How to Change a Climate Skeptic’s Mind

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Published on February 8th, 2011  |  Discuss This Article  

Having just ended the warmest year and warmest decade on record, where 97% of climate change scientists believe humans are causing this warming, it is perplexing that barely a majority of the U.S. public think humans are responsible for climate change.

The science is very strong and extensive in showing that carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gasses are warming our planet at an extremely fast rate. A National Academy of Sciences report by leading climate scientists states clearly that “climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities and poses significant risks for — and in many cases is already affecting — a broad range of human and natural systems.”

So, why does the public not see eye-to-eye with scientists about climate change? One reason is that there is a loud community of “climate change skeptics” who make arguments for why humans are not responsible for climate change. As a scientist, I appreciate skepticism to ensure we are getting the best science possible. However, much of the climate skepticism out there that the public hears seems to me to be rooted in misinformation and arguments to mislead and confuse the public about climate science.

There is a growing community of scientists who are trying to better communicate to the public to clearly explain why they are confident in climate change science. One website, SkepticalScience.com, has created great resources that explain in simple terms what the best science says about many of the climate skeptic arguments.

SkepticalScience.com provides one-line answers to 141 climate skeptic arguments as well as deeper examinations with different levels of scientific detail — basic, intermediate, advanced — depending on how far someone wants to dive into the science. Below are the top 5 climate skeptic arguments as outlined by the site, as well as what scientists say in response. You can click on the one-line answers to go deeper into the science.

______

Skeptic Argument      vs What the Science Says
“It’s the sun” In the last 35 years of global warming, sun and climate have been going in opposite directions
“Climate’s changed before” Climate reacts to whatever forces it to change at the time; humans are now the dominant forcing.
“There is no consensus” 97% of climate experts agree humans are causing global warming.
“It’s cooling” The last decade 2000-2009 was the hottest on record.
“Models are unreliable” Models successfully reproduce temperatures since 1900 globally, by land, in the air and the ocean.

_____

Mobile phone applications are being developed that bring climate science to the hands of people all over the world. SkepticalScience.com has free mobile phone applications for iPhone, Android and other phones that allow you to quickly access what peer-reviewed science says about skeptic arguments, view climate change science maps and graphs, and report skeptic arguments you’ve encountered.

And Climate Central has reviewed 10 mobile phone applications that range from providing answers to climate science questions, to allowing you to analyze climate change data-on-the fly.

There are also some very informative and easy to read short books recently released that provide explanations of climate science that are understandable to the general public. Here are a few:

  • Climate Central and Sally Ride Science recently produced a short book titled What You Need to Know: Twenty Questions and Answers About Climate Change that you can download or buy a hard copy of.
  • Skeptical Science website recently released a short book titled The Scientific Guide to Global Warming Skepticism.
  • For more science that is still accessible to the general public, the “Climate Change Compendium 2009” produced by the United Nations Environment Program provides a good overview of the state of climate change science.
  • And to dive deeper into the science, see the America’s Climate Choices website (AmericasClimateChoices.org) and related publications produced by the United States National Academy of Science.

In just the past year or two a lot of good climate science has become much more accessible to the general public. I think the general public is smart enough to understand the basics of good climate science, and this is a good first step toward getting the public to see eye-to-eye with climate change scientists.

The bottom line is that scientists are very confident climate change is occurring, and feel strongly that action is needed immediately to limit the impact to people and nature. Before you know it, climate change could be impacting your backyard — and may already be. Let’s all get informed and help inform others about good climate science.

(Figure: Global temperature (red, NASA GISS) and total solar irradiance (blue, 1880 to 1978 from Solanki, 1979 to 2009 from PMOD. Figure courtesy of Skeptical Science.)

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Comments: How to Change a Climate Skeptic’s Mind

  •  Comment from James

    Evan

    Thank you for this. At last answers I can understand and communicate!

    I first heard Ian McEwan talk about climate change in relation to his novel, Solar. Abbreviated and expanded a little this is what he essentially spoke of: Resistance to climate change is a fundamental human problem, not just in what we emit, but it also ties into the condition of being human: we are frightened of change and perceive climate change as being a threat to our quality of life. Self interest/preservation is a powerful force and denial perhaps the most potent force of all. This is how we all are to varying degrees, insecure mammals seeking food, heat, mobility and comfort in whatever quantities we can get them. Climate change hits right in the middle of all those concerns. Quite how one addresses this perplexing and deep rooted series of entangled issues is certainly beyond me! Can humanity ever change? Or can we somehow navigate round these issues?

  •  Comment from greenskeptic

    I think there are 3 reasons the public doesn’t see eye-to-eye with scientists on climate change:

    1.) People don’t trust “Science,” with a capital S.
    2.) Environmentalists rely on fear as a motivator.
    3.) The culture of NOW: climate change impacts are not immediate; concerns over health, safety, finances are immediate.

    “Climate deniers” (I won’t call them skeptics, for obvious reasons) are preying on all three points, just as good marketers will. They know how to hit home. The reaction from the so-called “climate hawks” is to promote the crisis with more panic.

    And the climate scientists react with more…well, science.

    Fear is a good motivator when the danger is immediate.

    We’ve survived many encounters with predator species in our long evolution. Fear helps us respond to immediate threats – and quickly.

    Over the long-term, however, fear breeds inertia. While the arguments continue, the climate changes, and we lose our share of the new economy. Nothing gets done.

    As for the science, it needs to be simple, transparent, and backed up by real-life examples rather than datasets and models. People don’t respond to data and models, they respond to real, tangible things that touch their lives.

    We shouldn’t be talking about trying to “convince,” but rather to show. (Remember that old adage about showing not telling.)

    Finally, the message MUST come from someone other than a liberal politician or member of the choir. It is too easy for people, the media, etc., to dismiss climate change and the environment as a “left issue.”

    It is a universal issue and will require a universal response.

    Keep up your good work!

  •  Comment from Greg

    Unfortunately, facts have never been an effective way of converting a skeptic.

  •  Comment from Jamie Curtis

    Tobacco companies spent a fortune dispensing misinformation about the effects of nicotine. How much more money do you suppose the oil industry is spending to convince people that climate change has nothing to do with climate change?

    It might be interesting to look at investment portfolios of, and payments or donations made to, public figures including politicians and reporters who ignore scientific evidence. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And your voice, apparently.

  •  Comment from Jamie Curtis

    Excuse me I meant:

    Tobacco companies spent a fortune dispensing misinformation about the effects of nicotine. How much more money do you suppose the oil industry is spending to convince people that their products have nothing to do with climate change?

  •  Comment from skeptic

    You didn’t come close to changing my mind! You’re still churning out alarmist numbers with no basis and stupid graphs that show nothing! way to go psuedo science ! almost sounds like your pushing an agenda of some sort. and how arrogant are you to think you know all.

  •  Comment from Kelsey

    I want to sincerely thank you for this post. I had a professor with her doctorate degree stand in front of our class everyday last semester and make comments about how climate change isn’t actually happening. She would say things like, “Global warming? This is the coldest winter we’ve had in years!” While I concede that “global warming” is a bit of a misnomer, our human actions are undoubtedly changing our environment in catastrophic ways. What we need now is to bring our heads out of the ground and actually do something about it. Perhaps your next article could be about ways to take action.

  •  Comment from PDUB

    You’re entire argument is blown out of the water by showing a graph that starts at 1880.

    If you want to convince people, either don’t show temperature record graphs at all and come up with something else, or devise a way to accurately represent global temperature changes in a graph that starts from about 600 million years B.C. – which of course can’t be done. Anything that does not have an understanding of multi-million year climate cycles is meaningless. IT CAN’T GET ANY MORE BASIC THAN THAT.

    “Having just ended the warmest year and warmest decade on record…” A decade? Are you kidding? Maybe the reason “…that barely a majority of the U.S. public think humans are responsible for climate change” is because they have a grip on the basics of science that were taught to us all when we learned that this planet has experienced vastly different ranges of climate, from fossils of sea fauna in Arizona to glaciers covering Montana.

    So what AGW has really done is remove the dramatic climate change that “it” (the planet) has experienced and replaced it with the dramatic climate change that “we” have (or are) experiencing. It’s really all about us and the measurement of temperature changes, because 250 million years ago we weren’t here to measure the exact same changes!

    Once you remove “we” (as in “the highest global temperatures ‘we’ have seen in a decade”), AGW becomes silly, pseudo-scientific blather. Because the planet has warmed and cooled hundreds of times before, we know it’s going to happen again. Making it all about us and our climate comfort-zone while ignoring the earth’s total climate history is pure narcissism.

  •  Comment from Frank

    Why did it drop then rise several times? Also why did it first rise in 1980. From 1900 to 1980 their was a lot of carbon use…

  •  Comment from Raj Kalani

    @Frank The rise and drop several times are of 0.2 degrees, you have to look at the long term trend. Why did it jump in the 1980s? You are forgetting that nature breathes CO2 and we desstroy natures ability to absorb CO2 by cutting down rainforests, draining swamps, and putting up concrete jungles etc. There comes a point when we are putting out more CO2 then nature can process.

    @PDUB No, natural cycles of the past don’t compare with what we have done since the industrial revolution. We have raised temperature 0.8 degrees C and CO2 concentration rise of nearly 100 PPM in 160 years. Nature takes thousands of years to raise the temperatures that much. Natural events that cause junps and drops are mostly tectonic activity such as continental collisions and breakups, super volcanic activity, asteroids,100,00+ year eccentricities of the Earths orbit, meteors, changes in ocean currents etc.
    The Earth of billions of years ago is not the same as the Earth of today. The Earths atmosphere was also much thinner once and allowed for more meteor strikes. The Earth was also once a super continent called Pangea which broke up into smaller continents. Here look at a graph of 400,000 years. We live here and now so we are going to have to face it and manage the risks.
    http://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/

  •  Comment from Anonymous

    Humans are greedy and they tend to keep their hands of the wheel when bad things happen. “it’s the nature” they said.

    “people think too much, but feel too little” -Charlie Chaplin-

  •  Comment from David Hall

    Very smart not using the data for the last 7 years on the graph, since this would totally blow your argument away.

  •  Comment from Windy

    Here is sourced data on solar output directly from the satellites and scientists at Colorado University-Boulder climate center.

    http://lasp.colorado.edu/sorce/data/tsi_data.htm

    Based on the Kopp January 19, 2012 solar reconstruction provided at CUB there looks to be a strong correlation between solar output and the Earth’s surface temperature in the 20th century.

    Note where they say, “The values from their model have been offset -4.8741 W/m^2 to match the SORCE/TIM measurements during years of overlap and then extended or replaced using SORCE/TIM annual averages from 2003 onward. This more recently accepted TSI absolute value is described by Kopp & Lean (Geophysical Research Letters, 38, L01706, doi:10.1029/2010GL045777, 2011) based on new calibration and diagnostic measurements.”

    Does your unsourced unidentified plot use the “more recently accepted TSI absolute value”?

  •  Comment from Cole

    You are misunderstanding the nature of the argument.
    Kirkby (2008) rightly notes, “the question of whether, and to what extent, the climate is influenced by solar and cosmic ray variability remains central to our understanding of the anthropogenic contribution to present climate change.” Clearly, carbon dioxide is not the all-important dominating factor in earth’s climatic history. Within the context of the Holocene, the only time CO2 moved in concert with air temperature was over the period of earth’s recovery from the global chill of the Little Ice Age (the past century or so), and it does so then only quite imperfectly. The flux of galactic cosmic rays, on the other hand, appears to have influenced ups and downs in both temperature and precipitation over the entire 10-12 thousand years of the Holocene, making it the prime candidate for “prime determinant” of earth’s climatic state.

    http://arxiv.org/abs/0804.1938

  •  Comment from Cole

    Finally the changes in the sun taken by SIM measurements have been found inadequate. So your entire article is invalidated by the peer review.
    I would suggest you update yourself about the reality of the state of the science before you write articles.

    “It is thus doubtful that simulations of climate and atmospheric change using SIM measurements are indicative of real terrestrial behavior.”

    http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/JCLI-D-11-00571.1

    ‘Until other scientists and commentators understand that the sceptical objection is primarily scientific they will be seen to be saying “There is nothing wrong with the science we do” which, ahem, will be something akin to a state of denial. How ironic.’- Josh

  •  Comment from Mike Bromley

    I’m sorry, but this 97% figure is just wrong on many levels. It represents a small cadre of scientists, not thousands. And even if it DID mean anything, science and its methods are not determined by majority rule. Just ask the likes of Copernicus, Galileo & Kepler, who were up against the ‘consensus’ of the church. Consensus about dogma does not make it right. But you cannot be convinced of this, because you have already made up your mind, and want everyone to sit in awe of your great theory. To admit you are wrong about climate change, which is just normal earth function, is to give up your livelihood and prestige. Well, prestige is fleeting, and ill-gotten gains come back to bite the beneficiary. This is not about ‘protecting nature’; it’s a means to redistribute wealth. High-ranking officials of the IPCC have basically said this out loud. So please, don’t waste the sceptics time with your propagandish droning. We’ll figure it out the right way.

  •  Comment from David Spurgeon

    Global Warming Panic explained

    http://youtu.be/cdxaxJNs15s

  •  Comment from David Spurgeon

    http://wattsupwiththat.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/bastardi-10-years1.gif?w=640
    The above would point to a DROP in temps, not a rise!!

  •  Comment from David Spurgeon

    No Global Warming For 15 Years
    Sunday, 01 April 2012 09:00 administrator
    New UK Met Office global temperature data confirms that the world has not warmed in the past 15 years.

    http://thegwpf.org/press-releases/5360-no-global-warming-for-15-years.html
    Analysis by the GWPF of the newly released HadCRUT4 global temperature database shows that there has been no global warming in the past 15 years – a timescale that challenges current models of global warming.

  •  Comment from David Spurgeon

    You probably won’t publish any of my comments above, but the UK Met Office and the WMO are saying that the statement that “***Having just ended the warmest year and warmest decade on record***, where 97% of climate change scientists believe humans are causing this warming, it is perplexing that barely a majority of the U.S. public think humans are responsible for climate change.” is obviously untrue, or do you not believe anything unless it agrees with _your philosophy_?

  •  Comment from Windy

    This is a resubmission as I think my first attempt was filtered as it had a link.

    Here is sourced data on solar output directly from the satellites and scientists at Colorado University-Boulder climate center.

    http://lasp.colo rado.edu/sorce/data/tsi_data.htm
    (remove spaces in colorado to get the link)

    Based on the Kopp January 19, 2012 solar reconstruction provided at CUB there looks to be a strong correlation between solar output and the Earth’s surface temperature in the 20th century.

    Note where they say, “The values from their model have been offset -4.8741 W/m^2 to match the SORCE/TIM measurements during years of overlap and then extended or replaced using SORCE/TIM annual averages from 2003 onward. This more recently accepted TSI absolute value is described by Kopp & Lean (Geophysical Research Letters, 38, L01706, doi:10.1029/2010GL045777, 2011) based on new calibration and diagnostic measurements.”

    Does your unsourced unidentified plot use the “more recently accepted TSI absolute value”?

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