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How to Talk with Global Warming Deniers

| Wednesday November 2nd, 2011 | 36 Comments

Most of you reading this probably believe that human caused global warming is true.  Likewise, you probably know a family member, friend, or colleague that thinks global warming is a myth. And that is where we collide into heated and passionate arguments. How does one talk and reason with folks who think global warming is not a real threat?

Over the weekend I had the pleasure of moderating a panel at the Los Angeles Green Festival entitled, “My brother-in-law is a global warming denier,” attempting to answer that very question.  The panel was made up of veterans who have been in the green and sustainability movement for decades: Alisa Gravitz, Executive Director of Green America, and Lois Arkin, a spunky 75-year old member of the Los Angeles Eco-Village.

What doesn’t work?
In order to understand what methods works, we need to understand what doesn’t work.  We have to differentiate between science and belief in terms of global warming.  Talking about just the science won’t work, as belief is something that runs deeper than empirical evidence.

Although more and more scientific evidence suggests the claim of human caused global warming is true, belief in global warming is waning.  A Pew Research poll suggests that 59 percent believe in global warming compared to 79 percent five years ago.

Now to the strategies that may work.  Gravitz suggested empathy as a key tactic.  We, as sustainability folk need to empathize and understand what global warming deniers and skeptics not only care about, but what they are worried about.

We may just find we have the same concerns, such as foreign oil, our personal health, our country’s future generations, that gives us common ground.  You may not convince them of global warming, but at least this is a first step towards more sustainable actions.

Yet, often times we still get into a global warming stalemate, no side wants to concede.  Both sides are strong in their convictions.  The hardcore environmentalist thinks the denier is wrong and the hardcore denier thanks the same.  How then do you move forward?

Arkin proposes to not even bother with the hardcore deniers at all, as their minds are already set.  Rather she chooses to lead by example, living a sustainable and planet friendly lifestyle.  Sometimes, actions may actually speak louder than words.

Both understanding with empathy and leading by example are key steps to take.  What are some tips and tricks that have worked for you in convincing folks about human caused global warming?  What hasn’t worked?  On the flip side, for the folks that don’t think global warming is real, have you been able to turn a person who believes in global warming into a denier or skeptic?  What worked for you?  What didn’t work?

Image credit: PIX-JOCKEY (Roberto Rizzato) via Flickr


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  • Launcher

    So… the way to talk to a global warming denier is by not talking about global warming. How quaint.

    As I scientist (not in climatology), my tact would be to probe the denier’s knowledge about the earth’s climate in general. Like, “how warm would the earth be if it didn’t have a gaseous atmosphere?” or “I see you know about earth’s warmer past – what mechanisms do you think lead to warming and cooling trends in past eons”? Once the denier understands that scientists have physical evidence and models to explain phenomenon that the denier accepts, perhaps he’ll be more likely to rationally consider the evidence and models of contemporary climate change.

    • Les Johnson

      launcher: There are several misconceptions in your post.

      1. You imply that the so called “denier” does not believe that the world has warmed in the last century. Most do accept that as fact.

      2. You imply that it is a lack of scientific knowledge that prevents the “denier” from accepting warming. This may come as a surprise to people like Popper, Dyson, Lindzen, Christie and Spencer. All are doctorates in physics or climatology. All are skeptics. This is just a small sample.

      You also prove the point in my first post, on the poor behavior of warmists. Your rather patronizing and elitist tone is a sure way to alienate the person you are talking to.

      • Launcher

        Ouch – I feel rightly chastened. But my experience talking to people like MY brother-in-law (and brother as well) is that they DON’T know many of the underlying and well-accepted facts that the current climate modelers take for granted. And often they don’t agree that the world is warming in the first place. It’s quite disheartening, and frustrating.

        Perhaps the greater point here is that they DON’T want to know these facts. I’ll try the author’s and your own suggestings, Lee. It’s better than giving up. Cheers!

        • Les Johnson

          Launcher: I agree that some “deniers” are not well educated. But, neither are some so called warmists. To lump one or the other into one broad stereotype is just wrong.

          For what it is worth, though, the more educated are more likely to be skeptical.


          From the paper:

          On the whole, the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones.

  • Les Johnson

    What has worked for me, is discussing the matter in an calm, rational manner, without resorting to insults about the other’s intelligence, politics, parentage or scientific expertise.

    I sprinkle my argument liberally with references, especially peer reviewed. I show the references whenever possible, especially in internet forums.

    I also show that I lead a sustainable lifestyle; I use solar power at home; I have energy efficicent appliances and a well insulated home; I am connected to the grid, but my power plan has 20% wind generation; I have patents in methane control that can prevent up to 250,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent from escaping to the atmosphere.

    Of course, I am also a lukewarmer, and I have yet to see convincing evidence of an impending climate apocalypse, thus I am arguing against most CO2 controls.

    Is it succesful? Well, I don’t lose the arguements. Do I turn people? Probably not. As you say, people with firm beliefs are not likley to change them.

    Where I am succesful, is having the spectators to these exchanges becoming more skeptical. The spectators are mostly on the fence, but the ad hom tactics, lack of science and general poor behaviour of the warmist side is usually the deciding factor.

    As opinion polls worldwide show, this a a general trend, and not confined to my efforts by any means. This is also tracked in the lack of any real global political action to curb CO2 emissions.


    • Jonathan Mariano

      I agree with you, the less personal insults, the better.

  • http://nickpalmer.blogspot.com Nick Palmer

    The problem in this area is that stupid/evil/reckless people are allowed, because of free speech, to promulgate deceptive garbage that has been shot down over and over again. One has to doubt either their sanity or morals when they carry on stating their opinions after having them comprehensively demolished.

    Les Johnson wrote:
    “Of course, I am also a lukewarmer, and I have yet to see convincing evidence of an impending climate apocalypse, thus I am arguing against most CO2 controls”

    If you haven’t seen any evidence, it is because you are choosing not to look. Besides it is massively irresponsible of you to hold this opinion anyway – if too many people think as you do, then you will be gambling with the futures of billions.

    It is absolutely dumb to think that one must have “evidence of an impending climate apocalypse” before one takes action. Merely the possibility should be sufficient, let alone the probability.

    Remember, the particular experiment we are performing on the make-up of the atmosphere has never been done before by man or nature and yet you appear to think your position is reasonable? What planet do people like you live on? The answer is mine… and that of all the other billions who would rather you and your ilk keep your irresponsible, complacent attitudes to yourself before too many gullible people think you sound reasonable and change their minds

    • Jonathan Mariano

      This is tough. What if the ones that must take action are the deniers, yet they do not because they do not believe even a lukewarm perspective?

    • Pat O’Brien

      Yes…this is very reasonable.

      “It is absolutely dumb to think that one must have “evidence of an impending climate apocalypse” before one takes action. Merely the possibility should be sufficient, let alone the probability.”

      On that note…..I was thinking….there is a possibility that Canada has nukes and has them pointed right at NY. Never mind the probability of this…the possibility is sufficient to take action. Therefore, I say we bomb the shit out of them right now.

      You sound like a real reasonable guy.

      • http://nickpalmer.blogspot.com Nick Palmer

        Pat O’Brien.
        “you sound like a real reasonable guy”

        And you use an extremely false argument. There is no evidence whatsoever that Canada has nukes pointed at the US, let alone that the political situation between the two nations is so fraught that there is any likelihood of Canada using them.

        • http://nickpalmer.blogspot.com Nick Palmer

          sorry – forgot to finish off by saying:

          but there is plenty of hard evidence that we are warming the planet and the science says it will almost certainly be dangerous if we don’t avoid it.

          You used a deceptively false analogy.

    • Les Johnson

      Nick Palmer: your:

      If you haven’t seen any evidence, it is because you are choosing not to look.

      On the contrary, I am looking. The only evidence for harm that I have seen, comes from models. There is very little evidence from data. For instance, storm data, hurricanes, floods etc, either have no trend, or are declining.

      Besides it is massively irresponsible of you to hold this opinion anyway – if too many people think as you do, then you will be gambling with the futures of billions.
      It is absolutely dumb to think that one must have “evidence of an impending climate apocalypse” before one takes action. Merely the possibility should be sufficient, let alone the probability.

      The precautionary principle, right? Which means, based on that, we should be pumping GHGs into the atmosphere, to prevent another ice age, which is demonstrably more damaging than warming.

      Of course, either course of action in the name of the precautionary principle could be disastrous, and costly.

      BTW, if “too many people agree” it is called democracy. You apparently are not fan of this form of government, or of free speech.

      • http://nickpalmer.blogspot.com Nick Palmer

        Les Johnson:

        You too use a false argument.

        “Which means, based on that, we should be pumping GHGs into the atmosphere, to prevent another ice age, which is demonstrably more damaging than warming”

        Firstly, the speed that we are warming the planet is much faster than natural. You don’t know that that rate, which will likely continue for hundreds of years (even if we stabilise emissions soon) will not prove “more damaging” than an ice age. You just blithely assume that we’ll get lucky. You are blindly comparing natural warm periods of the past with natural cold periods and extrapolating that anthropogenic warming will be comparable. Massively reckless irresponsible optimism that puts everybody else who doesn’t agree with your view at risk. How dare you!

        Secondly, as the “forcing” from AGW is so much more that that from Milankovitch cycles indeed we should have considered “pumping GHGS into the atmosphere” to stave off the next ice age in 20,000 off years – if we hadn’t already done it. Trouble is we’ve exceeded what was necessary to do that particular job and gone way past it into the danger zone.

        “BTW, if “too many people agree” it is called democracy. You apparently are not fan of this form of government, or of free speech”

        Informed democracy is fine, but actions or inactions based on the collective votes of a population too propagandised by stupid, evil and irresponsible sciency sounding deniers who use fallacious logic and reasoning to fool people, are idiotic beyond belief. Winston Churchill said that democracy was the worst political system in the world, apart from all the others but he meant for achieving political ends. What needs to be done to protect our planetary life support systems needs to be defined by the science, not votes of a ruthlessly mislead public.

        And finally.

        “illustrating my point on the poor behaviour of many warmists”

        This is because we call you stupid, evil, reckless blah blah blah?

        Here’s another word. Arrogant. Staggeringly arrogant and complacent to think that your judgement is such that you have come to a reasonable, rational viewpoint that is safe to use to determine policy that might risk the future for billions. How you have the nerve to believe what you do when what you believe could delay or prevent vital action being taken and condemning so many. Just about about all denier/pathological “sceptic” views have been shot down countless times and yet like in some ghastly Freddy Kruger type slasher movie the demolished dumb arguments just keep on coming back to life and get re-presented to the public because the political forces behind this realise that “there’s one born every minute”.

        Get this very straight deniers/sceptics. Your views are a severe threat to my family, my country, my planet and yet you whinge and whine and snottily complain about the language people, who care about our future, use to accurately describe you and those like you? You sicken me.

        For God’s sake, for humanity’s sake get a grip – get the fallacious, self- interested, convenient, complacent rocks out of your head and start being responsible.

    • Les Johnson

      And Nick, thanks for illustrating my point on the poor behaviour of many warmists.

  • Pat O’Brien

    I think you guys have a few obstacles to overcome when discussing this issue with “deniers” as you call them (or us, maybe since I am not convinced).

    For one, if I were a scientist conducting research on climate, and wanted government grants, guess what my research is going to show? I’m sorry…but this is true and it shows a clear conflict of interest. This is so prevalent in science these days, I don’t believe there is much real scientific research going on at all anymore. True value added research would not need to be funded by government because free market investors would fund it.

    Secondly…..you have to explain something. Why is climate change, fundamentally bad? Not from a standpoint of what could happen to you, me, or life as we know it…but from the earth’s perspective. We had (at least) 1 massive cooling period….followed by a massive warming period. Humans were not around then. Is it really unreasonable to believe that the earth’s climate is not constantly in flux? I don’t think so at all.

    Most of the “evidence” I have seen shows correlation, but does not even begin to show any proof of cause. Any study of logic, or the scientific method shows how weak this is.

    Finally…as far as Jonathan’s point….one problem a “denier” (you might for starters want to address us differently) has is that the acceptance of this theory involves massive government expansion and limits on our freedom. And many environmentalists are quite militant (like Nick Palmer up there) and employ another popular logical fallacy which is to place the burden of proof on the “deniers”. Remember folks….you guys are claiming that human beings are causing something planet wide that has happened before without humans….the burden of proof is on YOU not the rest of us. That burden of proof is, as it should be, very very high.

    • http://nickpalmer.blogspot.com Nick Palmer

      Pat O Brien:

      “And many environmentalists are quite militant (like Nick Palmer up there) and employ another popular logical fallacy which is to place the burden of proof on the “deniers”. Remember folks….you guys are claiming that human beings are causing something planet wide that has happened before without humans….the burden of proof is on YOU not the rest of us”

      Logical fallacy? Are you sure you know what the words mean? What part do you not understand of we are increasing CO2 levels faster and higher than they have been for millions of years – physics convincingly, experimentally, shows that that forcing will warm/already is warming the planet?

      Against physics, we have the likes of Wattsupwiththat. The only scientists the deniers have “on their side” – Lindzen, Christy, Spencer, Pielke – all accept that we are increasing CO2 and that it will warm the planet. They just think it won’t be enough to cause too many problems. If they’re right, then we’ll be lucky. If they’re wrong we’ll be very unlucky. Do you feel lucky, punks? Their recent scientific papers published do not seem to be flaw free, to put it mildly! Why do you trust them?

      The high level of proof you claim to require, is already out there; proven by the best method the world has ever found for establishing how the world really works. Deniers/sceptics have to prove that then science is wrong using genuine argument and science, not fallacious, deceitful garbage endlessly regurgitated.

      The level of forcing we are applying is much greater than anything humans have encountered before and the speed of change is also much greater.

      You wrote “causing something planet wide that has happened before without humans…the burden of proof is on YOU not the rest of us”

      True, there have been savage natural climate changes in the extreme prehistoric past which wiped out a very high percentage of the existing species. You think that gambling on creating a similar man-made extinction event is reasonable, even sane? There must be something wrong with you if you feel that lucky.

  • Tim Kelly

    Again thid discussion, like so many I’ve seen, completely excludes the threat of ocean acidification, which is undisputed. Take a look at the NRDC’s 20 minute video, “The Acid Test” to better understand that the “other carbon problem” could be the more ugent threat to our society. It’s not even on most people’s radar, yet if we lose the oceans, the planet would be rendered unlivable for us.

  • Les Johnson

    Tim Kelly: your

    Again thid discussion, like so many I’ve seen, completely excludes the threat of ocean acidification, which is undisputed.

    Acidification is probably a non-threat. Sea life and coral flourished when CO2 levels were 20 times current.

    It also ignores the basic chemistry of carbonates, which is self buffering.

    • John Hughes

      Les, could you provide links or DOI#’s for the peer-reviewed journal articles that highlight the limited threat of ocean acidification. I would like to read-up on them. Thanks!

    • http://nickpalmer.blogspot.com Nick Palmer

      Complacent rubbish. The ph of the ocean is changing already which falsifies your “self buffering” get-out-of-jail-free-card wishful thinking theory.

      It’s true sea life existed when CO2 levels were higher. Your false argument ignores that it wasn’t the same sea life back then and getting from those CO2 levels to current day ones, and presumably, heading back again towards higher levels, would involve gigantic disruptions to ocean ecosystems which just might cause us a few tiny problems /sarcasm off.

      Recoveries from past mass extinctions took place over many millions of years. If you think that’s an acceptable time scale for us to risk then there’s no hope for you. If denialist views triumph, there’s no hope for any of us.

  • sunsetbeachguy

    I don’t see any reputable citations. However, at Pharyngula when deniers crop up there is peer reviewed science that backs the claim that the only thing people with strongly held (but delusional) beliefs respond to and respect is equally strongly held beliefs.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Les-Johnson/100001482148221 Les Johnson

      Johns Hughes (and sunsetbeachguy):

      Some references. More if needed.

      “Increasing CO2 levels resulted in a slight decrease in coral in the short term, but as the authors state:

      In contrast, L. pertusa was capable to acclimate to acidified conditions in long-term (six months) incubations, leading to even slightly enhanced rates of calcification. Net growth is sustained even in waters sub-saturated with respect to aragonite. Acclimation to seawater acidification did not cause a measurable increase in metabolic rates. This is the first evidence of successful acclimation in a coral species to ocean acidification, emphasizing the general need for long-term incubations in ocean acidification research. To conclude on the sensitivity of cold-water coral reefs to future ocean acidification further ecophysiological studies are necessary which should also encompass the role of food availability and rising temperatures.


      “These references suggest that increasing CO2 by 2 or 3 times, increases ocean productivity.

      “”in the second half of the experiment there was a tendency of higher production at elevated CO2 levels,”” which was “”visible from ca. day 10 in the cumulative production, with a significant difference between 3x and 1x CO2 from day 20 onward,””

      Egge et al. say their results “”demonstrate a small, but statistically significant effect of elevated CO2 on daily primary production”” that is “”consistent with the over-consumption of dissolved inorganic carbon at elevated CO2 reported by Riebesell et al. (2007) and Bellerby et al. (2008).””

      Egge, J.K, Thingstad, T.F., Larsen, A., Engel, A., Wohlers, J., Bellerby, R.G.J. and Riebesell, U. 2009. Primary production during nutrient-induced blooms at elevated CO2 concentrations. Biogeosciences 6: 877-885.

      Bellerby, R.G.J., Schulz, K.G., Riebesell, U., Neil, C., Nondal, G., Johannessen, T. and Brown, K.R. 2008. Marine ecosystem community carbon and nutrient uptake stoichiometry under varying ocean acidification during the PeECE III experiment. Biogeosciences 5: 1517-1527.

      Riebesell, U., Schulz, K., Bellerby, R., Botros, M., Fritsche, P., Meyerhofer, M., Neill, C., Nondal, G., Oschlies, A., Wohlers, J. and Zollner, E. 2007. Enhanced biological carbon consumption in a high CO2 ocean. Nature 450: 545-548.”

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Les-Johnson/100001482148221 Les Johnson

      carbonate buffering in the oceans keep pH relatively constant. If the water is too basic, then: H2CO3 -> HCO3 + H, and the pH falls. If the water is too acidic, then HCO3 + H -> H2CO3, and pH rises.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Les-Johnson/100001482148221 Les Johnson

      “Coral growth reduction via acidification is not probable. Herfort et al show that increasing levels of HCO3 by 2 to 4 times (depending on species of coral), increases photosynthesis and coral growth. Expected HCO3 increase is expected to be 15% in 100 years.

      Herfort, L., Thake, B. and Taubner, I. 2008. Bicarbonate stimulation of calcification and photosynthesis in two hermatypic corals. Journal of Phycology 44: 91-98.

      This is also supported by the works they reference:

      Gao et al. (1993), Weis (1993), Beer and Rehnberg (1997), Marubini and Thake (1998), Mercado et al. (2001, 2003), Herfort et al. (2002) and Zou et al. (2003).

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Les-Johnson/100001482148221 Les Johnson

      These authors report that:

      “”motor activity in adult Atlantic Cod is not compromised by long-term exposure to water PCO2 levels of 0.3-0.6 kPa,””

      This is levels corresponding to 3000-6000 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere.

      Melzner, F., Gobel, S., Langenbuch, M., Gutowska, M.A., Portner, H.-0. and Lucassen, M. 2009. Swimming performance in Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua) following long-term (4-12 months) acclimation to elevated seawater PCO2. Aquatic Toxicology 92: 30-37. “

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Les-Johnson/100001482148221 Les Johnson

      “A meta study of acidifiaction papers suggests that :

      “”more resistant to ocean acidification than suggested by pessimistic predictions identifying ocean acidification as a major threat to marine biodiversity,””

      “”may not be the widespread problem conjured into the 21st century””

      “”biological processes can provide homeostasis against changes in pH in bulk waters of the range predicted during the 21st century.””

      Hendriks, I.E., Duarte, C.M. and Alvarez, M. 2010. Vulnerability of marine biodiversity to ocean acidification: A meta-analysis. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 86: 157-164.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Les-Johnson/100001482148221 Les Johnson

    “An IPCC lead author and c-chair disputes claims of acidification of the oceans. John Everett was Lead Author and C0-Chair on the IOCC sections on Oceans, Fisheries and the Polar regions.

    There is no reliable observational evidence of negative trends that can be traced definitively to
    lowered pH of the water. If there were, it would be suspect because there is insignificant change
    relative to past climates of the Earth. Scientific studies, and papers reviewing science studies,
    have similar messages. Papers that herald findings that show negative impacts need to be
    dismissed if they used acids rather than CO2 to reduce alkalinity, if they simulated CO2 values
    beyond triple those of today, while not reporting results at concentrations of half, present, double
    and triple, or as pointed out in several studies, they did not investigate adaptations over many
    generations. If there are reports of increases in ocean acidification in a region, the likely causes
    are upwelling, pollution, and rainfall (or runoff) and these all need to be addressed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Les-Johnson/100001482148221 Les Johnson

    I have more. Let me know if when you get through this lot.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Les-Johnson/100001482148221 Les Johnson

    Note that I had to change my log-in to this forum, as I appeared to be banned with my last log-in.

    Odd that, no?

    • Jen Boynton

      I appreciate your conspiracy theories, but we actually had to restart the server- no one was able to login for about 20 minutes. We encourage conversation at TriplePundit.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Les-Johnson/100001482148221 Les Johnson

        My mistake then.

        That said, at many of the so-called warmist sites, I am usually banned after a few postings, in spite of maintaining a civil tone and providing references. Or perhaps because of it.

        I do retract the implication that I was banned here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Les-Johnson/100001482148221 Les Johnson

    John Hughes: I have 1545 entries in my database. Most with DOI numbers. Let me know if you need more.


  • Anonymous

    I have no problem with deniers because I saved statements from 2009 by Exxon, Shell, and Conoco Phillips that made no bones about the fact that greenhouse gases are causing climate change. Conoco Phillips went so far to say “the clock is ticking.”

    When you have the admission of some of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases, it pretty much stymies a deniers remarks.

    At this point, Senator Inhofe looks like a fool and a major lackey for big oil that he is. Big oil just looks like a bunch of greedy, suicical hypocrites willing to take the world down with them especially with the big push these days for extra dirty stuff like TAR SANDS OIL.

  • Brianna cox

    save the trees because there is animals out there that dont have homes because this cause of cutting down trees

  • newsbyrd

    In my mind there is a huge distinction between a denier and a skeptic. Skeptics actually have an optimistic leg to stand on in that climate scientists concede the other part of their research that for the most part, demonstrates human induced global warming.
    And considering that our grandchildren and perhaps children will all have a lot to lose if those super-computer models are correct, the only way I can explain today’s skeptic is those who wear convenient blinders made from a good dose of optimistic rationalization.  And honestly, I don’t blame them.
    It’s no fun to believe that our world will be toast within decades.

  • Olonis

    I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to convince others who deny global warming. I’ve found, in my experiences, that those whom I try to turn keep bringing it back to politics. One person refuses to even look at the science, stating that science itself is merely a conduit for the “Liberal Agenda”
    I don’t see any other solution but to not waste energy with these types.