Climate change: How to talk to a denier

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Seems like only yesterday John was answering a particularly absurd piece of propaganda hiding shamelessly on the BBC News homepage ready to ambush anyone who happened by wondering what was happening in the world, i.e. someone looking for actual news.

Oh, it was yesterday.

A day later – i.e. today – two of the BBC’s Climate Disinformation specialists saw fit to publish on the “News” front page a disgraceful assault, not just on climate deniers, but also on logic itself. As with yesterday’s, it manages to redefine the concept of news to encompass “writing a screed belittling people who disagree with you.” Today’s insult requires answering. So here we are.

Let’s begin at the beginning:

What can you do when the people closest to you believe climate change is a hoax? It was during school pick-up a few years ago that Lance Lawson first asked his father about his views on global warming. “He basically told me something along the lines of ‘It’s nonsense’,” Lance recalls. His dad spoke of unscrupulous politicians “fearmongering” for electoral gain. Climate change, he told Lance, was completely “overblown”.

Poor old Lance. His father is a climate denier. Isn’t he? Leave aside the question of how likely it is that Lance’s memory of this initial conversation is accurate. Much of what Lawson Sr is accused of saying is actually true. Politicians have obviously, indisputably exaggerated the threat. Even the BBC itself is to be found overblowing climate change, as in the recent “we meant cumulative deaths” debacle.

Lance begins by accepting what his old man tells him, but presumably unceasing propaganda from the other side sees him gradually realise that his dad is a heretic.

“Whenever he drove me to school, I would give my own argument, and he would downplay the evidence. It would force me to acquire new evidence, and that cycle helped expand my own understanding.”

Let me give you a good line here, Lance, at no charge: “I’m worried about climate change, so I’m going to do my bit by walking to school from now on.”

“OK son. What time do you want me to wake you up?”

If someone close to you believes climate change is a hoax, you may find it hard to do what Lance did. Maybe you fear confrontation, maybe you simply don’t know how to explain the basic science of global warming.

Well, if you know nothing about global warming but like to tell deniers to shut up about it, you’d be in good company, or company at least. And you could try being on the other side for a moment. Imagine yourself “coming out” as a climate denier in the staff coffee room. Imagine it now, go on. Look in the mirror and say, “Guys, I think maybe climate change isn’t an existential threat after all.” Now imagine a shocked silence, interrupted only by the soft chortling of the coffee percolator.

But Gail Whiteman, professor of sustainability at the University of Exeter, says it’s important to talk: “If we don’t tackle climate denial and climate indifference, then the uphill battle to find a safer future is lost.”

At this point the Dynamic Duo from the Climate Disinformators bring in an expert. Is it a climate denier arguing their corner? After all, it’s important to talk. No, it’s a catastrophist. “…the uphill battle to find a safer future is lost.” Beg pardon? Even if we are headed for catastrophe absent a revolution in our way of life, the climate deniers ain’t what’s stopping it. Three men and a whippet gathered around four halves of brown ale are not capable of calling a halt to your rush towards Utopia. All we can do is gripe about it. Just how much power do you think we have? No one listens to us. Politicians are almost entirely on your side. Corporations are on your side. The media is your propaganda arm. Even articles about climate deniers don’t feature any actual climate deniers. In short, get real.

Next the Climate Disinformation team turn to yet another expert. Is it a climate denier this time? No. Evidently climate deniers are too hard to find, which for such a notorious group is somewhat surprising. No, they turn to a professor of social psychology with the wonderfully musical name of Sander van der Linden. Sander studies how people get sucked into conspiracy theories.

He says years of research have shown him that confronting people with hard evidence is not the way to go. While it might be tempting to try to bluntly fight conspiracy theories with facts, “there’s a very high chance it backfires”. “Telling people that they don’t know what they’re talking about, or that they’re wrong, just creates more defensive responses.”

No. The good professor is wrong here. Confronting people with hard evidence IS the way to go. If you confronted me with hard evidence of an existential threat by rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, I would recant my heresy. That is not what is tried. Is there such evidence? I’ve looked for it, and can’t find it, so they must keep it well hidden. No, what they confront us with instead is baseless assertions about how terrible it all ismany of which are obvious exaggerations. And you wonder why we don’t just acquiesce, why we just don’t give up, why we don’t join XR and glue ourselves to something?

Back to Lance and his plan to convert his father.

Lance says that his father is a very religious man – so he asked him to assume that climate change might be real, and questioned whether he wouldn’t then have a moral responsibility to take care of what God had provided.

Yes, I don’t doubt that works. You just turn a question of fact into a question of morality.


No-one likes being talked down to, and the same goes for someone engaging with climate change denial.

“You can’t convince someone if they perceive that there’s a power differential,” says Prof van der Linden. “The whole point of a conspiracy is the idea that there are these powerful elites conspiring against us.”

Right, so after paragraphs of condescension you suddenly advocate humility? Real humility comes from admitting that you might be wrong. Otherwise you come to a debate with bad faith. You don’t come to meet the other person in a disinterested search for truth. You arrive knowing you are right, and your search for new information – such as provided here – is only for technical advice about how to convert the other to your way of thinking. You just want to win the argument.

This entire article drips with conceit, and here you are talking about humility?

Lance’s close bond with his dad is something he believes was key to persuading him, but he also says it’s important to check your tone: “Ask yourself, ‘Am I sounding sanctimonious?’ Remain humble. Be gentle.”

Don’t Talk, Ignore

Well, the BBC has become very good at this. And they have found an academic who agrees with them.

Abbie Richards researches the spread of misinformation on social media.

“Effort is better spent on pushing for actual change, rather than trying to combat solidified disinformation that has been pushed… for years,” she says.

On TikTok, she debunks disinformation about climate change, but says she’s given up trying to engage with hardcore conspiracy theorists: “I don’t want to waste my energy on debunking more of their disinformation.”

I don’t know who these hardcore conspiracy theorists are. But in the spirit of judging a group by its worst members, I think you should dismiss everyone who doubts we face an existential threat because you got trolled by one of them. Solidified disinformation: doesn’t that feature on the Bristol Stool Chart?

Hang on, no, you do have to talk to them, because:

… Prof van der Linden points out that “some of these dismissive individuals are very loud and have a disproportionate influence on public debate”.

“It’s quite risky to do nothing, especially when [they] have outsized voices.”

I wish van der Linden could see things from our side for just a picosecond. Just who has the outsized voices here? Step outside of the box. Get a bit of perspective, prof.

Ultimately, Lance wins out:

With time and patience, Lance managed to convince his father that climate change was real – so much so that he was surprised by his own success.

“One time, my dad came downstairs in the middle of the night, so enthused after watching a documentary about deforestation that he was like: ‘Lance you won’t believe what’s going on in the rainforest!’

Um. You’ve just conflated two issues. One is deforestation. The other is climate catastrophe. You will find that sceptics care as much about the environment as you do. It’s just that they would rather the focus was on saving the rainforest rather than reducing carbon dioxide emissions.


As is usually the case, the BBC a) treats “climate deniers” as a species of alien dunces. Despite the title of the piece, they don’t actually try to talk to a climate denier (Lance’s dad gets one line, but he’s a convert);

It b) reduces climate change to a binary problem, IS or IS NOT rather than HOW MUCH?

c) It accuses deniers of having disproportionately loud voices, having never heard of Greta Thunberg; and

d) It places all this on the “News” front page.

It’s easy to win if you are fighting scarecrows. They just sort of stand there and take whatever you dish out.

Featured Image

Credited to NASA, ESA, M. Kornmesser, and turned green by YT. Opening of original caption: This illustration shows HD 189733b, a huge gas giant that orbits very close to its host star, HD 189733. The planet’s atmosphere is scorching with a temperature of over 1,000 degrees Celsius, and it rains glass, sideways, in howling 4,300 mph (7,000 kilometer-per-hour) winds.

via Climate Scepticism

July 24, 2022

Climate change: How to talk to a denier – Climate Scepticism (