Talking to a Climate Change Denier

Sander van der Wel from Netherlands, Bury your head in the sand, CC BY-SA 2.0
If you’re reading this article, then you are either a member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of NY or are at least a science enthusiast. You’re one of us and you accept the process of using empirical evidence to prove or disprove a conclusion. You know provable facts matter when it comes to science and personal opinion, public opinion, and that political ideology is not scientific evidence. That’s wonderful for you. Now, let’s talk about all those people who are not like us.

Unfortunately, there are many thousands (perhaps millions) of people in our nation and around the world who think that climate change (a.k.a. global warming) is either unproven science or maybe an elaborate hoax. These people fall into 1 of three categories:

  • They believe that the Earth is not going through a significant warming
  • They believe that it is warming but human industrialization is not responsible
  • They believe that it is warming, which is caused by human industrialization but the effects are negligible on our environment and we don’t need to do anything about it.

Whatever their false position is on climate change, they are denying science. Peer reviewed scientific evidence proved that the average surface temperature of Earth has risen about 1.62 degrees (Celsius) since the mid 19th century, which is incredibly fast. The cause of the warming is because greenhouse gases (CO2 and Methane) in the atmosphere are retaining much of the Sun’s heat energy causing the Earth to get warmer. The vast majority of the non-renewable greenhouse gases come from human industrial processes driven by fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas, etc.) As a result, this warming effect is causing problems for all life on Earth in the form of higher temperatures, loss of arctic ice, mudslides, droughts, floods, wild fires, stronger storms with greater rainfall, acidification of the oceans and many more negative effects. There has been overwhelming evidence of this for several decades. Tens of thousands of climate scientists around the world subscribe to the conclusions from this evidence and new evidence supporting these conclusions is pouring in on a regular basis. In addition, there is no credible evidence that refutes these conclusions.

The deniers reject many of the facts I wrote in the previous paragraph. Eventually, we all run into someone who denies climate science. As science enthusiasts, what do we do when we meet a denier? It’s tempting to engage them in a discussion and try and change their mind. You would think that once presented with facts and evidence, they would see the light and come to our side. Unfortunately, this rarely happens and is almost impossible. It can be like asking someone to change their religion or political party.

Deniers can go on the internet and find much fuel for their ignorance. Here are some incorrect facts you will find:

  • The science is not settled.
  • In the past CO2 appeared after temperatures increased, not before.
  • The Sun is heating up and that is the cause of the extra heating on Earth.
  • The Earth’s orbit is changing and that is changing our climate.
  • Volcanos are the cause of the greenhouse gases.
  • The climate is always changing.
  • Mars is going through a warming cycle so that means Earth’s warming cycle must be natural because there are no power plants on Mars.
  • The Scientists are all lying to get funding.
  • The Scientists haven’t considered all the facts and evidence.

And on and on…

The above are real arguments that people are using to defend their ignorance. The reality is that, for someone to accept any or all of the above statements, then Climate Change is either the most elaborate and largest hoax in human history or that tens of thousands of scientists are too incompetent to find the right conclusion. Both of those statements are untrue and downright ridiculous.

One thing to remember when talking to a climate change denier is that it is like talking to a wall. For someone to ignore so much reality takes a determined closed mind. It’s very frustrating to deal with someone like that. If you do engage a denier, it’s important to not get angry, frustrated, or revert to calling them ignorant people no matter how tempting it is. That will get you nowhere. Even though I’ve rarely changed anyone’s mind, I personally find the conversations with deniers interesting. To avoid getting frustrated, I like to think of the denier person as an interesting new lifeform that I’m studying. Here are a few approaches I take when talking to one of these deniers.

GALILEO APPROACH: TAKE THE ARGUMENT OUTSIDE THE BOX

One debate technique that often works is to take a position that is so outrageously wrong that a person will start arguing in your direction. Argue a different scientific conclusion that is NOT climate change to demonstrate ignorance and the value of science.

Ask the question: “Does the Earth go around the Sun or does the Sun go around the Earth?” It is hard to know how someone will answer this question but any way they answer it they will either look dumb or agree that the Earth goes around the Sun. I then ask: “Why do you think the Earth goes around the Sun?” The hope is that they will admit that value of scientific evidence.

To help them out, I go into the story of how Galileo had proven that the Earth was NOT the center of the Universe and that the planets went around the Sun. And for many decades after this was proven, the masses didn’t accept his evidence and insisted on believing that the Earth was the center of the Universe. It’s amazing how ignorant people can be, right? Now let’s look at our own society and how climate change denial is similar to the Geocentric viewpoint in Galileo’s time. If you lived 400 years ago, which side would you have been on? Would you be on the scientifically correct side or the side of the incorrect belief system. There is no argument for going against science here. It is always interesting to see how a denier reacts to an objective situation.

POINT OUT THAT THERE IS NO DEBATE IN SCIENCE ON THIS SUBJECT

People talk about the “climate change debate” as if it is real. If you engage with a climate change denier and they start debating facts with you, it helps to point out that the only place that such a debate exists is among non-scientists. There is no debate on Climate Change among climate scientists or any scientists for that matter. The science is settled. To be more accurate, there is no debate as to whether or not the Earth is going through rapid warming or that it is caused by humans or that it is harmful for all life on Earth.

Climate scientists debate small details such as what would be the specific effects of an extra 2 degrees temperature increase on Earth or what will happen in the oceans as they become more acidic. These are the unknowns that are debated. Climate scientists are open minded to any new evidence but the people who present evidence against human caused climate change have no real evidence so they never present it to scientists. Their “evidence” only works on people who are less knowledgeable on climate science. Again, it is interesting to see if this blows the minds of the denier.

POINT OUT THAT THEY DON’T DENY THE SCIENCE. THEY DENY THE CONCLUSIONS

When someone says that they think there are problems with the science that prove climate change, they are actually saying that they have a problem with the conclusions. They don’t like the conclusion that says that humans must stop burning fossil fuels. They don’t have a problem with the science. Deniers often don’t understand or even care about the science. You might hear phrases like “Rising levels of atmospheric CO2 do not necessarily cause global warming” or “Earth’s climate has always changed” or “Global warming and cooling are caused by fluctuations in the Sun’s heat or the Earth’s orbit, not by human activity”. All of these arguments sound like someone who challenged the science and negates the conclusions of the Climate Scientists. The deniers don’t care about the science. They only care about the conclusions and they don’t like the conclusions. But it doesn’t sound good to say that you don’t like Climate Change conclusions because you want to keep burning fossil fuels. It sounds better to say that the science is flawed so they stick with flawed science-like arguments that make no sense.

HERE’S MORE PROOF THAT DENIERS DON’T CARE ABOUT THE SCIENCE

The way you know that the climate deniers don’t care about the science is because the only science that they dispute is the science that has conclusions that they don’t like. They ignore every other scientific conclusion found in their lifetime. Consider some recent scientific discoveries:

In February, 2016, physicists working at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) proved that gravity waves actually exist as predicted by Einstein’s General Relativity. Why aren’t the deniers raising a ruckus about this? Why don’t they claim that the “science isn’t quite proven” and cite some reasons challenging the assertions of the physicists? Because whether or not gravity waves exist makes no difference when it comes to harnessing energy from coal.

What about exoplanets? Astronomers discovered thousands of planets that they’ve confirmed orbit stars other than our Sun. Why is there no denier movement arguing that the scientists are making this up to get funding? It probably has to do with the fact that exoplanet discoveries make no difference if we put gasoline in our cars.

What about the Higgs Boson particle? In 2012, it was confirmed that the scientists at the CERN Large Hadron Collider found that the elusive boson particle exists. Why are there no deniers insisting that the results are wrong and that the scientists faked the results so that they could keep getting funding for their very expensive particle accelerator? It probably has something to do with the fact that it doesn’t hurt any fossil fuel business.

My favorite example is the science of plate tectonics. Plate tectonics is a proven theory that explains how the Earth’s continents move across the planet on top of enormous plates that are part of the Earth’s crust. Because different plates are crashing into one another at certain points on the Earth, we experience occasional earthquakes in places like California, Alaska, Mexico, and Japan. Geologists concluded that the cause of the earthquakes is plate tectonics. Humans are not responsible so all we can do is try and protect ourselves from these disasters created by nature. Everyone accepts this conclusion.

What if scientists reported that the cause of earthquakes was because of drilling for oil. Would people accept that conclusion or would they suddenly deny the science? We don’t have to imagine it. The most earthquake prone state in the United States of America is Oklahoma. Residents experience dozens of earthquakes a year in the state. The scientists determined that the cause of all the earthquakes is fracking for natural gas. This is where water and chemicals are injected deep underground to coax out methane gas to be used for energy production. As a result, this fracking destabilizes the ground and causes “man-made” earthquakes. And now, as expected, there is a denier movement around this conclusion. People with a financial interest in fracking insist that it is not responsible for the earthquakes. When the scientific conclusions are unpopular, people deny the science. If the conclusions show that we are not at fault, then people accept it. It’s always interesting to hear a denier’s response to this logic.

SCIENCE WILL ALWAYS WIN…EVENTUALLY

The final word here is that scientific ignorance is here to stay as long as people have their own agendas. We have to accept that many people we will encounter in life will choose ignorance. Many deniers will hold onto ignorance their whole lives. It sometimes takes generations before truth is accepted by the people. Younger generations always have more open minds. But what do we do with the older generations? We can either ignore their ignorance or do something about it. For me, I choose to educate.

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