Confessions Of Former Climate Change Deniers

In late March, a person with the user name dquizzle posed this question on Ask Reddit: “Former climate change deniers, what changed your mind?” Reddit is not a scientific journal. The answers do not constitute an authoritative survey. But the Reddit thread got 635 comments (and counting). Writer Karin Kirk analyzed the answers and shared her analysis with Yale Climate Connections.

climate change induced collapse of civilization by 2040

Before beginning, a note is in order. No one is claiming Kirk’s analysis is scientifically or statistically valid. Nevertheless, it is a useful tool for understanding the factors climate change deniers base their beliefs on. That information could help others challenge those assumptions more effectively.

Kirk ends her discussion with perhaps the most cogent and useful advice of all. “Be nice,” she says. “None of the commenters lauded the effectiveness of flaming arguments, shaming, or condescending treatment. Letting go of a long-held belief is hard. We can support people and give them rational, relatable reasons to appreciate the science of climate change. We have the evidence and the credibility on our side. Let’s not squander the high ground.” Amen to that, Karin. Ready to learn more? Let’s go.

Family Values Most Common Source Of Science Resistant Beliefs

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Most people tend to adopt the worldview of their parents, family, and social group. Children of Democrats tend to be Democrats themselves. The same is true of Republicans. Religious beliefs and ethnic mores tend are transmitted from parents to children. The following comments were typical.

  • I denied it through middle school, mostly because my family rigorously shot it down whenever it was remotely mentioned.
  • I grew up actively and obnoxiously denying climate change because my dad told me it wasn’t real.
  • Raised Republican. Naturally, I believed climate change is leftist bullshit.
  • I was just in denial and didn’t want to concede any points to the other team.

An underlying fear of the problem contributed to denial as well:

  • I really doubted it for a while, because honestly it scared me. I figured if I just denied it and pretended it wasn’t a thing, it wouldn’t be and it would just go away.
  • I believed the ‘climate change is happening but humans aren’t the main cause’ bull. No idea why I thought it, guess it was just said enough and sounded good [because] it removed any blame from us (as a species).

Here are the four principal reasons people said they had changed their mind:

Science

Science was the key for the many people who changed their minds on climate change. The more they learned about human activities and greenhouse gas emissions, the less their faith in climate denial became. The relentless accumulation of data finally made the change of heart inescapable. The amount of measurable, observable proof was just too much to ignore.

  • For me it was when I saw a simple chart — world temp and world CO2 levels, on [a] marked timeline.
  • It’s just difficult for me to deny it with the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence that supports it. From what I’ve learned about the process it just makes too much sense to sound fake.
  • I started trusting what actual climate scientists said and not what politicians or political pundits were saying.
  • I’m not an expert so I need to take my lead from them. At a certain point it was no longer possible to deny it.

Many who changed their mind said the people discrediting climate science appear to be untrustworthy or conflicted. They switched sides based on which argument they perceived to be more credible.

Stewardship

Few are in favor of more pollution. The idea that people ought to take care of the planet struck a chord with more than a quarter of those who left comments on Ask Reddit. They mentioned stories of polluted skies, dying coral reefs, and collapsing glaciers as reasons to reassess their anti-climate change stance.

  • I’m just worried that future generations down the line … will look back and wonder why we didn’t do anything when we had a chance.
  • Whether you believe in climate change or not, shouldn’t we just take care of the planet regardless? Working against climate change would create advancements in technology and potentially a more sustainable energy source than fossil fuels.
  • I’d rather unnecessarily make the world a nice place to live than unintentionally contribute to making it less livable for many.

Wacky Weather

Many who left comments on Ask Reddit mentioned the weird weather taking place all around the world. First hand experience with changing weather can have a profoundly effect on people’s attitudes. As Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org writes in his book Oil And Honey, when people see the North Atlantic pouring into subway tunnels in Manhattan, it’s hard not to realize that something unusual is happening.

  • The past 3 or 4 years the weather has just been totally bizarre. Winters have been unusually warm, with flash major snow storms scattered throughout, and it’s gotten to the point where something just blatantly feels wrong about it.
  • The seasons get worse and worse every year at my local ski resort.
  • I started looking at winters and how there is less and less snow every year and that made me a believer.
  • It was 70 degrees in February and 20 degrees in March.

Public opinion researchers at Yale University and George Mason University find that 51 percent of Americans think global warming is harming people in the U.S. already, or will do so within the next 10 years. This outlook is particularly prevalent in the coastal states. Moreover, unusually warm weather patterns have been shown to increase people’s acceptance of climate change, at least temporarily.

Climate deniers are untrustworthy

Quite a few people commented that efforts by climate change deniers to discredit climate science often had the opposite effect, as they make the climate change denials seem motivated by political or financial gain.

  • I realized that many of the other people denying anthropogenic climate change were being funded by the fossil fuel industry and that almost everyone else — most importantly, the vast majority of climate scientists — agreed on the human cause.
  • I quickly discovered that every single argument meant to dismiss the science or discredit it was rooted in profound ignorance. Which makes sense in hindsight as how can we expect conservative bloggers to know anything about carbon isotopes, silicate weathering, aerosol dimming, albedo effects, mean resident times of green house gasses, etc.
  • Then I started thinking about it on my own and realized that everyone who was a “denier” had a vested financial interest in ignoring the problems of fossil fuels. Basically coal companies and oil companies.
  • The major deniers were becoming more and more just cranks.

Turning Points

Often it was one event or video that altered someone’s perception. Often it was a science class in high school or college. One person reported that after watching an Al Gore documentary in school, he did a lot of research trying to prove why Gore was wrong.  “Reading through many of the reports that were cited in the documentary, I was very surprised to realize that the documentary was not at all exaggerating. My view did a 180. I felt embarrassed for being so rude to my teacher when topics like this were discussed.”

Another said his point of view was altered by a video he saw at church which focused on the “importance of caring for the Earth as a gift from God and as a home for future generations. Until that point I had kinda developed the idea that liberals were the ‘bad guys’ but that video forced me to put a little more thought into things.”

Finding A Way Forward

Here are some final thoughts from Karin Kirk based upon her review of the Ask Reddit thread:

  • Don’t be afraid to rely on the enormous body of scientific evidence that climate change is happening right now.
  • Promote the value of taking care of the Earth, polluting less, and allowing future generations greater opportunities to flourish.
  • Leverage the general public trust in scientists while pointing out people’s skepticism about special interest groups.
  • Avoid being judgmental. Changing beliefs is hard. Take the high road and stick to it.

Once again, comments on an internet thread are not scientific evidence. But they can increase our understanding of climate change denial so we be more effective when confronting those who believe climate change is a Chinese plot. The US government is in the hands of confirmed climate deniers, many of whom have been elected thanks to outrageously large campaign contributions from fossil fuel interests. It is vital to convince as many as possible not to vote for such people in the midterm elections in 2018 and the next presidential election in 2020. We all need to put our shoulder to the wheel to see make sure only those who have the best interests of the people and the planet at heart are elected to public office both nationally and locally from this point forward.

Source: Yale Climate Connections






About the Author

writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island. You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.