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Researchers Recommend New Approaches to Sway the Opinion of Climate Deniers

Those who want to change the views of climate deniers, can start by respecting and acknowledging the beliefs of people. That was one of the four suggestions provided by a Stanford University scientist in a review of the psychology behind why a certain section of people deny climate change in spite of their knowledge or having access to the facts.

A new Stanford-led paper reviewed the psychological motivations of “motivated denial,” in which people know or have access to the facts, but nevertheless deny them. Image Credit:

Rejecting the impacts of climate change acts as a barrier, specifically when implementing the actions needed to reduce the worst impacts of climate change—such as increased heatwaves and droughts, stronger hurricanes, and rising seas.

But the scientists identified that those who reject human-induced climate change can be influenced via conversations that appeal to their reframing solutions, different identities, or even accept their view on climate.

I think in the climate change sphere there’s this thinking of, ‘there’s the deniers over there, let’s just not even engage with them—it’s not worth it. A lot of the tactics and strategies start from the point that something is wrong with the climate deniers, rather than trying to acknowledge that they have a belief and opinion and it matters. But I think there is an opportunity to keep trying to understand one another, especially now.

Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, Study Lead Author and Behavioral Scientist, Stanford University

The study was reported in the Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability journal on January 8th, 2020.

The scientists focused more on the so-called “motivated denial”—knowing the facts or having access to them but still rejecting them. For some people, accepting the fact that humans are responsible for causing climate change, questions their self-worth, poses a threat to financial institutions, and is followed by an enormous sense of responsibility.

While it may appear to be futile to influence the deniers of climate change, the investigators have nevertheless come up with four methods that have been described in peer-reviewed studies from past years. These approaches can be highly effective and have been described below:

  • Decreasing the ideological divide by integrating the Earth’s purity, instead of focusing on how people harm or care for it
  • Reframing solutions to climate change are one of the ways to preserve the social system and work toward its longevity and stability
  • Motivating people to clearly discuss their views and values on climate change before engaging with climatic details
  • Having discussions regarding scientific consensus about climate change with reliable people

According to Wong-Parodi, the fourth method is the most desirable, since not much research has been performed in this area compared to the others —and appears to have a great deal of potential for behavior change.

When people face climate change, their self-affirmation is challenged, because it would make them consider their contribution to the issue, thereby threatening their sense of integrity and triggering self-defense.

A good portion of people who deny climate change recognize that there is some change, but the change is so threatening because it basically could affect your quality of life. It could affect your income. It could affect a number of different things that you care about.

Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, Study Lead Author and Behavioral Scientist, Stanford University

A few initial studies recommended that discussions should rather embrace their views, instead of attempting to get around the denial of climate change and peoples identities.

According to Wong-Parodi, one should never try to ignore who people are, but instead consider their opinions so that they can be addressed and the discussion can move on to behavioral changes—such as searching for solutions that correspond with their values and do not pose a threat to a persons quality of life or sense of identity.

I think we often forget that people can have many identities–there might be a political identity, but there is also an identity as a mother, or an identity as a friend or an identity as a student. You can elicit other identities when you’re talking about climate change that may be more effective.

Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, Study Lead Author and Behavioral Scientist, Stanford University

Wong-Parodi is also a fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Other co-authors of the study include Irina Feygina, an independent practitioner in Brooklyn, New York.

The study was supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center with funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation.


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