Note: After receiving several insightful comments on my blog and had some more time to reflect, I have now written a new blog .
After having participated in climate activism over the last six months or so, I just wanted to share my thoughts on so called denialism. To describe denialism, I think it is easier to describe what it is not. IMO, denialism is everything which prevents you from acknowledging that:
- Planet Earth has a climate.
- Global climate is getting warmer.
- Human actions are the cause, esp. carbon dioxide emission.
- The consequences of continuing the current path will be very serious, if not catastrophic.
- Humans can mitigate global warming to avoid catastrophic consequences and protect the biosphere from unavoidable consequences.
- Humans have to try hard to limit global warming to a non-catastrophic level.
- Humans have to act now.
- YOU have to try hard to limit global warming to a non-catastrophic level.
- YOU have to act now.
I will now give examples of denialism which I try to order in a logical way:
- I don’t know anything about the climate.
- Not the above, but the climate is not getting warmer.
- Not the above, but global warming is just random variation.
- Not the above, but global warming is not caused by humans.
- Not the above, but global warming is not serious or not urgent.
- Not the above, but I don’t have to do something (but politicians, companies, other countries, other people).
- Not the above, but I can’t make a difference.
- Not the above, but global warming makes me feel bad, and, therefore, I avoid this discussion and actions related to global warming.
- Not the above, but it is already too late.
- Not the above, but climate action is too expensive.
- Not the above, but I don’t want to give up my lifestyle.
- Not the above, but I am contributing already to some other charity (e.g., animal welfare, human rights) or protect the climate in some other (minor) way (eg, switching off lights, energy saving light bulbs, recycling).
- Not the above, but I have not changed my lifestyle in a major way (e.g. driving a car, long-distance flying, consumerism), to stop behavior which climate-negatively over-compensates my other climate-positive efforts.
- (Not the above, but climate breakdown is unavoidable and our civilization will end anyway). [might also just be called realism]
In addition, one should also mention rhetorical methods that denialists often use to avoid following the logic of arguments (ie central route to persuasion), but the base their opinion on the social status of the speaker (ie peripheral route of persuasion). Hereby, the logic of arguments is actively manipulated in the denialists favour by reductio ad absurdum, ie extrapolating the arguments of the speaker to a degree which makes the argument easy to reject. For example, “If there was a climate crises caused by carbon dioxide emissions, why don’t you stop breathing then.” Alternatively, the status of the speaker is actively manipulated in a negative way to weaken the likelihood that his argument is actually correct or to make it more unattractive for somebody to be socially associated with the speaker. For example, “He is a looser! She is ugly! He is stuttering!”, “He is still using a fossil-fuel car!”, “He has used a plastic cup!”, “He has some vested interest!”, “He is an protester actor payed by the climate change industry!”).
In general, I would recommend to handle denialism to establish a connection with the conversation partner first on an uncontroversial topic (e.g. weather, sports, family) to connect on an emotional basis and adjust one’s arguments or examples to the background of the person. One should give the person the feeling that one respects and appreciates their thoughts and feelings, although one may not share them with him or her. One should dose one’s (diverting) opinions in a modest form, which allows the conversation partner to adapt new knowledge (cognitively and emotionally), and allows oneself to stay within the partner’s social peer group, which maximizes the impact of one’s statements and allows one to repeat and explain them later again. In my opinion, the best way to handle denialism is to focus on the scientific problem, identify any rhetorical methods to manipulate the discussion. It can also be helpful to crack the conversation up a bit with a joke, if things are getting to tense, or steer the conversation back towards an uncontroversial topic again.