The choice of whether or not to discuss the dreaded topic of climate change at the Thanksgiving table isn’t a new dilemma. Everyone tenses up as your cousin starts their rant again about the “conspiracy” of climate change. Your palms start to sweat. You feel like you need to say something — right? “No politics at the dinner table” just doesn’t sit right with you anymore. Climate change is a fact based on rigorous research conducted across many fields of science. But if this conversation blows up, it’s not the kind of situation your sibling’s famous pumpkin pie just smooths over.
Does this situation sound familiar to you? Then you might be suffering from what we call, “How do I talk to my loved one about climate change?!” syndrome. This guide has been prepared for you by UC Santa Barbara scientists to assist you through the next few months of family and friend get-togethers. You know what our planet is facing, but how do you communicate the facts? How do you meet your relatives and friends where they are? How do you maintain this relationship when the future of our planet is at risk?
This guide is not a cure-all for a climate change denier. Rather, the hope is that you will find tools to help you feel better equipped to engage in disagreements and gain a deeper understanding of your loved ones, find common ground and maybe even guide them in the direction of truth. Through these conversations you — better than any scientist — have the opportunity to find and address misinformation, misunderstanding and fear.
Here are the facts to get us on the same page.
First, unlike rhetoric heard from the Trump administration, one cannot “believe” in climate change. Climate change is not a religion, and science is not a faith. There is extensive research and data supporting the reality of climate change. However, climate change is a very complex issue to understand and mitigate. Thus, there is an equally complex and multi-layered continuum of knowledge and attitudes one can have about climate change and climate change action.
Second, scientific evidence shows that — as one element of the changing global climate — humans have already raised the planet’s average surface temperature by about 1°C (1.8°F). The scientific community agrees that these changes are largely due to human emissions. In the highest emissions scenarios modeled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its last report, global mean temperature could increase by over 4°C (7.2°F) by the end of the century.
David Lea, distinguished professor, climate advocate and climate researcher in the UCSB Earth Science Department, illustrated the magnitude of change with a comparison: “The Earth, as a whole, cooled by about 5°C during the ice ages. About half of it was due to a greenhouse gas reduction.” This data shows that atmospheric processes — exactly like the ones humans are contributing to now — led to massive changes to our planet’s climate.
“An ice age is a really big change … there were ice sheets stretching from Seattle to Long Island,” Lea said.
Another important distinction is that patterns of local and regional weather do not equate to those of the global climate across a long period of time. While weather refers to the day-to-day precipitation or temperature, climate refers to the weather averaged over a period of 30 years. So, while some places will experience some cold weather abnormalities, this is not evidence that contradicts climate change. The planet as a whole is warming, and it is virtually certain that cold extremes will decrease over time. Everyone can and will feel these alterations firsthand.
Finally, our current climate change is substantially caused by human consumption of fossil fuels and the resulting emissions. The burning of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution has greatly increased the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere (carbon dioxide by 47% and methane by 250%). These additional gases are some of the best at trapping incoming solar radiation, warming our planet like a car with rolled-up windows on a summer afternoon. To continue with this car analogy, you are now starting to feel the rising heat, you cannot roll down the windows and, for whatever reason, some of your fellow passengers refuse to acknowledge the increasing heat. If you do not figure out how to talk to them, everyone will suffer the consequences.
How do you start a conversation about climate change? Understanding and common connections.
The first goal of this conversation is to establish common ground — don’t bring up facts right away. Why and how do you establish common ground? For the same reason you are the one who needs to broach the topic of climate change. You are family. You are a friend. What values do you agree on? For some, this might be a responsibility to future generations to maintain the same wilderness and quality of life. For others, this might be a fear of the loss of stability in the future with increasing natural disasters or the instability of our coastal communities with sea-level rise. These are places where you can test the waters. Start to listen for the exact ways in which your loved one reasons through their denial of the reality of climate change. Listen to what your loved one thinks, what they fear and, importantly, where you agree.
Lea is currently working on a study focused on decarbonizing California’s transportation sector. As part of this work, he led a workshop last year in Bakersfield, the heart of much of the state’s oil industry. There, he found himself surrounded by climate change deniers. Lea chose to listen. At the end of their discussion he offered constructive advice where he thought it would be helpful: “In the end they said ‘We like you because you’re open minded.’ You have to be human and sympathetic and recognize the places you can make progress and other places you’re just not going to sell people,” Lea said.
Tamma Carleton, an assistant professor and researcher at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management and a leading researcher in the Climate Impact Lab, has had similar experiences with climate change deniers. “The unhelpful instinct that I have found in myself is to turn on my professor hat and start lecturing about all the things I know. That doesn’t create a conversation. A fire hose of information is not convincing if it isolates you from your conversation partner,” Carleton recommended. “Try to meet your conversation partner on the level that they’re at and provide information when it’s helpful or asked for.”
So, this is where you begin. Set the stage for a productive conversation by first understanding where your loved one is coming from. From this place of understanding, you can then challenge falsehoods while acknowledging the fear, the anger and the unknown. Below, I have compiled a short list of some of the many arguments, from many, you may face.
Denial argument 1: Climate change isn’t real — it’s a hoax.
Those who completely deny the reality of climate change are a shrinking percentage of the population. “We need to keep in mind that the ardent climate deniers [in the United States] are a small population. By most recent reports it was 11% and it’s declined to 7% over the last five years… researchers refer to this group as ‘disproportionately influential,’” Ronald Rice, a professor and researcher of environmental communication and the Arthur N. Rupe Chair in the Social Effects of Mass Communication in UCSB’s Department of Communication since 2004, said. Rice is referring to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication’s report on Global Warming’s Six Americas, a survey in the United States on the variability of awareness, understanding and acceptance of climate change. This kind of outright denial may not be a position you can completely shift, but there are still opportunities to connect.
First, climate change is agreed upon and supported by several organizations, industries and scientific institutions around the world and across party lines. Even top oil industries that profit from fossil fuel consumption agree that climate change requires action, including BP, ExxonMobil, Shell and more. Thus, the first opportunity lies in finding a source that your loved one trusts. Otherwise, “it’s easy to deny source credibility if you already disagree with [the fact],” explained Rice.
Considering this information, Rice invited a retired admiral from the U.S. Navy for a science communication conference he helped organize in 2013. The admiral warned of the danger to naval bases from sea-level rise and the implications for national security as a whole. Rice described the invitation as an opportunity to provide “an interesting argument that doesn’t speak to economic issues, but speaks to other kinds of issues that are very salient to conservative deniers.” The key here is to find other climate advocates who your loved one would inherently trust based on shared values and goals.
Other connections that can be made with an outright denier are the more visceral and immediate effects of climate change, which are evident in the increasing number of natural disasters and lives lost. “The amount of emissions that we’ve already put into the atmosphere means that climate change is happening. It’s no longer an issue that you have to say, let’s talk about our grandkids,” noted Carleton, whose lab quantifies today’s socioeconomic costs of climate change.
Californians have felt an onslaught of these impacts in the last decade with prolonged drought and unrelenting fire seasons. The impacts have immediate and visible effects on our state’s physical safety and food security. Yes, we have mismanaged our fire-adapted forests with decades of fire suppression, and we have continued to build our cities and homes without buffer into our chaparral and wooded spaces. However, there is no doubt — our warmed climate has dried out our green spaces so severely that they are ready to burn with the tiniest spark.
In reality, everyone will experience or is already experiencing the effects of climate change: homes lost to fires, hurricanes and rising sea-levels; decreased water access with changing precipitation patterns; reduced crop production with water loss and increased temperature; higher mortality from rising temperatures — the list goes on.
Denial argument 2: Sure, climate is changing, but it’s a natural process.
The idea of climate being a human-caused phenomenon is daunting. It may create conflicting emotions of anger or shame, as accepting that climate change is caused by humans would also mean accepting responsibility or guilt. Moreover, a challenge in understanding climate change is the scale of the problem. How can we imagine the history of the Earth’s climate when we have only witnessed our own lifetimes? How can we grasp the entire globe’s climate when we can only experience where we are? The opportunity to connect here is thinking about what we know about human activities and then expanding to the research.
The scale to which humans have changed the environment is shocking, but it is not impossible to fathom. Look at every continent on the planet — no other animal has been capable of the kind of infrastructure and ecosystem engineering humans have accomplished in the last several hundred years.
“Just take a look at a picture of the Earth from space at night,” Lea said. “The fact that CO2 has been elevated in the air that is everywhere — there is no untouched part of the planet … we are everywhere. We are in everything.”
According to the last report released by the IPCC in 2014, climate researchers agree that it is extremely likely that the majority of the observed warming can only be accounted for with human activity. Moreover, over 97% of scientists agree with this finding across thousands of peer-reviewed publications.
“We can confidently demonstrate that the degree to which we’ve altered the composition of the atmosphere is in agreement with the warming we see,” Lea said. When modeling the causes of observed warming, natural processes like solar radiation, internal planet warming and other theories do not account for the Earth’s current warming. Here you can connect lines of thinking. Human activity is responsible for increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution. These greenhouse gases are the dominant driver of observed and projected climate change.
First, agree that humans have impacted the entire globe in very visible ways. Then, challenge misinformation with the consensus of the vast majority of the scientific community, who agree that it is extremely likely (over 95% probability) that this warming is a largely the result of human emissions.
Denial argument 3: How can we be sure that climate change is real if scientists themselves aren’t sure?
Throughout the Trump Administration, our president and vice president dismissed or misinterpreted the scientific understanding of climate change. This is not accidental. Over the last four years, the Trump Administration has routinely undermined and questioned science by using the complicated idea of uncertainty to their advantage. However, the different sources of uncertainty are well-addressed by climate researchers and they should be acknowledged.
First, uncertainty can lie in the precision of tools used by researchers. Confidence intervals and estimates do their best to account for these unknowns and give us as much reason and reliability as possible. Rice explained, “For instance, if you look at climate predictions, they’re going to give you a range … for example, ‘we’re actually 95% confident that it’s going to be in this range.’” Carleton added that modelers give these ranges of estimates “to explicitly try to capture those forms of uncertainty.”
Second, uncertainty lies in the future and the unknowables like human behavior and the unpredictability of climate systems. Carleton said, “You should be worried about uncertainty, because this is a very complicated problem that requires us to think about the future, which is inherently challenging. However,” she continued, “we should be reassured that hundreds and thousands of researchers are focused on this problem. With dramatic explosions of data and computing power, we’ve been able to make a lot of progress on narrowing those uncertainties.”
Third, uncertainty can also lie in consensus. However, this is not an issue for climate researchers. Scientists are not uncertain that the climate is changing. As mentioned above, 97% or more of published papers agree that humans are the dominant cause of climate change. Scientific organizations from nearly 200 different countries endorse this position. Scientists are sure.
Uncertainty is a subject of great importance to climate researchers, but the sources are understood and the margins of unknown are decreasing every day.
What you’re up against: a mindset rather than a misunderstanding.
In summary, climate change is happening. We can see this with our own eyes — there is scientific evidence and worldwide consensus. Given the evidence and media coverage available at the click of a button, climate change denial often stems from something more complex than just not being aware of the facts.
Climate change has, unfortunately, become a partisan issue when it is in fact a nonpartisan reality. Often, a person’s political affiliation can inform their view on climate change. Much like the public’s understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a disconnect between the facts of the situation and the actions necessary to solving that issue.
To engage with others, one needs to know more about the mindset that forms and enforces climate change denial. As Eric Smith, professor and researcher in environmental policy and public opinion with the UCSB Political Science Department, said, our opinions are formed “mostly from our parents, our friends, our coworkers, in college and beyond.” Thus, the people and the media people choose to surround themselves with are vital to their understanding of the world and their ability to accept ideas.
“They hear maybe from friends, maybe on the radio about climate change being a hoax and they easily believe it. Partly because [they are] surrounded by people who are exactly like them, and they don’t get a real exchange of views — and that’s true on both sides,” Smith said.
In thinking again about Global Warming’s Six Americas, Rice warned that, “on the other side, the percentage of Amerians alarmed by climate change has risen to just 26% … that’s outrageous.” And he’s right. There are too many people spread across the spectrum of climate change denial or dismissal. And while the most ardent deniers may be too hard to reach, if close to 70% of the population is not on board with climate action, there is still much work to be done in order to avoid catastrophe.
The importance of these conversations cannot be understated. We need to normalize discussing these contentious topics. We need to normalize feeling uncomfortable and pushing ourselves and others out of our respective comfort zones. These conversations spark real change.
Reason for hope.
Researchers I spoke with for this piece are hopeful about our future. But where do they find hope in a sea of inaction and denial? Well, for one, in everyday Earthlings’ growing awareness of climate change. When you first read the title of this article, you likely had no doubt to what problem it references. What with all of the serious and urgent conversations surrounding climate action, it can be difficult to see the progress that has been made. This is a small but important marker of how climate change activists have moved the needle forward in recent years.
“I’ve looked at trust in scientists. I’ve looked at a lot of knowledge about sustainability [and] climate change. All those trends are moving into what I think of as a good direction. But public opinion isn’t enough alone to, at least in the short term, change things. We need people in office who accept science,” Smith explained. Individual awareness needs to be pushed toward knowledge and understanding. Only when we are all informed can we move toward policy and legislation that creates real change.
If climate action is a legacy we want to leave for future generations, climate conversations are more important than ever. And while your family might end up eating pumpkin pie in silence this year after things get a little too heated, there is room to learn and practice as we navigate these difficult discussions. Let your loved ones know that this is not a partisan issue — this is everyone’s planet and everyone’s future. Let your loved one know that you are a person who cares enough to talk with them and walk with them through the facts. Let them know that you are ready to talk when they are ready.
A version of this article appeared on pg. 11 of the November 12 print edition of the Daily Nexus.