In fact, the CWM who know the most about climate science are the most likely to reject the consensus account. And this isn’t a new finding. Yale’s “Six Americas” report found that the highly skeptical are more informed about climate change science than those who report a high degree of concern about it (the latter of whom still regularly confuse climate with the ozone hole, etc.).

A large number of CWM have taken pains to seek out information on climate change so that they can dispute it. You’ve no doubt encountered them in comment sections online. This is called motivated reasoning: reasoning aimed at justifying a pre-existing conclusion or social identity, gathering supporting facts and ignoring disconfirming evidence.

Motivated reasoning is something all human beings do; we all defend and justify our social identities. In fact, some interesting new social science argues that motivated reasoning is not a bug but a feature — what reason evolved to do. Nevertheless, there’s a difference between motivated reasoning and complete epistemic closure, which is what the right has achieved on climate (and other issues as well).

Which suggests that giving CWM still more facts and arguments is not going to achieve anything.

Drop it

One sentiment, lately growing in popularity, is that the best way around the CWM climate conundrum is just to stop talking about it. If climate has become divisive and partisan, then drop it; there’s plenty of good policy that doesn’t require climate as a premise. That’s the thrust of the recent “Climate Pragmatism” report and the idea seems to be catching on. I addressed that notion in a post last week and said most of what I need to say there. I’ll just add that there’s an implicit premise in the “pragmatism” argument. It assumes that climate is a unique barrier to cooperation with CWM in positions of power and that there are other areas where CWM can be brought around to support clean energy. But what if climate isn’t unique? What if CWM reject it because it came from a tribe they see as their enemies and they’ll reject anything that comes from that tribe? Then dropping climate has won nothing and sacrificed moral authority and simple honesty.

Finesse it

A somewhat more sophisticated take says that we should talk about climate differently, in a way that does not trigger CWM defenses. David Ropeik (whose work on risk perception everyone should be reading) has a post on the CWM study in which he says:

We have stop making climate change a zero sum if-you-win-I-lose battle. We have to frame the issue in ways that work within everybody’s underlying cultural/tribal perspectives. We have to realize that answers are more likely to be found, and solutions are more likely to be reached, if the goal is finding common ground …

In the abstract, this makes plenty of sense, though it’s rarely spelled out in any detail. Offer CWM an entree into the issue that doesn’t require them to give up their tribal affiliations and commitments. Find common ground. Who could argue?

Notice the gigantic underlying assumption, though: that climate change can be rendered benign to the current cultural/tribal perspectives of CWM. Is that so? It’s often claimed that if climate is discussed as a national security issue, an economic opportunity, or a religious/moral imperative, it will bring skeptics over. But those claims have not born out in practice, despite years of attempts. CWM grow steadily more skeptical even as the military, the private sector, and religious institutions grapple with the truth.

The fact is that climate change triggers system justification among privileged classes because it really does carry a threat to the system! It implies an argument for global governance when CWM are nationalistic, an argument for egalitarianism when they are hierarchical, an argument for conservation when they love capitalism, an argument for investment and regulation when they hate government. It also implies that hippies have been right and the conservative movement wrong, for decades.

In communications among individuals, the psychology of communication can be helpful. But framing — which is where lots of wonks and academics seem to begin and end — is not a sufficient political solution. There’s a reason CWM have the cultural/tribal perspectives they do. They are heavily influenced by people and institutes whose interests are threatened by the solutions to climate change.

Denialism in context

Where climate scientists, energy wonks, academics, and eco-journalists go wrong is in abstracting climate change from the larger political situation. They approach it in isolation, wondering what characteristics of this particular phenomenon invoke this particular reaction in these particular people. That distorts their reactions.

The fact is, as I’ve written before, climate denialism is part of something much larger. The most significant driving force behind climate change denial among CWM is not any ineffable psychological mystery but simply the increasing intensity and radicalization of the American conservative movement. The same dynamic afflicting climate change is afflicting the debate over fiscal policy, the economy, jobs, and health care. The right is rejecting empirical reality and adopting a stance of unshakeable ideological opposition to anything the non-right does, even policies they have supported in the past (see: individual mandate in health care, cap-and-trade in environmental policy). The core of the CWM tribal perspective is loyalty to the tribe and hostility to outsiders.

There is a serious asymmetry between the left and right in America that lots and lots and lots of people, for whatever reason, don’t want to acknowledge. The left remains a broad, fractious coalition composed of all sorts of competing interests. The right, by contrast, has become increasingly clarified. Since Reagan, but accelerating since Gingrich, the right has become more and more homogenous, composed of CWM who share a visceral sense of being besieged, of “losing their country,” of seeing their privileged normative place in U.S. culture slip away. They view liberals not as fellow Americans with differing policy views but as a threat to the moral fiber and even the existence of the country. Manicheanism has always been part of the conservative temperament, but that propensity has been hugely accelerated by the construction of a self-contained media machine that runs on fear. They need everything divided into two buckets: good and evil.

In those circumstances, the chances of luring CWM into the climate hawk coalition seem exceedingly slim, no matter how clever and psychologically adept the messaging.


Let’s remember the goal. The goal is action. The support of CWM is a means to that end, but not necessarily the only means to that end. Perhaps instead of hiding from the fight, or transcending the fight by finding common ground, climate hawks couldwin the fight. A crazy notion, I know.

CWM are blocking the entire, diverse climate coalition from taking action by virtue of intensity (not to mention a broken and utterly dysfunctional political system). The poll numbers are consistently on climate hawks’ side, but their support is shallow and fickle. The Tea Party, on the other hand, views even efficient lightbulbs as incipient tyranny. As I’ve said many times, intensity wins in politics.

If that’s true, perhaps the answer is not to reduce intensity in hopes of attracting CWM. Perhaps the answer is to increase intensity in order to overcome CWM. Intensity is increased first and foremost through organizing, but also through clear, inspiring messages that draw sharp lines between those fighting for progress and those fighting against it.

The implicit premise of climate “pragmatism” and similar efforts is that CWM are stronger, that climate hawks can’t win a direct clash. And for now, that seems to be true. Beating back the radical conservative resurgence is something that nobody on the left has figured out yet. But the alternative, attempting to win over CWM by soft-pedaling climate, doesn’t exactly have a record of success either.

In the end, everyone has to make their own bet. Do you make progress by attempting to please the Very Serious People running the system or by speaking truth to power and subverting the system? For my part, when I see people denying facts and bullying scientists in order perpetuate the dominance of fossil fuel interests that are killing people and threatening my children’s futures, I am inclined to tell them to go f*ck themselves. That won’t resonate with their social/tribal perspectives, but that’s because I find their social/tribal perspectives repugnant and worthy of social censure. I want to beat them.


ThinkProgress / By David Roberts

Posted at August 13, 2011, 4:54am

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