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George Marshall — how to talk to a climate change ‘denier’

Mar 29, 2012 by | 22 Comments

Talking Climate’s George Marshall recorded a video that asks what the best way of talking to a cli­mate ‘denier’ is, including advice on lan­guage, framing, and a dis­cus­sion of whether ‘denier’ is even the right way of thinking about the problem.

You can watch the video here – and please let us know what you think:

Many of the ideas that George dis­cusses are covered by dif­ferent Guides or fea­tured Resources on Talking Climate.

For example, George talks about the crit­ical influ­ence of family and friends in determ­ining people’s atti­tudes about cli­mate change. Read more about the impact and import­ance of social norms and social net­works on pro-environmental atti­tudes and beha­viours here.

George emphas­ises that argu­ment, con­flict, and dis­respectful lan­guage will make it more dif­fi­cult to achieve the goals you are aiming for – that is, to encourage some­body who is scep­tical about cli­mate change to engage with the problem and pos­sible solu­tions to it. Finding ‘common ground’ and being able to under­stand why people are scep­tical about cli­mate change in the first place is crit­ical.  It isn’t all that much to do with a lack of under­standing of ‘the sci­ence’, but has a lot to do with the ‘per­sonal journey’ that people go through when forming their beliefs about cli­mate change and whether to engage in sus­tain­able behaviour.

Something that is a central part of George’s argu­ment is that people’s ‘world­views‘ – their social beliefs and cul­tural expect­a­tions – shape the way they feel about cli­mate change. People who are scep­tical about cli­mate change tend to hold cer­tain clusters of values and polit­ical beliefs. Understanding this is essen­tial for effective com­mu­nic­a­tion about cli­mate change.

As well as under­standing that cer­tain clusters of values tend to be asso­ci­ated with cli­mate change scep­ti­cism, it is important to be aware that dif­ferent ways of ‘framing’ the problem – as primarily an envir­on­mental or a human con­cern, for example – will also have a big impact.

Finally, George talks about the import­ance of showing that there are psy­cho­lo­gical ‘rewards’ in begin­ning to take action on cli­mate change, whereby the pro­cess of taking ini­tial steps towards more sus­tain­able beha­viours gen­er­ates a kind of momentum for fur­ther atti­tude and beha­vi­oural change. However, this is only likely to be effective if people are chan­ging their beha­viours for ‘intrinsic’ reasons (that is, the change in beha­viour is rewarding in itself, not because they receive some fin­an­cial reward etc). This sum­mary of emer­ging research shows  how devel­oping a sense of envir­on­mental ‘iden­tity’ or ‘cit­izen­ship’ is a much more powerful way of enga­ging people in the medium-to-long term, and provides more detail to accom­pany George’s points on cata­lysing beha­vi­oural and atti­tude change.



22 Comments + Add Comment

  • Thanks for a very stim­u­lating and enga­ging video with many good ideas on effective com­mu­nic­a­tion in all situ­ations, not just when con­fronted with a cli­mate “dissenter”.

    My ques­tion is: is there a point at which you engage with the sci­ence when your inter­locutor repeatedly shows a poor under­standing of the basics? Once you’ve estab­lished rap­port and trust, and shown that you’re able to see the world from their per­spective, is there a place for laying out the sci­entific case? Especially when you can see that cer­tain erro­neous beliefs are a stum­bling block to their really “get­ting” the issue. Or is this what you mean when you talk about speaking about my journey?

    A fur­ther ques­tion: I am presently engaged in research that seeks to artic­u­late an eth­ical eval­u­ation of the role of eco­lo­gical fears in pro­gressing or dis­tracting eth­ical dis­course around eco­lo­gical issues. What is your take on the place of fear? Many aspects of cli­mate change are quite fright­ening, ter­ri­fying even, if we take the sci­ence ser­i­ously and observe the present polit­ical inertia. There is research that shows that care­fully tar­geted fear mes­saging when com­bined with a mes­sage that empowers someone to make changes can be quite effective in med­ical com­mu­nic­a­tion (e.g. over smoking). Do you think the same is true here? Or since an indi­vidual is incap­able of making the same kind of dif­fer­ence, is fear always debil­it­ating here? To illus­trate: with smoking, my choices very dir­ectly impact on the health out­comes I exper­i­ence. With cli­mate change, my small con­tri­bu­tion, even mul­ti­plied through polit­ical act­ivism and attempts at cul­tural change, will still only ever be a tiny part of the picture.

    Thanks for all your work and I look for­ward to hearing from you. (Not sure if this site has auto­matic noti­fic­a­tion of replies? If not, please let me know when you do reply. Thanks!)

  • What a fant­astic video — great job!!

  • […] to act, and how best to start per­suading them that they might be in error. From the Talking Climate blog post: George emphas­ises that argu­ment, con­flict, and dis­respectful lan­guage will make it more […]

  • Very down-to-earth approach to a dif­fi­cult sub­ject. Good job, and thanks!

  • George is an out­standing com­mu­nic­ator. I will try to take a lot from that video into other areas. Well done.

  • Should also say, that’s good advice for face to face dis­cus­sion, but it’s a dif­ferent ball-game when dis­cussing things online.

  • The video is great and I need to watch it repeatedly and get my talking points ready to go for the ques­tions I get as a result of living low-carbon in the fossil fuel addicted US. However, I would slightly take issue with the claim that cli­mate change den­iers already under­stand the sci­ence. I have yet to meet one who can sum­marize the basic evid­ence that man-made cli­mate change is occur­ring and poses a prob­ab­ility of grave risks. Instead den­iers typ­ic­ally repeat whatever selec­tion of standard denier argu­ments they have absorbed from talk radio, denier blogs, or chain emails. It’s sim­ilar to arguing with Young Earth Creationists — while one must guard against get­ting pulled into end­lessly refuting their Gish gal­lops point by point, at the same time one cannot entirely ignore these argu­ments, which are a vital com­ponent of propagating denial. The logical struc­ture of denial is inter­esting, because it shows sim­ilar pat­terns across the range of deni­alism (of cli­mate, evol­u­tion, the Moon land­ings, 9/11 trutherism, etc.).

    Of course refuting the argu­ments doesn’t change anyone’s mind by itself, because that doesn’t address the under­lying reason for a person’s denial, but I don’t think we can afford to be caught off­guard when these argu­ments come up. There’s no need to be, since the Skeptical Science site lists vir­tu­ally every denier argu­ment and the response from sci­ence, which few if any den­iers will have looked at.

    I can’t say I’ve mastered the tricky art of dis­agreeing with someone and making them feel respected at the same time. Most people seem to equate respect with being agreed with.

  • Nice one George : good news from the US where the per­centage accepting cli­mate change has sig­ni­fic­antly increased. So the ques­tion is really what to sug­gest they do next.

    Two prob­lems : first that the gen­eral view is that it’s up to the indi­viduals : abso­lutely Not True : what we as indi­viduals can achieve is far toooo small com­pared to what is neces­sary. The only hope is for polit­ical change, and that is so unlikely in our society where cap­it­alism and glob­al­isa­tion (pretty much the same thing) are regarded as the only way we can pro­duce “Growth” and “Growth” is the only way in which we pro­duce enough cash (increasing the tax take) to have enough spare to do the cli­mate change job…

    And second : there doesn’t seem to be enough inform­a­tion out there about the very real dangers the bio­sphere is cur­rently facing from cli­mate change. People con­stantly talk about the dis­crete ele­ments which are con­trib­uting to cli­mate change and abso­lutely blinker them­selves (self-protection?) to the like­li­hood of run­away cli­mate change from the syn­chronous impacts of one aspect knocking on to another : eg the release of methane from the thawing of the Siberian per­ma­frost will increase the speed of cli­mate change, and increase the likely thawing of the Greenland Ice Sheet, which will increase the speed of cli­mate change and likely increase the heating of the seas and there­fore the thawing of the Arctic and, more scarily and fright­en­ingly, the thawing of the Antartic etc etc etc

    Very tempting to spend the last years of my life enjoying myself but I’m a locked in cam­paigner and I’m not going to give up…

    Keep at ‘em ;-))

  • Of course, the same tech­niques of showing respect, explaining your per­sonal journey etc can be used by the scep­tics — how to talk to a cli­mate change ‘alarmist’!

  • Excellent advice. I struggle to remain calm when dis­cussing cli­mate change with someone who is very dis­missive, and this is rarely pro­ductive. I’m just left feeling really down about it.

    I need to change the I com­mu­nicate. Thanks for taking the time to put together

  • […] 3) This is an excel­lent dis­cus­sion of non-combative lan­guage to use when trying to  per­suade people to adopt your pos­i­tion.  The issue is dif­ferent but the prin­cipals apply.  George Marshall: How  To  Talk  To A Climate Change Denier […]

  • George — I might sug­gest that you reflect on the name of your blog, and the lan­guage you use talking about ‘den­iers’ is actu­ally a major cause of the problem trying to com­mu­nicate to them. In factt (my per­soanl reac­tion) it prob­ably cre­ates very many sceptics.

    If you could per­suade the Campaign of Climate Change and Rising Tide organ­isa­tions that you are invoved with to drop their ‘Deniers’ Hall of Shame… You might gen­erate a bit more good­will, instead this totally ali­en­ates the people..

    I note – Mark Lynas recently stepped down form the CaCC, not least I ima­gine, because as he said to me. The ‘Hall of Shame’ was shameful…

    Please use your influ­ence on the advisory Board to do this. As a ges­ture of good­will in the spirit of a civil debate. As I note on your blog roll, (cli­mate you link to a Denier’s Hall of Shame.

  • I struggle to remain calm when dis­cussing nat­ural vari­ab­ility with someone who is very dis­missive. It depends where you’re coming from!

  • I cannot help much with the com­mu­nic­a­tion, but if you want to engage with those of the sceptic per­sua­sion, you need to do some homework…

    To be fair to Dr Allen, he does con­tribute to the dis­cus­sion, although mostly by attempted diversion.

  • I have often found it tiring and frus­trating dis­cussing cli­mate change with those that dis­miss it. I don’t like arguing and don’t shout but would some­times find people get­ting quite aggressive in their manor, which upset me as I hate con­flict. This video is very good and I hope to make good use of the info. in it on any future occa­sions where I get into a con­ver­sa­tion on this issue.

  • George Marshall is described as a Phsycologist in a number of art­icles.
    May I ask if this is cor­rect, what qual­i­fic­a­tions George has in this field. And whether George has any papers pub­lished in the field.

  • […] On 18 July 2012 we held our summer sup­porters’ meeting. Starting with drinks and nibbles and chat, we then moved on to hear about two recent courses organ­ised by the Low Carbon Hub about how to hold good con­ver­sa­tions about cli­mate change. We watched a video of the course leader, George Marshall, talking through some of the key prin­ciples for talking to cli­mate change dis­senters. You can see the video, and some of the research that under­pins it, at the Talking Climate web­site here. […]

  • Hello George,
    Roz Savage turned me on to your video, and I abso­lutely love it. I work for the Plastic Pollution Coalition as a social media strategist and Plastic-free event coordin­ator. I will make sure to share it with our coali­tion mem­bers. I see so many applic­a­tions for your approach in my day to day exper­i­ence, for example I am sup­pose to spend the next ten days con­vin­cing rooms of people to take on a plastic reduc­tion chal­lenge, luckily in most cases, I will be preaching to the chore.

    Thank you,

    My step­father in Canada, always says “Why should I care about what hap­pens in 500 yrs?I’ll be dead, anyway!“
    The other thing that irks me is when he says “Climate Change is awe­some, our sum­mers have been so mild here
    in Canada.” I know he is an edu­cated man, and often says stuff like this to rattle my feathers. The list goes on.….
    Wait til I tell you what he says about plastic bags. UGGGGGGGG!

  • […] *Talking Climate, (2012),  How to talk to a climate-change ‘denier’, avail­able at:; […]

  • […] 11:54 a.m. | Update | In a valu­able weekend post, Dan Kahan, the Yale ana­lyst using sci­ence to cla­rify the limits and pos­sib­il­ities in sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion, offered these examples of people he feels have useful approaches in cli­mate com­mu­nic­a­tion: Katharine Hayhoe, Geoffrey Haines-Stiles (through Earth — the Operators’ Manual), and George Marshall. […]

  • George Marshall does a mas­terful job of describing a very suc­cessful strategy when talking with a cli­mate change denier. This is the first stage in a six-stage pro­cess of inter­acting with someone whose views, and ulti­mately action, one would hope to change. The “stages of change” model was developed by James Prochaska & others, who were working in thera­peutic set­tings with people with psy­cho­lo­gical and beha­vi­oral prob­lems. I looked at their model and recog­nized that it could be applied to social change and polit­ical com­mu­nic­a­tions. I’ve led mul­tiple work­shops on “Talking Politics with People Unlike Ourselves”, and more narrowly-focused present­a­tions for act­ivist groups on “Talking Same-Sex Marriage” and “Talking Environment”. Here’s a brief over­view of the basic work­shop: The Commonweal Institute is not active at this time, but I’m still around and could apply this approach to the cli­mate change com­mu­nic­a­tion challenge.

  • […] George Marshall – how to talk to a cli­mate change ‘denier’ | Talking Climate […]

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