97 Doctors: Combating Climate Change Denialism

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Have you ever wondered how to talk to a climate change denier? Have you ever tried to convince someone that climate change is human caused, but just couldn’t get through to him? Most environmentalists (including me) could answer yes to at least one of these questions. Let's discuss how to combat climate change denialism more effectively and break down barriers to communication.

Paige Anderson hunched over on a blue plastic chair with her worn, brown leather purse on her lap. She looked at the clock hanging in the clinic room- her doctor was five minutes late. She sighed impatiently. She hated the all-too-familiar sterile white walls and the pungent smell of hand sanitizer.

Suddenly, Paige perked her head up as she heard: “Good morning Ms. Anderson!” As her usual doctor, Dr. Mason, opened the clinic room door, she saw other doctors entering the room behind him.

“This morning I brought ninety-nine other doctors with me, as per your request,” Dr. Mason said, “to confirm the status of your condition.” Paige could see the horde of doctors clogging up the hallway outside of the room. Dr. Mason had diagnosed her with cancer two weeks ago, but Paige stubbornly refused to believe she had cancer. She had requested this additional confirmation at the original appointment, and now, here she was, in a swarm of white lab coats.

One by one, the doctors came in and briefly explained his or her interpretation of Paige’s condition. She took notes on what each said- 97 believed she had cancer, including Dr. Mason, and 3 believed she was healthy. The 97 doctors who believed she had cancer all agreed on which type she had and its cause, although there was some disagreement among the doctors about what the progression of Paige’s condition will be or how to treat it.

Paige had been sitting in the clinic with the doctors for over an hour by the time she finally heard all of their assessments. Despite the fact that she had been feeling very sick for the past month or so and understood that 97% of doctors who examined her case concluded that it was cancer, Paige still denied that she had cancer.

Dr. Mason was absolutely stunned. He knew Paige’s health would continue to deteriorate if she didn’t accept her condition and possible treatments. The doctors’ almost unanimous agreement about Paige’s cancer was powerful, but meant nothing if Paige herself didn’t act on the information.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself- this is foolish! What kind of patient would not believe their own trusted doctor about a diagnosis? What kind of patient would still not believe a diagnosis after 97% of all available doctors confirmed it? This metaphorical patient is a climate change denier, my friends.

97% of all climate scientists globally believe that climate change is happening and human-caused. It is accepted as scientific fact at this point, yet a significant number of Americans still dispute this. A 2016 study from the Pew Research Center found that one in five Americans believe there is no evidence that shows global climate change is occurring, and about one in three think that it is due to natural causes, not humans. Just like Paige’s cancer will worsen until she accepts her condition and seeks treatment, Americans will be more at risk for the effects of climate change the longer they deny it or its human cause.

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Obviously, about half of Americans do believe that climate change is real and human-caused. Further, many of these individuals feel concerned about climate change and/or work to address it. But without more universal acceptance, understanding, and action regarding climate change, our nation and planet’s environmental health (and subsequently, human health) will suffer disastrously.

By now, you’re likely wondering: how can we attain a greater level of environmental knowledge and action in America? Since you’re reading the Green Schools Alliance blog or newsletter right now, I assume you already care about the environment a lot. So you might also be thinking: how can an environmentalist like me communicate with climate change deniers or science skeptics?

The short answer- it’s a real challenge. But here are a few methods to consider. 

Try to break down the empathy wall. This is a term I first heard when reading an excerpt from the book Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Essentially, it is an obstacle (or set of obstacles) to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs from our own. Political polarization and cultural values are common obstacles. Break down the wall by appealing to the audience’s own concerns, or putting the issue (such as climate change) in their own terms. Language usage is extremely important- avoid hot-button or controversial terms. For example, co-founder of the Tea Party and environmental conservationist Debbie Dooley explains that if a politician or activist were to start the conversation with “climate change,” most Conservatives would stop listening. However, by substituting in terms from the Conservatives’ home turf like “energy freedom,” “energy choice,” “competition,” and “national security,” that same politician or activist can quickly gain their audience’s attention. By understanding the priorities and viewpoints of the audience rather than simply imposing your own perspective on the audience, you can put yourself in a much better position for effective communication.

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Along those lines, it is absolutely essential to consider possible reasons why an individual or group may deny anthropogenic climate change. For example, American politicians have terms of up to eight years, while climate change has a “term” of millions of years. The average American will live for 79 years, while the effects of global warming will affect the Earth for thousands of years. Most Americans will spend most of those roughly 79 years in just a few towns or cities, while climate change will manifest itself all around the world. With this in mind, it becomes clear why it’s so hard for people to comprehend and deal with such a long-term, wide-reaching issue. Moreover, when the narrative of climate change is saturated with images of mass extinction, rising sea levels, and horrific natural disasters, it’s easy to feel helpless and overwhelmed to the point of indifference. The narrative itself and the frame through which people view environmental issues varies greatly based on an individual’s geographic location, political identification, cultural values, and a multitude of other factors. For many people, it’s hard to depart from that narrative ingrained in them from a young age simply because of one environmentalist’s plea.

I’m not a climate change communication expert, and this issue is far more complex than what I’ve discussed. But here’s what I’ll leave you with: as difficult as it may be, we need to work to break down empathy walls and those negative, daunting, and anti-science narratives. We must not be afraid to confront beliefs that clash with our own; we can’t resort to echo-chambers of environmentalists. If all else fails, tell the story of Paige. As foolish as it may seem to us, remember that in order to bring about meaningful change, we must meet others where they are, try to understand their unique position, and keep trying to present new solutions in a way they can hopefully and eventually relate to.


Works Cited:

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. Strangers in Their Own Land. The New Press, 2016.





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Posted by Tyler Stotland on Oct 15, 2017 10:25 AM America/Chicago


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