JAN 14, 2020 4:54 AM PST

That awkward conversation: climate change

New research published in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability takes a psychological angle at understanding why people deny climate change. Focused on people who are “motivated deniers,” or those that know or have access to the facts but still deny the facts, the research aims to engage in respectful ways with people of differing opinions.

"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,'" said behavioral scientist Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, lead author of the paper. Wong-Parodi is an assistant professor of Earth system science at Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). "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."

Based on a psychological review of motivated deniers’ opinions, Wong-Parodi developed four strategies that aim to make climate deniers rethink their stances. They are as follows:

1. Reframing solutions to climate change as ways to uphold the social system and work toward its stability and longevity

2. Reducing the ideological divide by incorporating the purity of the Earth, rather than how we harm or care for it

3. Having conversations about the scientific consensus around climate change with trusted individuals

4. Encouraging people to explicitly discuss their values and stance on climate change prior to engaging with climate information

According to the researchers, accepting the anthropological role in climate change is difficult for many because it “questions self-worth, threatens financial institutions and is accompanied by an overwhelming sense of responsibility.”

"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," said Wong-Parodi.

How do you sway a climate denier's mind? New research proposes four psychological approaches. Photo: Pixabay

This threat to personal identity stands in the way of behavior change, explains the study. Instead of destroying the safe paradigms that people live within and exposing them to sudden, frightening change and responsibility (which in itself often triggers behaviors of self-defense and causes one to close off further), the research suggests that conversations try to embrace others’ views. By doing so, we can come to understand what parts of a denier’s opinions have space for wiggle room in terms of behavioral changes that don’t threaten their identity or quality of life.

"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," said Wong-Parodi. "You can elicit other identities when you're talking about climate change that may be more effective."

Sources: Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, Science Daily

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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