Dec 17, 2021 • 10M

How to Explain Global Warming to Climate Change Deniers

Most people don't understand how it actually works

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Jared A. Brock
A podcast, newsletter, and publication that asks the question: How will you navigate life in the age of democratic destruction, ecological collapse, and economic irrelevance?
Image credit: Earth Engine

The Internet has radicalized people against their own long-term wellbeing.

  • It’s true for depressed girls who derive their self-image from Instagram.

  • It’s true for guys who seek out porn instead of real partners.

  • It’s true for boys who play video games instead of becoming useful.

  • It’s true for otherwise healthy people who become anti-vaxxers.

  • It’s true for everyday citizens who suddenly become rabid partisans.

And it’s especially true for the tens of millions of people who, thanks to Facebook’s predatory algorithms, now believe climate change is a hoax.

Every family seems to have one (or six) of them now.

They don’t believe in manmade climate change (and usually have a Koch Brothers-funded study to back it up.) Worst of all, they often vociferously deny that there is any possibility that humans could destroy the planet.

Here’s how to break through to people like this.


Don’t try this online

Last week, someone on Twitter accused me of trying to incite murder.

Seriously.

I responded with composure and rationality, but that didn’t stop him from roaring back with a second litany of lies.

So I tried to take it offline:

Screenshot by author

Why take of offline?

Because I know for a fact that 99% of the population would never treat others the way they do online. This Twitter dude wouldn’t tell me to my face over dinner that I’m trying to drum up mass murder. And if he did, we would discuss until we’d reached some sort of understanding.

No one wins online.


Get them high

Kidding.

Get them drunk.

Kidding again.

But you get my point. Get them in the right mood first. Have a nice meal together, go for a long walk where you talk about the kids and pets, then cozy up in front of the fire with a tea and some cookies.

You need to get them in a safe space before you take them well outside their comfort zone.


Tell them your goal isn’t to convince them of anything

And mean it, too.

Be very upfront about your goal:

Look, I know you have extremely strong opinions about climate change and how it’s a total hoax, but because we’re [family/friends/colleagues/inmates/etc] I would really love it if you’d give me five minutes to share my perspective. I don’t need you to accept any of it, I just need you to suspend disbelief and humor me so that I can at least feel heard.

Almost everyone I know will grant you this request.

(If they won’t, they’re probably an extremely unsafe person and you need to take a big step back anyway, and let them know why.)


Stop calling it global warming

Global-scale climate change is just too confusing for small minds.

They’ll say stupid stuff like, “the weather is always changing” and “we’ve had hot and cold periods before.”

And they’re right.

But they’re also practicing some classic third-grade misdirection and they probably don’t know it.

To gut them of this juvenile tactic, avoid the phrases “climate change” and “global warming.”

Instead, keep it grade-school simple: Call it air pollution. That’s it. Air pollution. People can deny climate change and global warming, but no sane person can say that pollution isn’t real.

Once you’ve gained that foothold, then it’s simply a matter of scale.


Explain how global warming actually works

To help people understand how “air pollution” works, tell them this story or do the experiment in real-time:

  1. Imagine you have an empty fish tank or a glass cactus terrarium that’s airtight and full of oxygen.

  2. Now imagine you have a heat lamp shining into the glass box. Sure, some of the heat will escape through the glass, but overall, the box and its contents are going to get hotter, right? Of course.

  3. Now, instead of oxygen (O), imagine pumping nitrous oxide (N2O), methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2), and chlorofluorocarbons (aka CFCs) into the box. If you do this, the glass tank will get hotter, even though the heat lamp’s temperature hasn’t changed, because these particular gases trap the heat and keep it from escaping. This is called the greenhouse effect. (If you have access to a sauna, take them in and dump a load of water on the rocks to create steam. That’s the greenhouse effect.)

  4. Now understand that planet Earth is literally a greenhouse. When we pump too many heat-trapping gases into our greenhouse air, we get all sorts of really neat benefits (like longer growing seasons, the ability to grow food at higher latitudes, fewer winter deaths, fewer heating costs, etc) and some truly heinous side effects (scorching temperatures, more weeds and invasive insects, torrential rainfall, more hurricanes, ocean acidification, desertification, rising cooling costs, rising sea levels, increased food costs due to irrigation needs, etc.) So you can see this comes down to a cost-benefit analysis, right? Cool.

  5. So my question to you is: Do you think it’s in any way possible that humans could potentially pump so much air pollution into our global greenhouse that the negative side effects could maybe outweigh the positives?

Then sit back and listen. Your goal here is simply to open their mind to the possibility that global warming could, theoretically, be possible.

If your climate change deniers are like the ones in my family, this is where they’ll tell you that it’s pretty prideful to think that humans are so powerful that they could possibly mess up Mother Nature.

This is where you acknowledge their opinion, and then step back in to offer your perspective.


Help them realize how tiny planet Earth is

I’ve been to forty countries, driven across North America five times for work, and I literally took a trip around the world for my first book, and can tell you firsthand that the world is incredibly tiny. (Back in the nineties, a commercial plane circled the whole thing in just 31 hours.)

People who insist that humans can’t hurt the earth simply haven’t done the math:

  • The earth is only 123 billion acres, with less than 37 billion acres of it above water.

  • 33% of that land is desert and about 24% is mountainous.

  • Only 10.6% is considered arable.

  • There are currently 7.91 billion people alive.

Ask your climate change denier friend/uncle if they think it’s theoretically possible that you could potentially wreck their half an acre of land.

I know I could.

I could burn it, oil it, salt it, pollute it, poison it. I could wreck it for at least a century, if not a millennia. Now add the machines of industry, the beautiful and brutal efficiency of transnational corporate capitalism, and tell me our collective consumer lifestyle couldn’t possibly do the same. It’s an impossible thing to deny without a huge dose of delusion.

Again, your goal isn’t to convince them of anything, just to open the door to the possibility that so many humans on so little a planet could theoretically do so much damage.


Then show them the current scale of human impact

Once you’ve established that the world is comparatively small and that humans could potentially pollute the air and ruin the land, have a short discussion about the current state of human impact on nature.

Be sure to mention:

  • Residential built-up (cities, towns, villages, hamlets, neighborhoods, etc)

  • Crop and pasturelands

  • Grazing

  • Oil & gas production

  • Mining & quarrying

  • Power generation

  • Roads

  • Railways

  • Powerlines

  • Electrical infrastructure

  • Logging

  • Reservoirs

This is the part where you whip out your phone or laptop and pull up Earth Engine and actually show them a map of our current impact on earth.

Now get them to imagine what this map might look like if we grow to 10+ billion people and continue to grow our levels of air pollution and land pollution. Ask them how they think this could impact the world in fifty years.

(Pro-tip: If they say “technology will save us,” then point out the flaw in their argument — using such a phrase admits there’s a pollution problem. If there wasn’t a real problem, we wouldn’t need tech to save us. Which it won’t.)


Understand their point of view

At this point, thank them for listening to your perspective. Let them know you really appreciate that you feel like you’ve been heard, and acknowledge it must’ve been hard for them to sit through.

Then, having worked together to establish that humans could potentially do real damage to planet Earth, invite them to share their feelings on your perspective.

Ask them why they still feel the need to deny global warming and climate change.

Specifically, try to understand their fears.

Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about environmental arguments, it’s that it’s never about the environment.

It’s always about politics, power, and control.


Remember that your goal isn’t to convince them

When was the last time someone convinced you of something you were 100% certain of?

Now you understand!

This is why every human on earth (myself included) needs to work on empathy, grace, understanding, and healthy communication.

Because accepting the truth is hard. And it takes time.

So instead of trying to win an argument, just try to win a friendship. Instead of trying to prove global warming to a climate change denier, just aim to plant some thought seeds. If there’s any chance for change in their future, those thought seeds will grow.

And remember: Nature holds the trump card. Whether you believe in climate change or not, we’re all going to get blasted by the negative effects.

We might as well get along in the meantime.

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