Studies Show Progress in Changing the Minds of Climate Skeptics

Reminding climate skeptics that they believe in basic scientific principles might prompt them to accept that climate change is real, a new study from the American Psychological Association suggests.

APA headquarters. Photo courtesy of Oak Street Studios.
Aug. 26, 2019
By Teresa Lane
APA headquarters. Photo courtesy of Oak Street Studios.

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Remind­ing peo­ple that they believe in grav­ity and train­ing edu­ca­tors to per­se­vere in spite of cli­mate skep­tics may shift views on cli­mate sci­ence and prompt more pub­lic dis­cus­sion of the crit­i­cal topic, accord­ing to two stud­ies pre­sented at the annual con­ven­tion of the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion.

The first study, which takes advan­tage of humans’ desire for inter­nal con­sis­tency, found that con­ser­v­a­tives are more likely to believe in cli­mate sci­ence when they first answer ques­tions about gen­eral sci­ence top­ics, such as grav­ity and med­i­cine.

For con­ser­v­a­tives who are cli­mate skep­tics, it becomes awk­ward to report on our sur­vey that yes, they believe in sci­ence but some­how – despite using the same sci­en­tific method – cli­mate sci­ence is invalid.- Carly D. Robin­son, a psy­chol­ogy researcher at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity

Researchers sur­veyed nearly 700 par­tic­i­pants in the United States and asked each about their polit­i­cal lean­ings and beliefs in cli­mate change. Half the par­tic­i­pants were asked only about cli­mate sci­ence, while the other half were first asked about gen­eral top­ics.

As expected, con­ser­v­a­tives were more likely to deny the exis­tence of cli­mate change than lib­er­als. How­ever, con­ser­v­a­tives who answered ques­tions about cli­mate change only said they found the topic a lit­tle cred­i­ble,” while those who first answered ques­tions about non-con­tro­ver­sial sci­ence top­ics said they found cli­mate change some­what cred­i­ble.”

See more: Cli­mate Change News

The strat­egy could lead to gains in sup­port for cli­mate action in the future, said Carly D. Robin­son of Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, who pre­sented the research at APA’s annual con­ven­tion in August.


For con­ser­v­a­tives who are cli­mate skep­tics, it becomes awk­ward to report on our sur­vey that yes, they believe in sci­ence but some­how — despite using the same sci­en­tific method — cli­mate sci­ence is invalid,” said Robin­son, who was part of a team that con­ducted the research. We designed an inter­ven­tion to help remind par­tic­i­pants that they do believe in sci­ence.”

The sec­ond study explored which type of train­ing could fos­ter more cli­mate dis­cus­sions between sci­ence edu­ca­tors and the pub­lic. It included 203 edu­ca­tors from zoos, aquar­i­ums and national parks, many of whom said they find it uncom­fort­able to dis­cuss cli­mate change with vis­i­tors.

That is not sur­pris­ing given a 2018 Yale Uni­ver­sity study that shows 28 per­cent of Amer­i­cans think global warm­ing is a nat­ural phe­nom­e­non. Mean­while, 97 per­cent of cli­mate sci­en­tists agree that cli­mate change is real, urgent and human-caused.

The train­ing study found that by ignit­ing a sense of resilience and per­se­ver­ance in work­ers, they were more likely to dis­cuss the crit­i­cal topic with the pub­lic, even when faced with poten­tial push­back from cli­mate skep­tics.

A sec­ond method designed to instill deter­mi­na­tion and enthu­si­asm in work­ers was less effec­tive in pro­mot­ing dis­cus­sion.

There are sev­eral impor­tant impli­ca­tions of these find­ings,” said Nathaniel Geiger, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of envi­ron­men­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Indi­ana Uni­ver­sity, who pre­sented the research. For one, this work, together with our other pub­lished work on com­mu­ni­cat­ing about cli­mate change, speaks to the impor­tance of devel­op­ing empir­i­cally tested meth­ods of improv­ing con­ver­sa­tions about dif­fi­cult top­ics.”

The edu­ca­tors were part of a year­long com­mu­ni­ca­tion train­ing pro­gram from the National Net­work of Ocean and Cli­mate Change Inter­pre­ta­tion. It was designed to build par­tic­i­pants’ con­fi­dence in talk­ing about cli­mate change.

Edu­ca­tors reported a spike in cli­mate com­mu­ni­ca­tion after the pro­gram, from less than once monthly prior to the train­ing to more than two or three times per month after­ward, Geiger said.

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