Blog post

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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