For many skeptics, resistance to accepting climate science stems primarily from fear, not ignorance or misinformation. Fear of what could be “taken away” from them if government mobilizes to address this problem. This came up in session after session on climate communication.
The corollary: We can never make progress with ardent skeptics by arguing endlessly about scientific nuances, because scientific quibbles are so often defenses against deeper fears. We have to acknowledge and address directly the fears about solutions. This was the main point of fascinating AGU presentation titled “Creative Affective Solutions to Climate Communication,” by Dr. Jeff Kiehl(UCAR), a climate scientist also trained in psychology.
Fear of what? Well, put yourself in their shoes. Imagine discovering that you’ve been wrong about a strongly-held belief? It’s humiliating. Even scientists — schooled in objectivity, open-mindedness, and constant revision — sometimes get locked into positions and refuse to budge, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. And what will your friends say?
For those with even moderate libertarian or conservative tendencies, accepting the reality of climate change can threaten their
- identity, defined by their worldview and expressed by consumption patterns
- peace-of-mind and sense of personal security
- self-esteem; admitting error is hard for anybody
- relationships, if friends and colleagues become alienated
- consumer choice and freedom (e.g. light bulbs)
- prosperity and economic security for future generations.
- personal freedom and liberty, if government controls more areas of life.
Needless to say, perceived threats lead quickly to anger — which is always rooted in either fear or hurt — at those who are threatening us.
So how do we address these fears? Well, one thing, “you can’t scare somebody out of fear.” You can only help them ease their way out.
I asked Richard Alley, who received an award for climate communication on Tuesday, what he’s found to be effective in communication with climate skeptics. Like others this week, he stressed that it must start with respect and listening.
Mutual respect and empathetic listening are not striking features of climate debates. When George Mason’s Ed Maibach runs dialogue groups with climate scientists and skeptics, his first ground rule is respect. And guess which side is usually the first to violate that rule? Our side.
There’s much to reflect on here. More on dealing with fears about climate change and climate solutions, in a future post.