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Thoughts on the Climate Conversation

questions.jpgScott Denning is not your average atmospheric scientist. He's one that likes to talk about climate change with hostile audiences filled with deniers. In fact, he's given two invited presentations at Heartland Institute conferences on the topic.

Speaking at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco this week, Denning, a professor at Colorado State University, provided a few words of wisdom to fellow scientists and communicators on what works and what doesn't when engaging climate change contrarians.

What doesn't work:

  • Ignoring climate change deniers. They don't go away.
  • Data deluge. Don't pull out the hockey stick graph - or any other one, for that matter. They've already been around that block, and they're not going to change their mind by going around it again.
  • Arguing from authority. If you try to position yourself as a scientist, contrarians are likely to simply peg you as part of the conspiracy.
  • Messages of fear or alarm. People tend to dismiss arguments that feel threatening.
  • A point-by-point refutation of their arguments. This will just lead you down a path of nuances that distracts and detracts from the simple key message.
What does work? Denning's advice:

  • Common sense. Denning starts out his conversations by asking, "Did you ever wonder why it's warm during the day and cool at night? Warm in the summer and cool in the winter? Warm in Miami and cool in Minneapolis?" Then he leads his listeners from there to an intuitive understanding of what the greenhouse effect is all about.
  • Recognize that denial is ideological, not factual. You can argue with facts, but you can't (successfully) argue with another person's beliefs.
  • Be yourself. Tell stories about your own experiences and how they have helped you understand climate change and its implications.
  • Stick to your message. Don't get "lost in the weeds" of the many dimensions of climate change. Keep it simple, direct and to the point.
"Respectful engagement on a human level is much more effective than appeals from authority, scientific consensus or numerical models," Denning noted in a summary of his talk. "Starting from a base of agreement on basic facts helps establish a basis of trust. ... Although a hard core of hostile individuals may not be swayed by such an approach, my experience was that this type of engagement can be very effective with ordinary people. I strongly encourage more climate scientists to work with public audiences and the media."

And maybe - with the right approach and attitude - even enjoy it.


I agree with much of Denning's approach, and I would add this:
One thing we have learned in the last couple of decades is that the solutions to global warming have intrinsic benefits that outweigh their costs - with an audience of deniers, I would decline to engage in the "If it exists" debate entirely and focus on jobs, energy security, losing the green economy race, etc.

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Recent Comments

  • Mary Hoff: Thanks for that great point, Michael. Makes me think of read more
  • Michael Kelberer: I agree with much of Denning's approach, and I would read more

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This page contains a single entry by Mary Hoff published on December 7, 2011 6:42 PM.

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