How does one speak about climate change to a friend, colleague or neighbour who is not engaged, and sceptical about the need for urgent action?
I was prompted to write this essay because I have been asked this question three times in the last two weeks, and it got me thinking.
In the local climate group I help run, we focus on positive local action. Unlike many climate groups we do not post dystopian images of the latest horror from the front line of climate impacts. This is not because we deny them but because we have found it is not the best way to engage people who are thinking about getting involved, or are avoiding getting engaged!
They can find the scary material elsewhere, and our job, as a climate group, is to facilitate and catalyse change, through networks, conversations and projects.
But then there are some people – in every community – who clearly do not feel that urgent action is needed. So can we really avoid dealing with those sceptics?
The sceptics we are talking about here do not fit the stereotype of an ideological ‘denier’ – such as Lord Lawson – but they have often heard or read things that reassure them that action is not urgent (‘those alarmists have gone too far!’, they hear, a reassuring salve). Conservative newspapers actively dismiss the need for urgent action.
So will facts change a sceptic’s mind?
It is well established that while facts are important, a key reason why people believe in certain things is their culture and values (I recommend reading Katharine Hayhoe on this ).
If one group believes in the freedom of communities to do their own thing, free of central Government ‘interference’, there is then a perceived conflict of values with others who favour the need for regulations to promote change. The challenge is to find the common ground, the shared values.
If someone believes that the planet will work things out, with or without our help, they may be quite fatalistic about society’s ability to change ‘there is nothing we can do’. The challenge then is to show how – assuming we had sufficient agency to cause the problem – we also have the ability to prevent the worst happening.
Most people are neither deniers nor fatalists. They want a positive future for their children and grandchildren. If they can see the need for change, they can become champions for change.
Who are we talking to?
It is very easy, especially for those like me who spend way too much time on Twitter, to frame the engagement challenge in terms of those on the ideological right who have made a career out of climate science denial. That is a mistake in my view.
Various surveys in the UK, USA and elsewhere indicate a growing number that see the need for change. Some just voted in Australia to end the reign of a right wing, climate change denying party.
The UK Government’s Winter 2021 Attitudes Survey showed that 85% of respondents were either ‘very concerned’ or ‘fairly concerned’ about climate change .
(Credit: BEIS Public Attitudes Tracker: Net Zero and Climate Change Winter 2021)
Even in the USA, where we are constantly reminded of the polarised nature of political debates, we find that on climate change, there is a majority of people who are either ‘Alarmed’ or ‘Concerned’ (in the nomenclature of the Yale Climate Change Communications ‘6 Americas’ ).
As the authors of this report write:
There has been substantial change in the distribution of the Six Americas over the past five years. The Alarmed segment has nearly doubled in size, increasing 15 percentage points (from 18% to 33% of the U.S. adult population), including an increase of 9 percentage points from March 2021 to September 2021. In contrast, over the past 5 years only about 1 in 10 Americans have been Dismissive (decreasing from 11% to 9%). Overall, Americans are becoming more worried about global warming, more engaged with the issue, and more supportive of climate solutions.
The ‘Dismissives’ are only 9% of the US population, but often appear to be 90% of the commenters on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere. That is not a reason for allowing them to frame the conversation in their terms.
Instead, we increasingly need to get off our computers and have 1:1 convivial conversations in person, over a cup of coffee, at a market stall or over the garden fence, with the majority who are genuinely curious at exploring the issues.
The ‘Why?’ question
Exploring values as opposed to just facts is a crucial part of the conversation. When someone makes a strong, provocative statement, the response should initially aim to explore the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’:
Why do you feel that?
This might well reveal those values or assumptions that are really at the heart of someone’s feelings, and explain the anger or frustration they express. This is almost impossible to do online.
Those sceptical of the need for change are not solely on the right. There are some environmentalists who have a such a strong preference for nature-based solutions, they will find all the downsides of technological solutions, while being blind to any shortcomings of their preferred solutions.
In fact, we all need to ask ourselves the ‘Why?’ question from time to time, to question our beliefs, biases and assumptions.
A little bit of knowledge can be a useful thing
People new to climate change can be overwhelmed by its sheer complexity, and think they must have encyclopaedic knowledge to engage with people, especially sceptics; they don’t!
It does help to know some key concepts, which can be used to help guide responses to questions. A few are summarised here:
- Civilisation and agriculture have blossomed since the end of the last ice age with a stable atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide at 300 parts per million (ppm). In just a short period since the start of the industrial revolution, human emissions have pushed it to over 400 ppm 
- There are many carbon cycles that cover vastly different timescales. Despite large flows of carbon into and out of the oceans, the flows balance each other; maintaining a stable concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Humans are now upsetting that balance at alarming speed 
- Carbon dioxide is called a ‘long-lived greenhouse gas’. The raised concentration in the atmosphere (caused by burning fossil fuels) remains raised for a very long time 
- The rise in global mean surface temperatures of about 1.2°C since the start of the industrial revolution is already having impacts, and every 0.1°C of rise on top of that will increase the impacts .
- All societal and personal choices have a carbon impact of some sort, but it is important to understand the full impact of any choice, over the full life-cycle of a thing or activity. We should not let a lack of perfect solutions stop us taking action .
How to engage with the Concerned or Cautious?
There are many different styles of engagement. This is my personal perspective, but everyone can develop their own style.
There can be a tendency to try to argue facts with people, but this can be difficult. If the challenge is based on some bad reading of a topic, and is not something you feel qualified to respond to, is that the end of the conversation? I would argue that with a questioning approach, a fruitful conversation is still possible.
Questionable challenges come in a variety of categories. Here are a few key ones:
- Simply fallacies of argument that require no knowledge of the facts per se.
- ‘What about?’ type challenges that are aimed at deflecting from a core issue.
- Misunderstandings in the nature of a system, that often ignore important aspects of the system.
These can cover quite a wide range of what one might hear at a climate stall or over a coffee with friends. Often they are combined in different ways, but usually one of these plays a central role.
Simple fallacies of argument
There are many resources that deal with critical thinking and fallacies of argument. The Greeks were familiar with many of them, and they are still used in debates. Debates and conversations on climate change are not immune to fallacies of argument.
Here is one example:
‘By far the greatest use of peat in the world is burning it for fuel, so isn’t stopping its use in our gardens really just virtue signalling?’
In such cases, you don’t need to google the actual numbers because this is a simple logical fallacy and the best way to deal with it is to substitute another example that exposes its flaws:
‘If it was true that the greatest number of wife abusers in the world is in <another country>, would it be ok to say that calling for a stop to wife beating in the UK is really just virtue signalling?’
That is obviously nonsense, but then so is the argument against stopping using peat in gardening.
There are are countless examples of the use of fallacies of argument. One advocate from a think tank that denied the need for action on climate change made a statement on TV along these lines:
‘I am not a climate denier, but this latest scientific report is saying we must reach net zero by 2050, which seems to be ludicrously exact in its timing, doesn’t it?’
This is what might be termed the Fallacy of Precision. My response would be through a progressive sequence of questions:
‘You do accept that warming will increase with more emissions?’ (if not, that reveals climate science denial)
‘You do accept that more warming will cause more extreme weather events and therefore more impacts?’ (if not, that reveals climate science denial)
‘So you accept that the sooner we make cuts the greater our ability to reduce harms?’ (if not, that reveals they don’t understand that prevention is always better than cure)
So in response to this example of the Fallacy of Precision, the key argument is:
‘It is ok to get there early; I’m happy with 2050 +/- 5 years! It is not about binaries. The longer we delay, the greater the risks. 2050 is a political planning goal, and to declare it is not saying there are no risks before that date, and catastrophe after it. The impacts are already being felt, and will increase with more emissions.’
Whataboutery is as old as the hills.
A very common one I encounter is:
‘What about China? The UK has a tiny footprint by comparison’
My personal favourite immediate response is the take the iPhone out of my pocket and ask:
‘Where do you think this was manufactured?’ (they normally guess right, yes, China)
then follow up with
‘So how do we account for the associated carbon?’
They realise that they have to concede that it isn’t quite so simple as blaming China, but the comeback is often:
‘Yes, but population growth is a big issue isn’t it?’
I respond that I acknowledge the issue of resource depletion, but in the context of climate change, I am concerned with the idea that we should place the blame for our situation on the poorest in the world. Africa has been responsible for just 3% of emissions, yet will be hit very badly by climate change; worse than us. At this point I often get out a pen and paper and ask if they are familiar with the Oxfam Extreme Carbon Inequality report? Most are not, so I sketch out the key figure based on the report 
Hand sketch by Richard Erskine, based on Oxfam ‘Extreme Carbon Inequality’ report.
‘This shows that the richest 10% of the world’s population have been responsible for 50% of carbon emissions, yet the poorest 50% have only been responsible for 10% of emissions.’
This is a great conversation starter, because it can lead in many directions:
- historic emissions;
- funding for adaptation;
- per capita versus national emissions;
- resource depletion;
- educating girls;
- low carbon development for poorer countries;
- climate justice;
- and much more.
This is an area that is not awash with easy solutions, but it is a chance to challenge simplistic claims that population growth is the cause of the climate crisis, when in fact, consumption growth (propelled by fossil fuelled energy) is demonstrably the primary cause.
Misunderstandings in the nature of a system
Here is one example of a claim I heard recently:
‘Blue Whales eat krill and poo 3 tonnes a day, so if we got them back to the levels in the oceans before humans decimated their numbers, we could draw down most of the carbon we emit. Problem solved’
The person involved was a huge fan of what are called ‘natural solutions’, and that is fine, as long it isn’t used to dismiss other valid solutions (which was his intention, based on other remarks he made dismissing Wind Turbines etc.).
This illustrates the immediate difficulty for someone at a climate stall in a market who is no expert on carbon cycles, whales or even the total carbon emissions emitted by humanity. But interestingly, despite those apparent shortcomings, it is possible to challenge such a claim …
… by using questions back at the questioner, using the ‘little knowledge’ I shared earlier.
It is crucial that the response is not merely a counter statement. Always start with questions. Ones like:
‘I’d be interested to read more on this idea, do you have a good source?’ (if it is simply a second hand belief that has not been properly researched, they may stumble a bit here)
‘How long would it take to build up the Blue Whale population, and would it be in time to avert dangerous global warming?’ (this may elicit a response like ‘maybe 50 years’, and the follow up might be ‘do we have 50 years?’)
‘That’s interesting, but can you explain why the atmosphere has been so stable since the last ice age, even before we started decimating the whale population?’ (this is of course a trick question, but a valid one. The whales’ contribution to carbon cycles was there 5,000 years ago, yet the carbon dioxide levels didn’t drop because of it; it was in balance)
This could lead to a co-discovery of some more information. Maybe a bit more reading on carbon cycles and so on. Maybe the conclusion will be that we need the whales back, but they won’t get us out of our current predicament.
These are just examples of actual encounters, but I hope they give a flavour of the approach I like to take.
Those new to climate change who want to engage friends, neighbours and others should not feel intimidated. Responding to someone who expresses certainty with questions is always a reasonable approach, that everyone can learn from. If you are part of a fledgling community climate group, you can develop your confidence by working with others when running a climate stall. Learn from others who are more experienced, and then start to have a go yourself. Practice makes better (don’t be beguiled by the illusion of perfect!).
Remember, the great majority of people out there are on your side, and even those that are not, manage to be polite when face to face, in person.
And try to reduce your time on Twitter. Yes, that’s you I’m talking to Richard!
© Richard W. Erskine, 2022
- Katharine Hayhoe, Saving Us – A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, Simon & Schuster, 2021.
- BEIS Public Attitudes Tracker: Net Zero and Climate Change Winter 2021, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1064031/BEIS_PAT_Winter_2021_Net_Zero_and_Climate_Change.pdf
- Yale Climate Change Communications ‘6 Americas’, https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/global-warmings-six-americas-september-2021/
- Since the end of the last ice age, the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide was stable at just under 300 parts per million (ppm), but since the industrial revolution it has risen to over 400 ppm; higher than at any time in the last 3 million years. The nearly 10,000 years since the end of the last ice age have been relatively stable, and civilisation and agriculture have blossomed in this period.
- Carbon cycles are just that. There are short-term cycles (like the Northern Hemisphere’s autumn and spring cycle, leading to flows of carbon into and out of the atmosphere) but also longer term ones. The longest are geological in timescale. The oceans store huge amounts of carbon in their depths, but there are chemical, physical and biological processes that mean carbon flows into and out of the atmosphere. The reason for the stability of the pre-industrial concentration in the atmosphere is precisely because a combination of these cycles has created a balance. The balance can be disrupted and changed over long periods. The current disruption is extremely fast and man-made.
- Carbon dioxide is called a ‘long-lived greenhouse gas’. When humans emit an amount of it into the atmosphere about half is absorbed in the oceans and biosphere, about half remains in the atmosphere, and because the the balancing cycles (and despite the fact that individual molecules may move back and forth on quite short timescales), the raised concentration in the atmosphere remains raised for a very long time.
- I’ve answered the question ‘Is 2°C a Big Deal?’ in another essay: https://essaysconcerning.com/2021/10/14/is-2c-a-big-deal/. According the the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a rise in global mean surface temperatures is already having impacts and every additional 0.1°C of rise has consequences, so it is now urgent to try to avoid 1.5°C and at least 2°C. They found that the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C was huge, in terms of impacts; and the risks escalate if we go above 2°C. All policies and actions need to be judged on whether they fit into the narrowing window of time.
- All societal and personal choices have a carbon impact of some sort, but it is important to understand the full impact of any choice, over the full life-cycle of a thing or activity. One considers how bad one thing is, it has to be considered alongside the alternatives. We all have to live, to breath, travel to work or play, etc. and so we have to consider a ‘balance of harms’ and also, a ‘balance of benefits’.
- Extreme Carbon Inequality, Oxfam, 2015 https://www.oxfam.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/mb-extreme-carbon-inequality-021215-en-UPDATED.pdf