How to persuade climate change deniers to change their mind

·3-min read
Village of Mora in the province of Toledo, Castilla la Mancha, Spain, Europe.
A study has thrown light onto why people deny climate change. (Getty)

How do you argue with climate change deniers? A study has thrown light onto why people deny climate change – and how to change their minds.

The research suggests that those hoping to change people's minds should focus not on the loudest climate change deniers, but on the people with the potential to be persuaded.

Focusing on 645 Americans, researchers found that older people are more susceptible to climate disinformation.

It also found that those who have absorbed and accepted climate change disinformation are the most likely to speak out on the subject.

Professor Arunima Krishna, a Boston University College of Communication researcher, said: "I think a lot of folks don't see how close to home climate change is.

"Even though we're seeing climate refugees, hurricanes, and other disasters, there is still a level of distance from the problem."

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Krishna's survey found that seven in 10 people who are susceptible to believing climate disinformation self-identified as politically conservative.

In contrast, eight in 10 Americans who self-identified as liberal were found to be immune to disinformation about climate change.

Krishna also detected a difference in age between those who were more susceptible to disinformation and those who were not.

More than half of the respondents immune to false information about climate were under 45.

And those more receptive to climate disinformation were, on average, over the age of 46.

Krishna categorised the survey results into four different groups.

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The first segment, made up of people she called the "disinformation immune", have not accepted any disinformation about climate change and humans' role in it, and they likely never will.

The second group, the "disinformation vulnerable", have negative attitudes about how humans are influencing climate. While they haven't yet accepted disinformation, they could.

The third group, the "disinformation receptive", have accepted false information about climate change already. 

Lastly, the fourth group, the "disinformation amplifying", is made up of people who hold extremely negative attitudes about climate change and doubt humans' role in accelerating it. They have already accepted disinformation, and are highly motivated to spread the disinformation they believe.

"My study found that [disinformation amplifiers] are more likely to spread their opinions about climate change compared to everybody else in the survey," Krishna said. 

The United States has more climate sceptics than anywhere else in the world, Krishna said, but their ranks have started to shrink.

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Americans are less likely to be concerned about climate change than the rest of the world, by up to 20 percentage points, Pew Research has found. 

But a majority (59%) of Americans now see climate change as a serious threat.

Krishna believes that it's not useful to talk to people who already believe and spread climate disinformation – and instead, people should focus on waverers.

"It might not be worth using resources to try to reach the disinformation amplifier," she said.

"Research tells us that one-on-one interaction can often be more effective than mass media messages... so perhaps that's the best way to [elevate] voices who are disinformation immune."

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