Tag Archives: climate communications

Never argue with a conspiracy theorist

You can’t work in the climate field without regularly talking to people who think organizing 99% of the world’s climatologists into a mass conspiracy of fake-consensus is no big deal. I can only assume that none of them have ever managed a project, or even tried to get a group of 12 people to agree on a restaurant for dinner. Dear Readers, let me tell you about the amount of time I’ve spent this week trying to get half a dozen well-intentioned adults who all want the same thing and agree on the goal to produce a logo slide that all could agree on.

Yet a good chunk of functional adults (between 10 & 20%, depending on how you define it) dismiss a scientific field over 150 years old that is directly pertinent to their and their children’s survival. It seems like “this could kill your kids” should make it salient, but no.

I’ve spent about a decade trying to figure this out. I’ve read psychology and neuroscience and sociology and anthropology and political science and cognitive science and communications studies and organizing theory and the history of other mass social movements and more.

What it is not about, is facts.

Lots of people assume that people get into conspiracy theory communities because of a lack of good information; and that, therefore, the thing to do is provide people with good data. Evidence, citations, references, facts, surveys, statistics, etc. If this doesn’t work, obviously the person is a lunatic, probably stupid, maybe never finished high school.

But no. It’s much weirder for people to respond to information that challenges their beliefs.

If you want to fall down a research rabbit hole, google Knowledge Deficit Model. You will find reams of data from almost every domain showing that providing facts and data does not alter opinions or behaviour, and a collective absolute failure to alter our own behaviour in light of it (maybe not surprising). I have been, in my own work, trying to get this point across for years now, and yet whenever a new issue or problem arises in the environmental space, the first thing that happens is someone pipes up with “We need an education campaign!”

No. We do not need an education campaign. We want to believe that people are logical and will reason their way through to an accurate conclusion based on information, but that almost never happens. Maybe–as the experts say–when a person has no pre-existing opinion or perspective, you can get them to form one based on the information you give them. Otherwise? No joy.

If it’s not about facts, what is it?

Identity.

It’s not only about identity, but if you don’t grasp this part, nothing else adds up.

People adopt the beliefs and behaviours that are required for belonging to their community of choice.

Facts that are counter to beliefs espoused by the club aren’t just rejected, but actively resisted as an existential threat; encountering contrary facts, no matter how well-documented, further entrenches the conspiracy or other counter-factual belief, to hold on to an identity that has become central to their sense of self. Any contrary information is perceived as a hostile act.

(I mean, have you ever wondered why they all sound so angry? They are at war with everyone who has a contrary opinion.)

When someone leaves voluntarily, it’s because the cost of membership is too high. In The Cure for Hate, McAleer writes about how his abusive childhood led to his finding belonging in white supremacy, and the conspiracy theories he swallowed to maintain that belonging; he paid a very high price and continued to do so (obviously though not as high as the people and communities he targeted), and it wasn’t until he had children and became aware of the high price they were paying that he was motivated to step back.

Even then, it was hard; he had to leave his entire social circle, everyone who cared about him, and there was no one in wider society waiting to welcome him back besides his mother (for obvious reasons).

You cannot argue someone out of a conspiracy.


Yet here I am: trying to use data to convince you that you can’t use data to convince anyone of anything, if their identity requires them to hold on to their mistaken beliefs. Tell me: is it working?


By coincidence, while drafting this post, I was handed an ARC of Mark Jaccard’s The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success. The introduction covers his recognition over time that data never convinces anyone to act on anything, even when you are a tenured professor of the field in question, and Chapter 2 is about the Climate Scientists are Conspirators meme. It’s unavoidable these days in climate work (though somehow, lots of people keep avoiding it).

In a 2012 episode of his Colbert Report TV show, comedian Stephen Colbert commended on the real-life response of the North Carolina politicians to a state agency’s prediction that sea levels will rise 39 inches by 2100 because of global warming.

“North Caroline Republicans have written a new bill that would immediately address the crisis predicted by these climate models–by outlawing the climate models!” (p. 53)

We are talking wealthy, well-connected, well-educated US politicians; these are not fringe weirdos living in their mothers’ basements who lack access to better information or the ability to interpret it. If providing information reliably caused people to alter their views, there would be no climate deniers anywhere, let alone in positions of power and authority.

Yet when presented with contrary information, these people outlawed the information.

Why? Because it threatens every part of their identity and world view. Because it threatens their membership in an institution, the Republican Party, that has taken climate denial as an article of faith, and which is central to their entire role and identity in the world. It’s not a simple singular fantasy or the feeling of being at war with systems of power–these dudes are the systems of power.


Polls have shown for years now that most North Americans are worried about climate change.

The same polls show that these same North Americans are convinced that no one cares about climate change. Why else would nothing be done?

But the reality is much stranger: almost everyone cares, a solid majority are worried, a significant minority are panicking, and no one is talking about it because our culture of political and social etiquette says it is rude to do so (Eliasoph, Avoiding Politics; and Norgaard, Living in Denial). This, too, is a form of denial, a kind of conspiracy theory; a conspiracy of silence. A conspiracy that says, We must all pretend very hard that nothing is happening. We must all carry on as if nothing terrifying looms on the horizon. We must only talk about sports and beer and television and movies and music and weekend plans. We must build our solitary prisons, we must guard our isolation with silence and false smiles.

This is not rational. It is based on identity, the need to belong to public spaces where the behavioural demand is to never introduce conflict and never bring up anything that makes people sad or afraid. If you “believe” in climate change, and you aren’t talking about it with your friends and family and colleagues in public and everywhere else, then you too are locked in a conspiracy theory. A culture that demands a set of performative behaviours that signal a belief in a set of social and political values that are not based on fact, and which you might not even yourself truly value or hold.


There’s more, of course. There’s terror management, and decades of campaigns confusing people about the economic feasibility of not killing ourselves, and the difficulty of prioritizing realities that we’ve been led to believe are decades away.

But we still need to reconcile the following:

  1. You very likely accept the science of global warming
  2. You very likely are at least concerned, and increasingly likely to be extremely scared, of it
  3. You want something to be done
  4. You avoid at all costs discussions of this outside of a few very careful very private conversations that can have no political consequences whatsoever and will never affect any kind of change
  5. Most likely because you believe that talking about climate change publicly is a social faux pas that will lead to your exclusion from social spaces (and as a person who’s been professionally butting her head against that taboo for over a decade or now–you are probably right)
  6. You have selected group identity over your personal interests, and over the established facts 
  7. It is friendlier than right-wing conspiracy communities, but at heart, quite destructive.

Yes, I know, #notallblogreaders. But most of you, statistically speaking. Less now than two years ago, which is encouraging, but still most.

My point is: you have also adopted beliefs and behaviours to belong to groups that are not factual and which you may not even fully support. This is not because you’re uniquely dumb or uneducated or nuts. It’s because you are a human being, and that’s what human beings do. Conspiracy theorists are different only for having selected groups that are farther out on the cultural fringe; their actual core behaviours are not that weird. And I mean, believing that the earth is flat is probably more harmless than pretending to believe in social contexts that climate change isn’t a catastrophic threat requiring urgent action.


But if you’re interested in countering disinformation, what do you do? If you want someone to leave a pernicious and poisonous identity based on anti-social lies behind, how do you intervene?

Here’s a short list of what the research shows works, at least sometimes:

  1. Impose consequences. People leave these groups when the costs of remaining in them outweigh the group identity benefits of belonging.
  2. Find messengers and spokespeople for facts who share key identity traits with the person or group you want to talk to. For example, ex-white-supremacists have an easier time of reaching current-white-supremacists. A pipeline fitter in Alberta whose entire economic identity is based on participation in the oil and gas sector is not going to listen to me, a feminist left-voting government bureaucrat from Ontario who gets paid for climate work. It doesn’t matter how right I am. I need to find an ex-pipeline-fitter who found a better job in a green industry.
  3. There needs to be a path back. If there is no way to rejoin society from beyond the pale, no one will try.
  4. Refuse to have the fight over facts. Focus on solutions, and how those solutions will in fact not upend or threaten their identity.
  5. Find shared values, and connect the issue to the values you share.  If I try to have a conversation with a group of conservative moms about climate change that starts with the importance of carbon taxes and emphasizes the social justice implications of climate vulnerability, we will get nowhere. If I want to have that conversation, it’s much more likely to be effective if we connect over love and concern for our kids.
  6. Relationships, face-to-face connection, and empathy are key. Not everyone is up to this, obviously. It would be grotesque to require or expect victimized communities to have empathy and conversation with their abusers. But I recently watched First Contact for a course at work, about six extremely racist white Canadians with pretty horrifying opinions about indigenous Canadians, who signed up to spend, I think, a month visiting different communities and reservations and learning about the history and culture, meeting people, and listening to stories of abuse and discrimination. I have to tell you, my expectations were low. I was frankly amazed by how many of them experienced profound transformations within such a short time, and I think the human connection was key. Not everyone changed, and those whose identities rested more strongly on an unthinking acceptance of existing social hierarchies were more resistant. (You can sign up for a five-day free trial through APTN and watch the first season for free.)
  7. With rare exceptions, this is not something you can do on the internet. Too many key ingredients are too hard to find in a disembodied conversation, and it’s too easy for people to rally the community that shares their perspective to shore it up in order to reaffirm a threatened identity.

If this sounds extremely difficult–well, yes.

I know. We all want Three Weird Tricks to Solve Conspiracy Theories. We would all like Five Techniques to Convince Idiots that Their Existing Beliefs are Dumb and Make Them Sound Bad. It’s not out there. There’s just the long-road, twisting-path of making connections, sharing values, being real, taking risks, having boundaries, and also recognizing where your own group identities are causing you to go along to get along and compromise your values and knowledge for the sake of membership. It has a high failure rate and it takes more time than we have, but there’s no way around it.

(Don’t) Panic: A hitchhiker’s guide to climate anxiety

In late March, I gave a presentation on fear and hope and helplessness in climate communications at a local Climate Change summit. There was supposed to be a video at some point, but I’ve (temporarily) given up on ever seeing it; but here’s what I said, with a picture of me saying it, in a handmade dress no less.

I’d love to hear what you think . It seems to be a bit of a Rorschach test: people hear what they think they’re going to hear, so far. Something like, “I loved your speech! It was about [climate communications preconception,] and that’s awesome!” And I say, “Thank you!” And I think, “Interesting, that’s not what I was trying to say.”

(As presented)

So climate experts are sniping at each other on Twitter again.

What about, you ask? The remaining carbon budget? Sea level rise? Hurricane projections? Oh no. None of that. There is only one subject I’ve seen continually spark fights between distinguished climate scientists on twitter, and it’s this:

Should we do everything we can to scare the bejeezus out of people to get them to act on climate change? Or, if we want people to act on climate change, must we do everything in our power to avoid scaring the bejeezus out of people?

I used to be on Team Fear, partly because fear was key for me. I grew up in a house stacked with books about Armageddon, full of lurid details about how the world was sure to end in fire in the 1980s, proof being Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthmark. Which meant I grew up thinking I wasn’t going to high school.

It’s not so different from Greta Thunberg and the school strikes. That’s it, folks. At the same age I was when I had my daughter, you will see human civilization begin to irretrievably crumble. We messed up. Sorry. Also, here’s a large student debt. And are you saving for your retirement? The seniors’ colony on Mars is not going to be cheap, so you wanna get started.

As it turned out, Gorbachev wasn’t the antichrist. He was just a guy who tried really hard to bring democracy to Russia. Climate models, however, consistently underpredict impacts, so the wildfires and hurricanes and sea level rise are all ahead of schedule.

You would not believe the number of people in the last year who, when I tell them I work in climate change, say, “tell me the truth. Are we screwed? Should I just get drunk and wait for the end?” The titanic comes up a lot.

Fear got me into climate change, just like fear got me into church. So if other people weren’t engaged, they must not be scared enough. So I scared them.

We haven’t had this much carbon in the atmosphere for millions of years! I said. Hundreds of thousands of people are dying from climate impacts every year! YOU HAVE CHILDREN! If you’re not doing something, YOU’RE KILLING THEM!

No, I did. And it never, ever worked.

Why weren’t people responding with more enthusiasm to my terrifying mountain of facts?

Because fear doesn’t work, the research said. It paralyzes people. They hide from the issue instead of engaging with it.

Huh. Really? That’s weird. It didn’t do that for me.

Or, well.

Am I the only one who hasn’t yet packed an emergency kit for the next major blackout or extreme weather event?

I’m a type 1 diabetic. Ask me how many cookies I’ve eaten this week.

(The cookies here have been delicious, by the way, as always–so I guess you know the number’s not zero.)

Friends, I’ve had 100% cookie-based meals.

The complications of type 1 diabetes are objectively terrifying, and this means nothing in the face of a homemade chocolate chip cookie straight from the oven. Which I take the time to make myself. Partly to manage the stress of working in climate change. I should see amputations sliding off the cookie sheet, instead, I see endorphins.

OK. We’ll scrap fear. We’ll focus on hard work, optimism and hope. Hope is big. Hope is printed in really big letters all over this Summit, for instance.

I tried really hard. It went something like this:

Don’t give up! If we pull together and have some lucky technological breakthroughs, things will only get worse for another 50-100 years, and then, assuming we don’t skip merrily past any invisible tipping points, we can stabilize at a level that supports human civilization! Take transit!”

That didn’t work either!

When I tried to scare people, they called me an alarmist; when I tried to inspire people with hope, they called me an alarmist. Then Greta comes along and sparks an entire mass climate movement with five letters:

P A N I C

I give up. Or, no, I don’t give up. That’s incompatible with hope-messaging. Wait, what are we doing again?

The facts of climate change are objectively terrifying. What kind of hand-waving could we do to make that disappear?

Susanne Moser is a climate communications expert and the author of a textbook on the subject (that I read for fun). Here she says there are seven parts to an effective climate communication:

“a minimum amount of information, a realistic assessment of the threat, a sense of personal control, a clear goal, an understanding of strategies, a sense of support, and frequent feedback.”

What do they get?

That it’s possible we are ending the ability of the planet to support human civilization. Doomed cities, doomed countries, doomed cultures, deaths numbering in the millions—or more, the loss of entire branches of the tree of life within our lifetimes, wars and mass migrations caused by human desperation. –information and threat

That if we don’t decarbonize by 2050, our goose is cooked. Literally. —goals

That strategies like renewable energy and electric cars exist, but we haven’t been able to deploy them at sufficient scale.

That carbon levels are still going up. —feedback

And that it’s all in the hands of people they don’t know, don’t trust, and have next to no influence over.

It isn’t just that people aren’t given a sense of control in these media messages, but that they’re actively told that they’re powerless.

No wonder people so often tell me they’ve already given up.

Or I hear: “Andrea, I’ve changed my lightbulbs. I can’t afford to fly. I tried the community garden and everything died. The gardening class was $800. I already vote. I’m not an expert—I don’t know what to say—there was a community meeting at 3 pm and that’s when I pick my kids up from school. I’m terrified. I need to do more but what?”

We in this room are in a position of immense privilege. Working in climate change is, yes, stressful. I have a whole new appreciation for bourbon in my forties. But it’s also a gift: when climate news is scary, we can use it to fuel our work. It isn’t just that fear got many of us here, but that being here gives us a tool to manage that fear.

Most people don’t have that.

Still, isn’t it odd, that citizens of first-world democracies feel so powerless? How have our imaginations failed so badly?

What if stop worrying about whether we’re scaring people not enough or too much? Can we talk instead about this pervasive powerlessness?

Because they’re not. Social and economic transformations have always depended on political will, yes, but it isn’t a thunderstorm, arriving out of a clear sky, leaving a new world in its wake. Citizens acting collectively produce political will.

Every project we work on does two things: it reduces GHG emissions or makes our communities more resilient, and that’s critical, that’s why we’re here. But each also tells a story about whose work this is. Does the community have a role to play, or are they observers only?

Here’s what excites me about the Bay Area Climate Change Council: it tells a story about our community’s agency. Community feedback, community priorities, and representatives from community organizations created the work plans. Action is local: we will see and touch it. It widens the road to action for more people, which boosts the climate conversation, too. Someone who sees and knows they can help create the political will needed to make change won’t—hopefully—need to ask if they should give up before they begin.