Starting the Conversation – Five Tips on How to Talk to Climate Deniers in Your Family
From extreme weather events to record-breaking heat, the evidence of how our climate is changing is right in front of us, but some people still won’t see these signs for what they are.
As hard as it can be to hear denial when it comes from someone close to you, your relationship means you can play a key role in opening their mind in ways that scientists, media voices, or others can’t. You may not be able to change their mind in the moment – and in fact, really trying to change their mind will probably make them just shut down and harden their beliefs. But you can start the process of internal questioning that may lead your loved one to revisit – and maybe even ultimately abandon – their convictions themselves.
So, here are some tips on how to break the ice and talk to the climate deniers in your family.
1. Introduce the topic casually – and ask lots of questions
Instead of starting off strong, mention climate change in a casual conversation about an entirely different topic or by talking about current events, like extreme weather or an upcoming election. This makes it easier to transition into a conversation about a serious topic and gauge your family member’s interest in the topic.
Did your family member mention climate change in a conversation? Use this as an opportunity to get an understanding of what their concerns are and where they’re coming from.
Denial in many cases doesn’t start with what people believe about the science per se, but what they believe about themselves and who they are. Beginning by asking questions and truly listening to the answers tells your family member that you respect them as an individual, even if you disagree with their position.
Asking questions can help keep them open to the possibility of change, instead of making them feel lectured to or judged (and we all know how well we respond to that feeling). 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 themselves.
If you’re looking for more resources on responding to common misconceptions or climate denial arguments, we recommend some videos on Professor Katharine Hayhoe’s YouTube channel!
2. Find points of connection and similarity
Just the words “climate change” can create arguments with some climate deniers – but for many, their beliefs come from a place of concern or misinformation.
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, like wildfires and hurricanes, 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.
Then, in the conversation, validate their point of view when possible and focus on your shared experience and perspectives, connecting climate to what they know and care about. Seeing you do makes it much more likely they’ll listen to you with an open mind and your message can be heard.
This is a two-sided conversation and dialogue, after all, so using this connection allows for an opportunity to instill a sense of urgency about these connection points, hopefully inspiring your family member to learn more and take action.
3.Come prepared with evidence – but know when to back off
Making solid counterarguments against climate denial and misinformation starts with being informed. For many family members and loved ones, they may be living in an information or filter bubble online or off, where they only see and hear opinions and information that reflects their existing beliefs.
Getting someone to move past the talking points they’ve heard time and time again can be tough. The psychologist Adam Grant has a suggestion, though. Ask one simple question:
“What evidence would change your mind?”
If the answer is “nothing,” well there’s nothing you can say or do.
But if they come back with specifics, that’s when coming prepared with evidence and fact-checked news articles puts you in a good position to refute misinformation respectfully. It’s important to frame this information correctly, while not repeating their incorrect claims at the same time – by repeating their claims, it continues to reinforce their beliefs.
Say your loved one gets resistant – it’s bound to happen for many of us – it’s okay to back off. Know when things are getting tense and shift the conversation to something else can allow tensions to cool down. It can also help you avoid triggering what psychologists call “the backfire effect,” the phenomenon where people hearing evidence that disproves their closely held beliefs feel personally threatened – and only cling on tighter than ever.
4.Make it personal and share your story
First and foremost, it’s important to remember you’re talking to a family member, not a stranger or a coworker, and you have an existing bond with this person. Call on that family connection and make it personal. One of the best ways to do this is by sharing your climate story, why do you care about the climate crisis, how does it impact you, what are your concerns?
Many of us shared values with our family members as well as heritage. We all want the best for our loved ones, and simply agreeing on that is a start towards a larger climate conversation.
5.Continue the conversation
Don’t look at this as a one-time conversation and an argument you have to win then and there. In fact, this could be a long process of educating and challenging your family member’s existing misconceptions about the climate crisis. There’s a time and place for every conversation, so make sure not to push too hard (while also continuing to make progress!)
If all else fails, remind them that you care about them and that their concerns are valid – after all, the only way we will fight the climate crisis is by joining together.
Want to learn more about how to fight the climate crisis, starting with a conversation?
It’s clear we don’t have a moment to waste when it comes to taking climate action. But we have a unique opportunity this year to make a real change – starting with the White House and Congress.
This April, we’re hosting the Climate Reality Leadership Corps Virtual US Training, hosted by our founder and chairman, former Vice President Al Gore. We’ll be joined by renowned climate scientists, community leaders, justice advocates, and more – where you’ll gain the tools, skills, confidence to fight for climate action in the US and beyond.