How to Talk to Climate Skeptics – and Understanding Who They Are

It feels really good to have people agree with you. In fact, it feels so good that we tend to only surround ourselves with people who have the same viewpoints as us. But when we come across someone who doesn’t agree with us, our natural instinct is to become immediately defensive and double down on our own opinions. It’s challenging to have conversations outside of our comfortable social bubbles, but to fight climate change, we need support from more than just the people who look like us and talk like us. In this article, we hope to provide you with a better understanding of why people think the way they do and equip you with some tools to engage in a constructive climate conversation. 

We all agree with each other more than we think.

Most people generally do believe in climate change – that fact probably isn’t very surprising. The data actually tell us that only about 16% of Americans don’t believe in climate change. Right now you might be thinking you’ve got a pretty good idea of who to blame for that 16% (other than Obama; thanks Obama). But as it turns out, we’re pretty bad at trying to predict who the climate believers and skeptics are. Us believers might assume that skeptics aren’t as highly educated or informed, but that’s not the case: general attitudes about global warming are unrelated to scientific literacy and education. You might be thinking, “what about… Republicans?” Wrong again! Data from multiple surveys actually show that the majority of Republicans believe in climate change. 

Why are people resistant to climate change policies even if they believe the science?

If majorities of both Republicans and Democrats believe in climate change, then what’s holding us back from coming together on climate issues? The answer, per usual, is each other. Republicans might not be skeptical of climate change, but they are skeptical of Democrats – and Democrats, in turn, are skeptical of Republicans. Psychologists have repeatedly shown that individuals tend to favor party over policy. That is, voters are more likely to support policies that are put forward by their own political party and reactively reject policies that are put forward by the opposing party, with little regard for the policy itself.  Unfortunately, these partisan allegiances seem to extend to climate policies as well, with Republicans opposing climate policies in large part because they are often proposed by Democrats. 

But there’s hope in this big ol’ mess. People cannot and should not be reduced to simply “Republicans” and “Democrats” – we are all so much more than that. And a path forward is right in front of us: if we’re able to distance ourselves from political labels and traps, we can uncover our commonalities and focus on solving this gigantic problem together. Of course, this is easier said than done. But a better understanding of the human mind and motivations for why people oppose climate policy can help us empathize with others, and offers us a much better chance at a constructive conversation.

Cognitive dissonance and the psychology of climate policy resistance

Now for the fun part: Let’s learn about a neat little psychological trick that, if you’re like me, will have you questioning nearly every decision you’ve ever made and shake you to your core: cognitive dissonance theory! 

Let’s unpack this theory with a simple example: Chiara’s a huge BBQ fan. She loves herself a fat slab of ribs with a side of corn dogs. As a scientist, she’s well aware that the meat industry is a huge contributor to climate change, but every week she heads to the butcher anyway. That mental discomfort she feels when a belief she holds (knowing that eating a lot of meat is bad for the planet) contradicts her actions (eating meat anyway) is what we refer to as cognitive dissonance. And people hate being in a state of dissonance. It’s sort of like being super hungry. It’s uncomfortable, we hate it, and the longer it persists the more motivated we are to get rid of it.

So how can Chiara reduce her dissonance? She can either change her actions to align with her beliefs, or she can change her beliefs to align with her actions. The first option means she has to quit eating meat, but she really doesn’t want to do that. The second option requires her to change her underlying beliefs about eating meat. To justify her actions, she can tell herself things like “my meat consumption won’t make a difference in the long run” or “I drive a Prius to work so I don’t need to stop eating meat”. If she’s feeling a particularly large amount of dissonance, Chiara might even seek out information that claims the meat industry isn’t contributing to climate change, or even that climate change itself isn’t real. By altering her beliefs about climate change, Chiara can keep eating meat without experiencing dissonance. And just like that, we’ve taken one of the authors of this article and turned her into a climate change skeptic (don’t worry, she’s not). 

This theory is powerful because it not only explains why Republicans are more likely to oppose climate change policy but also why anyone else whose values or actions are discordant with climate policy proposals might oppose them. For example, consider the case of Frank, a landowner in northern Texas who’s fallen on hard times. He’s approached by an oil and gas company to install a natural gas well on his property in exchange for royalties that will allow him to provide for his family. Though he was previously sympathetic to climate policy, Frank now finds himself in an elevated state of dissonance, where his family’s livelihood is intimately tied to the fossil fuel industry. To reduce his dissonance, Frank will likely start to downplay his beliefs around climate change.

An important takeaway here is that people who are acting to reduce dissonance by justifying their actions or a choice they made aren’t intentionally lying to you. Rather, they’re lying to themselves. This can all come off as very condescending, so it’s important to keep in mind that we are all guilty of this same conduct. For instance, you might really care about a farmer’s ability to support themselves, but then find yourself in a state of dissonance when that farmer’s choice to frack on their land clashes with your stance on environmentalism. To reduce dissonance, you’ll recharacterize the farmer as an ignorant and greedy opportunist. This doesn’t mean that you don’t understand the farmer’s financial motives, it just means you’re making it easier for yourself to sleep at night when you later vote to remove his access to that type of revenue. 

Now that we can understand a bit more about where people are coming from, and recognize what we have in common, what are the key ingredients to a constructive conversation?


Do it face to face. People have better first impressions, less conflict, feel more emotionally connected, and are more vulnerable when having conversations in-person rather than online. 

Paint a picture of a more positive future. Most narratives around climate change solutions paint a painful picture of a difficult future that will require substantial individual sacrifices. But if we do things right, the changes we make to address climate change could lead to a healthier, less expensive, more equitable, and guilt-free future. And while we understand why you want to convince Uncle Joe that climate change is scary and real, focusing on positive solutions is more effective in engaging people. It’s also critical in breaking down the cognitive dissonance that arises when we tell people that if they care about climate change, they’ll have to settle for a lower quality of life. Instead, focus on how policy and economic shifts could give us a better life even in a world undergoing climate change. We highly recommend listening to Ezra Klein’s conversation with Saul Griffith on this topic.

Leave party politics at the door. Like we said above, people tend to interpret information as positive or negative depending on which party presents it, so the less political you can remain the better. Further, using language like carbon “offsets” instead of carbon “taxes” can make people more amenable to your argument.

Use personal anecdotes and story-telling. Using stories, anecdotes, or narratives is an effective way of communicating science with non-experts, and local stories can make people want to engage more. Content presented in this format is also easier to understand.

Demonstrate vulnerability and show that making mistakes is okay. We need to do a much better job of normalizing the idea that it’s okay to make mistakes and change our minds – we’re all human! Most importantly, we must learn to forgive people when they do admit a mistake, and allow them space to change their minds. Attacking others for their views will only cause them to become more entrenched. Be vulnerable yourself; maybe share a story about a time you experienced dissonance and justified a poor choice, but were later were able to admit to yourself that you were wrong.

Show empathy and actively listen. Remember that you need to have a conversation with this person rather than direct your best monologue at them. Take a breath and prepare to actively listen. Remember that you have other things in common with them and that you both have reasons to hold the opinions you do (see all of the above). Going on a tirade that makes the other person feel steamrolled, misunderstood, or patronized will not be productive. People typically stick with the common opinion of their social group, so to reach someone, it’s important to maintain a positive relationship with them. Treat them with respect and kindness and show gratitude when they are willing to engage in a conversation with you. 

Talk about how strong of a consensus there is about climate change among scientists. Simply talking about how almost all climate scientists (97% to be exact) agree that climate change is real, pressing, and human-caused has been shown to increase climate change acceptance across party lines. 

Provide a brief mechanistic explanation of the greenhouse effect. Giving a brief explanation of the greenhouse effect increases climate change acceptance. You can even show them a fun video with Bill Nye. If you want to explain it yourself, here’s our two-liner: We’ve thrown our carbon cycle out of whack by burning fossil fuels, which means that we are now releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Excess CO2 in the atmosphere traps heat from the sun — instead of heat from the sun bouncing off the Earth and back out of our atmosphere, it bounces right back toward us, which causes global temperatures to rise. Check out our Climate Science 101 article for more, or if the person you’re talking to has misconceptions about the science of climate change, check out our article on addressing specific climate change misconceptions

<strong>Shane Schwikert</strong>
Shane Schwikert

Shane is a teacher, researcher, and data enthusiast at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he wailed his way to a PhD in Psychology, Neuroscience, and Cognitive Science. His hobbies range from dirt biking to backcountry skiing to gold panning, and he is an avid rock collector known for assembling his treasures in strategic piles throughout his apartment.

Chiara Forrester
Chiara Forrester

Chiara is happiest when she’s in the mountains on skis, a bike, or running. She also loves Ariana Grande (117 hours this year, thanks Spotify), making dinner with friends, and laughing too loudly at her own jokes. An ecologist who’s passionate about science communication and increasing diversity in STEM, Chiara is currently a PhD candidate in Boulder, CO, studying alpine plant ecology, undergraduate education, and the use of science in federal land management.

NOTE: THIS IS A LIVING RESOURCE! As with all resources on Outdoor Advocacy Project, there is always room to continue the conversation, add a new perspective, bolster the resources, and share new findings. Got something you want to add, change, challenge or amplify? Let us know in the comments, or e-mail team@outdooradvocacy.com to write your own.

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