Responding to Climate Skeptics ‘Change Argument’

While many concerned activists waver between terms like ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ the opposition deflects them easily with the Change Argument.  The Change Argument is the claim that climate has always changed, so why bother worrying that it is changing now.  This is the “Duh, don’t be an idiot” position that makes a lot of sense to everyday people who don’t understand complexity (which is most of us, by the way).

Of course, this argument ignores the inconvenient truth that human activities have disturbed natural weather patterns and made regional climate less predictable all over the world.  It fails to acknowledge that the specific changes we see now are unprecedented in the historical record.  But it is very persuasive nonetheless.

Revealing Why It Works

To respond effectively to the Change Argument, we’ll need to understand the psychology behind it that makes it so effective. So let’s take a brief detour into the world of social psychology.

There are two widely documented mental processes at play here.  The first is called status quo bias and is the understandable tendency for people to feel more comfortable with the familiar and less comfortable with the unknown. This mental process arises when a person feels anxious about uncertainty or loss.  It is triggered when they imagine losing something they care about.  A subtle version of this is the loss of certainty that comes with exposure to ideas that call existing knowledge into question.  This happens frequently in discussions about environmental issues when fundamental assumptions about the role of humans are contradicted by scientific evidence, such as the notion that nature is just too big for us to significantly alter or that the world was made for us to do with as we see fit.

The second is confirmation bias and is the tendency for people to be less critical of information that supports views they already hold (and more critical when new information contradicts their deeply held beliefs).  This mental process arises when a person is confronted with information that challenges their assumptions and beliefs.  It is triggered when a position they are emotionally invested in is put on the defense, which makes them defensive as well.  A typical response is for the person to doubt the credibility of the source as they maneuver around the new information with their prior assumptions intact.

It is important to know about these mental process (which influence all people to some degree) as we ponder why someone would refuse to accept information that we consider to be true.  It isn’t simply that they are dumb or irrational.  In actuality, they are doing a very reasonable thing. They are attempting to minimize feelings of anxiety and preserve their sense of identity in the face of troubling news.

The Change Argument provides a rationale for rejecting information that calls into question past assumptions.  It is readily accepted by those who are uncomfortable with considering that they might be wrong about how the world works.  And when the messenger is someone they don’t trust (such as a member of the other political party), they will be quick to doubt that person’s character as a gut reaction.

Understanding this will help climate activists treat climate skeptics with a greater level of respect, which will be vital if they want to find common ground for productive dialogue.

Building Trust Through Common Ground

Communication is fundamentally about building trust, making connections, and sharing ideas.  In order to persuade a climate skeptic, it will first be necessary to establish trust.  This can be done through what I call “resonance communication“:

Resonance Communication is any effort to create resonance between a speaker and an audience that establishes a foundation of trust and shared identity.

All too often, the climate activist engages in debate when they meet a skeptic.  The interaction begins with the assumptions that the skeptic is an opponent and that the goal is to win the debate.  No common ground is sought or found.  This division only makes it more likely that confirmation bias will arise.  Put on the defensive, the skeptic is now primed to question the motivations of the activist.  This makes it less likely that anyone will change their mind.  Indeed, both parties are more likely to become polarized.

Keep in mind that the central issue of persuasion is trust.  The skeptic must come to trust the activist for it to become possible to change her mind.  An effective strategy for building trust is to look for concerns that both parties share.  Shared concerns implicate an aspect of personal identity that is held in common.  For example, a mother will be concerned about the health of her child.  This concern is grounded in the identity of ‘parent’.  Another person who shares feelings of concern for children is expressing a parental identity.

This aspect of personal identity is the common ground on which trust is built.

Shifting Frames About Change

Once common ground has been created, the conversation changes from debate to dialogue — a two-way exchange where people get to know each other better and attempt to build rapport.  The goal is now to persuade the skeptic that there is cause for changing her mind.  This will require knowing two things:

  1. The way the skeptic understands climate change now;
  2. The alternative way climate change needs to be understood.

Just as an instructor will need to know which misconception is to be corrected if he wants to correct a misunderstanding, the activist will need to recognize the underlying assumptions that reinforce the faulty view that climate change is erroneous or of little consequence.  (They will also need to keep in mind that this is about much more than rational logic.  Those mental processes I mentioned earlier remain powerful obstacles to be overcome!)

The dominant frame (or mental model) in the Change Argument is the theory of constant change which expresses the understanding that climate is always changing.  Of course, this understanding is true but in a limiting way.  It focuses on the fact that the historic record is filled with lots of ups and downs in planetary temperature, levels of greenhouse gases, and dramatic dips into ice ages.  And it is reinforced by the everyday experience of weather as a constant flux of shifting conditions.

The theory of constant change is accepted as a basis for complacency because of the notion that what is normal must also be good.  It is commonplace to believe that things are the way they are for a good reason.  So if the world is a place where climate constantly changes, this must be a good and safe way for the world to be.

Problems arise because the assumption that “change must be good” doesn’t account for the fact that a community needs ample amounts of stability and predictability in order to thrive.  The alternative frame that is needed is the theory of stability for building a civilization.  This theory expresses the understanding that complex societies depend on stable weather patterns to grow food, build cities, and maintain strong economies.  If the weather becomes volatile and sporadic, the stability that makes human civilization possible goes away.

The theory of stability doesn’t get talked about nearly enough.  It makes quite a lot of sense once it’s mentioned.  And it is the antidote to the Change Argument because it shifts the meaning of change from constant change is natural and good to unstable change is dangerous and bad.

For those climate activists who debate whether we should talk about climate change versus global warming, I want to point out that neither term captures the core threat of human-caused climate disruption.  The phrase ‘climate change’ does nothing to challenge the notion that change is natural and good.  And ‘global warming’ misses the key causal connection between the efficacy of human civilization and the essential need for climate stability.  (For additional discussion of this important topic, check out Who Framed Global Warming?)

Bringing It All Together

We’ve covered enough ground now to see how to respond to the Change Argument:

  1. Be mindful about mental processes like status quo and confirmation bias that get in the way of effective communication;
  2. Seek common ground by looking for shared concerns and begin to build trust;
  3. Question the notion that change is always good with examples about how communities depend on stability in order to thrive.
  4. Suggest that change IS the problem in that too much change, happening too quickly, is a threat that can cause a lot of harm.
  5. Then explain that there is too much change happening now, as evidenced in the bizarre weather all around us.

Do these things and you will be well on your way to bringing skeptics to your cause.

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.