Study Reveals Four ‘Pathways To Changing The Minds Of Climate Deniers’

STANFORD, Calif. — Those who believe in climate change typically do so wholeheartedly, while those who choose to deny its existence are similarly entrenched in their beliefs. Debating the validity of climate change with someone on the opposite end of the belief spectrum often feels futile. However, Stanford behavioral scientist Gabrielle Wong-Parodi believes she has uncovered four ways to stop climate change denial in its tracks.

Wong-Parodi wanted to learn more about why people deny the reality of climate change, mainly because she feels such beliefs are working against industrial changes that are needed around the world. She studied the psychological reasons why so many people ignore the overwhelming scientific consensus regarding climate change, and came up with four ways to sway them the other way. These four methods, or “pathways,” include appealing to deniers’ different identities, reframing solutions to the problem, and even embracing and acknowledging deniers’ own views.

“I think in the climate change sphere there’s this thinking of, ‘There’s the deniers over there, let’s just not even engage with them – it’s not worth it,’” says Wong-Parodi, lead author of the study and assistant professor of Earth System Science, in a media release. “A lot of the tactics and strategies start from the point that something is wrong with the climate deniers, rather than trying to acknowledge that they have a belief and opinion and it matters. But I think there is an opportunity to keep trying to understand one another, especially now.”

Wong-Parodi focused her research on what she referred to as “motivated denial,” defined as when someone denies plain facts placed in front of them. Researchers concluded that some people choose motivated denial because the truth about climate change stirs serious questions about their own self-worth, threatens their trusted financial institutions, and invokes a sense of unwanted responsibility.

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So while it may seem impossible to convince climate deniers, Wong-Parodi and her team explain these four effective approaches after surveying numerous peer-reviewed studies published over the past two years:

  1. Instead of focusing on the bleak statistics and scientific findings, reframe potential climate change solutions as methods of upholding and stabilizing society.
  2. Close the ideological divide by emphasizing the purity of the Earth, rather than the harm we are currently inflicting.
  3. Talk about the scientific consensus on climate change with certain trusted individuals.
  4. Encourage people to openly share their values and stance on climate change before introducing actual scientific climate information into the discussion.

According to Wong-Parodi, the fourth approach is the most intriguing because there has been less research done in that area than the others. Thus, it could have the highest potential for behavioral change. People’s self-affirmation is challenged when faced with climate change facts because they must consider their own contribution to the problem, which often causes people to react defensively.

“A good portion of people who deny climate change recognize that there is some change, but the change is so threatening because it basically could affect your quality of life. It could affect your income. It could affect a number of different things that you care about,” Wong-Parodi explains.

The researchers believe that the best way to get around the emotions and identity issues surrounding climate change denial is to embrace the other side’s views. This allows us to not ignore who people are, and instead acknowledge them, so their views can be dealt with and the conversation can then shift to climate solutions everyone can agree on.

“I think we often forget that people can have many identities – there might be a political identity, but there is also an identity as a mother, or an identity as a friend or an identity as a student,” Wong-Parodi concludes. “You can elicit other identities when you’re talking about climate change that may be more effective.”

The study is published in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability.

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