Question of the Week

How Do I Talk to a Climate Change Denier?

September 26, 2022 BU Today Season 2 Episode 19
How Do I Talk to a Climate Change Denier?
Question of the Week
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Question of the Week
How Do I Talk to a Climate Change Denier?
Sep 26, 2022 Season 2 Episode 19
BU Today

We all know someone—perhaps an uncle or a friend’s mom on Facebook—who is a climate change denier. Although the science is clear, misinformation still runs rampant, says Arunima Krishna, COM assistant professor of mass communication, advertising, and public relations, who studies public perceptions of climate change. In this episode, Krishna explains how climate misinformation spreads, who believes it, and how to engage with people who deny climate change. 

This episode uses clips from here, here, here, here, and here

Have a question or topic idea for a future episode? Send an email to Bonus points if you attach a voice memo with your question.

Show Notes Transcript

We all know someone—perhaps an uncle or a friend’s mom on Facebook—who is a climate change denier. Although the science is clear, misinformation still runs rampant, says Arunima Krishna, COM assistant professor of mass communication, advertising, and public relations, who studies public perceptions of climate change. In this episode, Krishna explains how climate misinformation spreads, who believes it, and how to engage with people who deny climate change. 

This episode uses clips from here, here, here, here, and here

Have a question or topic idea for a future episode? Send an email to Bonus points if you attach a voice memo with your question.

Exxon Advertisement from 1980: "What's being done to find more oil in America?

This Exxon platform sits above a major California oilfield. Next year, it will begin producing enough oil to supply the needs of 300,000 people for years to come..."

Dana Ferrante: This is Question Of the Week, from BU Today.

Jessica Colarossi: Climate change denial and misinformation have been around since scientists first began documenting the causes and dangers of climate change. As early as the 1950s, scientists warned of the harmful impacts of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions like excess carbon dioxide and methane. And in the decades after, to mislead the public, fossil fuel companies have funded and carried out misinformation campaigns.

Exxon Lobbyist Keith McCoy speaking to Greenpeace U.K. in 2021: "Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes. Did we join some of these shadow groups to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that's true."

Colarossi: And slow any progress of transitioning the world away from fossil fuels, which the majority of scientists agree, needs to happen to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Even today, 139 members of Congress refuse to acknowledge human-caused climate change as real, despite public support for solutions.

I'm Jess Colarossi, science writer for The Brink. In this episode, I talk to Arunima Krishna, ann assistant professor at Boston University's College of Communication. Arunima studies public perceptions of social issues, like climate change, to better understand who is most vulnerable to misinformation, and who spreads it.

We discuss the origins of climate misconceptions and how to effectively engage with people who deny climate change. 

Arunima, thank you so much for being here.

Arunima Krishna: Yeah, my pleasure.

Colarossi: We can jump right into some of the big questions we have for you. I think our first question is one that a lot of people tend to think about, especially right now when climate change seems so ever-present in our lives.

So, how do I talk to a climate change denier? And in other words, what are the best practices that you could share when engaging with someone who denies the existence of climate change, and how has your research informed the answer?

Krishna: Based on my research, I can tell you that one of the things that you have to do before you try to engage, or you try to convince somebody that climate change is real, is to understand their perspective first.

So there are three things that I suggest that you understand before you try to engage them in a conversation about climate change. First, how strong are their attitudes about climate change? Second, how motivated are they about climate change as a topic? And third, what kinds and to what extent have they accepted misinformation about climate change?

And let me clarify this last point, because there are a variety of different topics of misinformation related to climate change that are abundant out there. So there are things like misinformation that is all about climate change scientists and how they're alarmist, they're out to make money out of climate change, and they are not reliable.

Donald Trump at a rally on Decemeber 30, 2015: "So Obama is talking about all of this with global warming and that-th—it's a lot of, it's a hoax, I mean it's a money making industry, okay? It's a hoax."

Krishna: There is another set of misinformation about how climate change is not happening because the weather changes every year, so climate can't possibly change.

So there's this conflation of climate with weather. Similarly, the weatherman is always wrong. How can these climate scientists be right about these alarmist possibilities?

Ted Cruz in an interview with CNN in 2016: "And the problem with climate change is there's never been a day in the history of the world in which the climate is not changing."

CNN Interviewer: "So you don't believe that there's any man-made reason for global warming or climate change?"

Cruz: "What I think is the data are not supporting what the advocates are arguing."

Krishna: There's another set of misinformation that talks about: okay, maybe climate change is really happening, but we can't really do anything about it and all of these policies to make it go away won't really work.

So there's that set of climate change misinformation. In order to tackle or convince anyone that this misinformation is not real and that climate change is very much happening and we can do something about it, is to understand where their attitudes, where their climate change denial is coming from.

And when you take the three things together—attitudes, motivation, misinformation acceptance—that's when you can get to a broader understanding of the level to which you may be able to convince somebody or not. Think about this: if you have somebody who's extremely motivated about climate change, they identify as a climate change denier, they spout all kinds of conspiracy theories about climate change—you're not really going to convince them about your perspective.

So, that's when you have to weigh the trade-off between you spending all of your resources—you know, time, effort, money, blood pressure—on trying to convince this person, when they're really unlikely to accept your viewpoint. But if you have somebody who's more tentative about their attitudes towards climate change, they may be more willing to listen to you, and the kinds of things that they have accepted as misinformation are easily correctable, that's when you know that you may be able to engage with that person in a conversation about climate change.

And so that's what my research has shown, that the broader population consists not just of the loud voices that we hear regularly on different kinds of media spouting climate change conspiracy theories—they're a small minority, in fact, they're just very loud, so we think they're everywhere. Most of the population instead can be classified into what I refer to as "disinformation-vulnerable" and "disinformation-receptive" individuals.

And so, those are the folks that we can try to talk to, and we can identify them by just engaging them in a conversation to understand their perspective.

Colarossi: Can you explain the difference actually between climate change disinformation, the people who amplify it, and those who, like you just said, are vulnerable, which sounds like that's actually the majority.

Krishna: Absolutely. So, disinformation-amplifying folks are the ones that I just talked about earlier, right? They're the folks who are extremely motivated about the topic, have extreme attitudes, and have accepted a whole bunch of misinformation about it. We all have the fun uncle on Facebook who's posting all kinds of stuff about how climate change is a left wing conspiracy, about how it's a liberal East Coast conspiracy to suppress the Midwest, and so on and so forth.

That's not somebody you're really going to be able to engage with in an effective manner. Those folks are who I refer to as disinformation-amplifiers. Your disinformation-vulnerable folks are folks who may or may not be motivated. They may demonstrate tentative indications of having accepted some misinformation, but haven't really yet developed extreme attitudes about the issue.

And so when you think about this in the context of vaccines, you can easily see where this is going. And so, that's the real difference between amplifiers and those who are vulnerable: amplifiers are folks who may not be worth anybody's time, because they're so far into their belief systems that you're not really going to change those belief systems at this point.

Colarossi: And like you said, too, that isn't the majority of Americans at this point.

Krishna: It isn't; the reason why I call them "amplifiers," or we call them "amplifiers," is because they're very motivated to spread the misinformation that they have accepted. So they want to spread the message that climate change is not real, that it's a left wing conspiracy, that it's a way to suppress oil production, and so on and so forth.

Colarossi: Why do people deny climate change? What is that motivator that gets people so fired up?

Krishna: That's a complex question, as you can imagine. I'll start by talking about how climate change denial is a very well-funded industry. There is an industry and mechanism behind climate change denial that has been used for years to get people to believe that climate change science is fake.

And, there is evidence that fossil fuel companies have funded this kind of work, that certain propagandist agencies have supported this work. And what they've done is they've learned from the example of the tobacco industry, back in the ’70s and ’80s, and taken from their work, learned from it, to sow doubt into climate change science.

And so once that misinformation, that doubt about the science takes root, it creates a mental model. And once that mental model is created, it's very difficult to break through that mental model and provide alternate explanations that will be accepted. That's why it becomes such a difficult thing to correct, because not only has the campaign to deny climate change and sow doubts in the minds of the people about climate change been prolonged and very well-funded, it's been successful.

Colarossi: Sometimes, honestly I feel a little jealous of people who just openly deny climate change because I'm like, I wish, I wish it were true. It has been this successful campaign.

Andy Hallock: Hey listeners, this is Andy Hallock, producer and engineer at BU Today. We really hope you've been enjoying this episode of Question of the Week and we want to thank you for tuning in. If you're able, share an episode or give us a follow wherever you listen to podcasts. We greatly appreciate your support. Now, back to the show.

Colarossi: You mentioned Facebook, and I wanted to ask, too: where does climate change disinformation, misinformation, mostly circulate and reach people?

Krishna: I mean, it's available everywhere, right?

And I am not an expert on algorithms, you'll have to talk to my colleagues over in [the College of Engineering] about that. It's available really anywhere that you look for it, including the ways in which certain fossil fuel companies will do their advertising, where they will include information that is misleading, that leads people to believe that there is such a thing as clean coal.'s Clean Coal ad from 2008: “...But first we have to say so long to our outdated perceptions about coal. And we have to continue to advance new clean coal technologies, to further reduce emissions, including the eventual capture and storage of CO2. If we don't, we may have to say goodbye to the American way of life we all know and love.

Clean Coal: America's power.”

Krishna: This term "clean coal"—there is no such thing as clean coal based on my understanding of the science. But it's enough, it provides enough people with enough justification to say, "Yeah coal is fine, this company said it was clean." 

To answer your question though: climate change misinformation, you can find it anywhere just because it's not really regulated.

Colarossi: Like the advertising, you mean, is not really regulated?

Krishna: Not necessarily just the advertising, but you can find posts on Facebook, on Twitter, on various kinds of social media that get amplified, but then the correction of that post doesn't get amplified. That's the case with any disinformation [or] misinformation posts, where the original post gets a lot of virality, gets a lot of coverage, but any corrections or retractions of the original post or news story don't.

And that's a problem that we're confronting as disinformation and misinformation researchers.

Colarossi: Thank you for explaining this whole topic so clearly; it's so complicated. Going back to our first question of how do I talk to a climate change denier? I just wanted to poke at that more, and see if there's anything else you wanted to add, of understanding where someone's coming from, and then responding based on that.

Krishna: Yeah, so in terms of just some strategies to counter the misinformation that people talk about. So first, arming yourself with some ideas and some arguments, doing your own research about the kinds of pieces of misinformation that are out there, as well as ways that you can argue against them, is something that is important.

Be prepared. But also, I always suggest as a last resort: ask, "So what? What is the downside of accepting that climate change is real, and trying to make investments in making sure that the air is clean, making sure that there is little to no pollution? What is the downside of investing in renewable energy?

The job offsets can be made mostly equivalent: what's the downside? We'll get clean air, we'll hopefully get clean water, how is that a bad thing?"

Colarossi: That's a great answer. [Laughs]

Krishna: Hopefully that's one that works. [Laughs]

Colarossi: What's next for you and your research on climate change misinformation?

Krishna: So, we recently, a team of us social scientists as well as engineers and scientists from across the University, won a research grant from [the Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering] and the Institute for Global Sustainability. And it focuses on climate change misinformation and how to address it.

And so, that's something that we're working on right now. It's a three-phase project that focuses on understanding misinformation about climate change on Reddit, on Twitter, and on different kinds of social media. Understanding how native advertising against climate change, or native advertising by fossil fuel companies, helps fuel climate change misinformation.

And then what I will focus on in this project is ways in which we can correct climate change misinformation among those different publics that we talked about earlier. So, disinformation-vulnerable, receptive and amplifying publics, and what strategies for corrections work the best among these publics, across different kinds of media.

Colarossi: That sounds so interesting, thank you so much for being here. This was great!

Krishna: Yeah, my pleasure!

Colarossi: Thanks to Arunima Krishna for joining us on this episode of Question of the Week. To learn more about our numerous ongoing climate change myths and disinformation research, check out the links in the show notes.

This episode was engineered by Andy Hallock, produced by Dana Ferrante, and edited by Doug Most and Andrew Thurston. Thanks for listening, and see you in two weeks.