Winning over the climate change skeptics

Climate Change for Beginners: Winning Over the Skeptics (Part 3 of 4 )

By Kristin Marshall

Now that we’ve given some basic facts and evidence for global climate change (thanks to Sarah), it’s time to turn to the skeptics.  By skeptics, I mean people who have seen the evidence but still aren’t convinced.

Being skeptical is nothing new to the scientific community. In fact, we are trained to be inherently skeptical. The scientific method relies on constructing hypotheses, collecting data, and then determining whether the data support or refute the hypothesis. Repeating this process many times and submitting our work to journals (where research is subjected to anonymous review by our peers) is how we move science forward.  Sometimes, we even agree.  Even though the peer review system isn’t perfect, all of these steps mean that reaching consensus in the scientific literature is no trivial task.  This is one reason why when 97 percent of practicing climate scientists agree that climate change is real and human-caused, the broader scientific community takes notice.

But if you’re not a scientist, hearing that the vast majority of scientists agree on something can be off-putting rather than comforting.  This is at least partially because science in the US has a bit of an image problem.  Some members of our society distrust science and scientists because we can come across as insular, elitist, and condescending, preaching from our ivory tower.  There is also an anti-science political agenda that doesn’t have anything to do with facts and figures (read more in this great article in Scientific American).  The point is: using the argument that all scientists agree about climate change isn’t going to be enough to convince the skeptics.

Using technology to change minds

Since the “majority rules” argument doesn’t work for most climate change skeptics, we have to get a little more creative. Lucky for us, there are some really great resources out there that anyone can use to refute anti-climate change arguments.  One that I am quite taken with at the moment is Skeptical Science. They present a list of the most common arguments against climate change and respond with a one-line summary of why the statement is incorrect. You can then click through to get a more thorough explanation at either a “basic” or “intermediate” level.  It’s a “choose your own adventure” of debunking climate myths!  What makes it even better is that they have an iPhone app, so you can take this great resource with you anywhere and be ready at a moment’s notice to debate all but the most sophisticated climate skeptic.  I particularly like this app, because I don’t have to keep all the arguments and responses and facts in my head and yet can always have them at my fingertips.

Another cool use of technology to demonstrate widespread climate change is The Nature Conservancy’s Climate Wizard tool.  This website allows you to view changes in temperature or precipitation over the past 50 years on a map, from global scales down to your home state.  You can also see how models predict climate will change by selecting among predicted climate change scenarios from the IPCC and multiple Global Climate Models (GCMs). Here’s an example for Washington, where I live.

This is a great resource, because it allows anyone to look at the variation in predictions between models or between scenarios—communicating uncertainty is a huge hurdle we face as scientists. Also, being able to see how climate has changed over the past 50 years in their own state may help to convince some skeptics.

Skeptic turned believer

Just to show you that the data can prevail, I’ll wrap this up with an example of how skeptics can change their minds.  In an op-ed in the New York Times this summer, Richard Muller (a physicist at UC Berkeley and MacArthur Fellow) announced he had been converted.  More accurately, he converted himself from vocal skeptic to vocal proponent after spending several years studying the climate data with a team of researchers. Importantly, the research he did that convinced him climate change was real was funded by a grant from the Koch foundation, a conservative-leaning group that has backed multiple climate change denial efforts.  So his opinions probably weren’t influenced by his funders.

Now, we send you off to convince your families, neighbors, colleagues, and friends that global climate change is real.  One piece of Midwestern advice: stand your ground, but do your best to be polite.  Being a jerk can ruin your reputation as a trusted source of information, even if your facts are 100 percent right.

Be sure to check back later today as we wrap up our series with Mike’s post on why you really should care about climate change.  As if it was even possible that you aren’t already convinced by the first 3 posts!