How do we change the minds of climate deniers?

Megan Kennedy-Woodard  (left) and Dr Rachel McCloy (right) are experts in climate psychology (Megan Kennedy-Woodard/)
Megan Kennedy-Woodard (left) and Dr Rachel McCloy (right) are experts in climate psychology (Megan Kennedy-Woodard/)

The number of people who deny climate change is man-made is on the decline, but those who still refuse to face the facts can be particularly entrenched in their opinions.

Multi-million pound disinformation campaigns from fossil fuel companies, the politicians who support them, and influential climate deniers like Jordan Peterson, purposefully discredit science and the human behaviours that impact our planet.

They all offer solace to those who – understandably – find it difficult to engage with climate science and the horrifying consequences humanity will face if action is not taken.

So how do we speak to people who struggle to accept the scientific consensus on the climate crisis? What can we do to counter the twin problems of denial and disinformation?

Megan Kennedy-Woodard is a coaching psychologist and co-founder of Climate Psychologists. She is also the co-author of Turn the Tide on Climate Anxiety, Sustainable Climate Action for Your Mental Health and the Planet.

She says studies show more and more people are accepting that climate change is real and that humans are causing it.

“Evidence shows time and time again that this now transcends socio-political barriers. The climate crisis is no longer a ‘fear for the left wing’,” she said.

Her advice is to approach conversations with climate deniers with “curiosity and compassion”.

She adds: “Look for the common ground. The best thing we can do is speak to the human.

“There is a great opportunity to reframe climate action as something that is unifying and enjoyable, not something scary but empowering. Then people will feel more open and less defensive about it. Don’t tell people what to do and think, show them how great it is.”

Finding out what people’s priorities and problems are and offering to help with solutions is a great way of initiating change, Kennedy-Woodard adds.

For example, if they have children you can suggest litter picking at the local play park, or if they are struggling with energy bills help them find practical ways to keep costs down.

Influential media figures like Nigel Farage deny the extent of the climate crisis (AFP via Getty)
Influential media figures like Nigel Farage deny the extent of the climate crisis (AFP via Getty)

“Once we start people thinking about how engaging with the climate crisis can benefit them in the short term, it’s likely that it won’t stop there,” she said.

“Anne Marie Bonneau, the Zero Waste Chef, says, ‘People don’t stop using straws and end there’. It’s like a gateway into better climate choices.

“Talking about the climate is the best way to invite people to think about it. You don’t have to turn a denier into a full-on activist (but great if you are that persuasive). It’s about nudging people in the right direction.”

Dr Rachel McCloy, an Associate Professor in Applied Behavioural Science at the University of Reading, is an expert in the field of applying psychology to public policy issues.

She says the real issue is motivating people who do accept climate change but don’t do anything about it.

She said: “Though denial and misinformation do contribute to lack of action on climate, much bigger wins could happen from addressing the psychological barriers to action in the wider population (including among those in power) who already accept that climate change is a threat.

“This gap between beliefs and behaviour is arguably the most important challenge in our response to climate change.”

The Climate Reality Project, founded by former US Vice President and climate activist Al Gore, says asking climate deniers questions can help keep them open to the possibility of change, instead of making them feel lectured or judged.

In a blog entry, the organisation states: “Asking questions can also invite them to ask themselves how they came to believe what they do and why they still do, opening the door to the possibility of changing their own mind.

“By asking questions and learning what their concerns are, it can help you find points of middle ground where you may agree. For example, wanting a better planet for your kids, safe drinking water, and concerns about extreme weather in your area.

“Finding this common ground gives you the chance to connect on a human level and can help your family member see the conversation as a discussion between two people on the same team, instead of an argument between opposing sides.”

A final piece of advice comes from organisational psychologist and writer Adam Grant: know when to quit.

He said: “When you’re in a heated argument, stop and ask ‘What evidence would change your mind?’

“If the answer is nothing, there’s no point in cHow do we change the minds of climate deniers?ontinuing the debate. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it think.”