Climate conversations: How to talk with friends who repeat misinformation

Students gather to hear climate activist Greta Thunberg speak at a rally in downtown Iowa City, Iowa, in October 2019 (Christian Elliott/MEDILL REPORTS)

By Christian Elliott
Medill Reports

Human greenhouse gas emissions have heated the Earth 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1900 – a rate unprecedented in the last 2,000 years. In October, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also announced that over the next 50 to 100 years, climate change will accelerate, with average temperatures rising by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (3.6 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit). Warmer temperatures already cause more frequent and severe heat waves, droughts and tropical cyclones.

That’s all true, but fake news about climate change is proliferating — especially on social media. In November the advocacy group Stop Funding Heat published a study that showed Facebook posts that deny climate change get 1.36 million views each day. And 17 years after Michael Crichton published his bestseller “State of Fear,” the novel about eco-terrorists who create mass hysteria about global warming is still spreading misinformation as a mass-market paperback.

In a January article in the Journal of Public Relations, Boston University researcher Arunima Krishna sorted Americans into four groups – disinformation amplifying, receptive, vulnerable and immune. The amplifying group was the vocal minority. “They’ve accepted disinformation messages, and they are most likely to amplify those messages by sharing their opinions with others,” Krishna said in an interview. “Folks in the immune category definitely need to raise their voices a bit more, because the amplifiers are.” The two middle categories contain most Americans – people who could fall for falsehoods but whose minds might be opened through conversation, according to Krishna.

Talking about the problem can help combat misinformation. “Friends and family are the most trusted sources of information about climate change,” said John Cook, a researcher at the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub. “When people see their friends and family pushing back against misinformation that can be effective in stopping the misinformation from spreading.” Here are some tips for navigating difficult conversations.

Be curious and empathetic

“Engage in a conversation, not a confrontation,” Krishna said. Try to help friends and family “understand where they’re coming from and encourage them to articulate their arguments and think about the logic and assumptions,” Cook said. “You’re not going to change a person’s mind by making them seem stupid. The goal shouldn’t be to beat that person.” Convey that you’re interrogating the ideas, not the person, said David Rapp, a psychologist at Northwestern University. “If you confront them and say, ‘You are wrong,’ you’re not going to get anywhere.”

Show you’re willing to discuss the issues with genuine curiosity and empathy. That nonconfrontational and open approach lets you critically evaluate the underlying flawed assumptions that prop up “superficially persuasive” misinformation. “We all live in our own little bubbles,” Krishna said. “Often, we don’t even hear what the other side is hearing. So, this gives you an opportunity to hear their talking points and equip yourself to counter them.” Then you can find shared values, such as stewardship for the natural world or dislike of pollution and environmental damage.

Don’t think you must be an expert

A March survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found 89% of Americans are “somewhat” or “very” worried about the crisis, but 67% say they “rarely” or “never” discuss the problem with family and friends. People who care about climate change consistently underestimate how many other people are also concerned. That phenomenon, called “pluralistic ignorance,” results in widespread self-censoring called climate silence. “We need to have those conversations about climate change to build social momentum, which leads to political momentum, which leads to real action,” Cook said. “Just letting people know that you care sends a social signal that can often be more persuasive than possessing that killer argument.” Just talking about the problem with friends and family at all, Rapp said, encodes climate change into memory as something important.

Tell people they’ve been misled

Executives from Shell, Chevron, BP and ExxonMobil appeared before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on Oct. 28 to face questioning for their role in spreading misinformation. None agreed to stop aggressively lobbying against climate policy. In the five days leading up to the hearing, ExxonMobil spent $565,000 on Facebook ads. Fossil fuel companies sent more lobbyists – over 500 – to this year’s COP26 UN climate summit than any single country, according to environmental group Global Witness’ analysis of the UN’s list of corporate attendees.

For decades, fossil fuel companies have followed a similar playbook. Since 1997, the Koch brothers gave $145 million to climate change-denying think tanks Cook calls “misinformation factories.” “If only misinformation were an energy source, it would be very renewable,” he said. Cook suggests bringing up the congressional hearings with the tobacco industry in 1994, when legislators forced executives to account for years of lies about the addictive nature of nicotine and the deadly health effects of cigarette smoking. Scientists working for both cigarette and oil corporations knew their products caused harm and tried to keep that knowledge from the public, he said. His inoculation theory holds that exposing people to commonly used misinformation techniques can help them resist being misled in the future.

Bring up the scientific consensus

In Cook’s widely cited 2013 survey of nearly 12,000 peer-reviewed scientific articles on climate, 97% of studies found that human-caused global warming was underway. A 2021 review of the 88,000 articles published since then revealed the consensus is even stronger today – only 28 papers rejected the scientific consensus. But a March study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found only 1 in 5 Americans understands how strong the level of scientific agreement is.

If people know scientists unanimously agree that humans are causing the climate to change, they are much more likely to accept it and take action themselves. Experts call it a “gateway belief.” Since the 1990s, coordinated misinformation campaigns and lobbying by conservative think tanks funded by fossil fuel companies have effectively attacked the consensus to slow climate action. In a 2002 memo to President George W. Bush, Republican strategist Frank Luntz wrote, “There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science. … Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly.” In 1991 the Western Fuels Association spent half a million dollars on a PR campaign to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” False equivalency – giving climate change deniers and climate scientists equal airtime in news coverage – has also played a role in leading the public to believe the consensus level is much lower.

Use analogies

Climate misinformation tends to use simple, intuitive claims that “feel truthy” but rely on flawed logic, according to Rapp. For example: The climate changed naturally in the past; therefore, what’s happening now is natural. Cook suggested making an analogy with cancer: People have died of cancer naturally in the past. Therefore, cigarettes don’t cause cancer. That flawed claim ignores factors like human-generated CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion that can accelerate natural changes. Another example: arguing the weather is cold right now and therefore global warming isn’t happening. That’s the same as saying, “It’s getting dark, so the sun doesn’t exist,” Cook said.

Be persistent

The conservative disinformation campaign relies on repetition. Think tanks base that strategy on psychological research, Rapp said. “If something gets repeated over and over, the likelihood it’s going to be in memory is stronger. Whether it’s true or not, you feel like ‘if I can retrieve it easily, it must be true.’” It’s called the “continued influence effect.” Disinformation is “sticky,” Krishna said. “It sort of lodges itself there in one’s brain, and then it’s very difficult to dislodge it.” Keep countering misinformation, Cook said. “I’ve spent the last 15 years talking about climate misinformation, and I’m sick to death of talking about it, but I think we need to be persistent in telling that story and informing people.”

Be realistic

It’s easy to get frustrated or angry. “I’ve had lots of arguments with my own dad about climate change,” Cook said. “No one gets me angrier than when he’s being stubborn, and I’ve tried all the killer arguments and fallacies in my arsenal.” You’re unlikely to change someone’s mind in one conversation, Rapp said. The belief can be central to some deniers’ worldviews and identities. “So, when you’re trying to combat the issue, you’re combatting them as a person,” Rapp said.

Some people can’t be convinced. But with the staunchest climate deniers, you can still say, “Even if climate change is not real, what’s the downside of having cleaner water and cleaner air?” Krishna said. “It’s the one point that may actually make the person think, ‘Yeah, why not?”

Be hopeful

It’s getting harder to ignore hotter summers, more frequent wildfires, floods, hurricanes and other unpredictable weather. More Americans than ever now think global warming is happening – 70%, up from 60% a decade ago, according to a Yale study published in March. So, lobbying groups “are now transitioning from science denial to solutions denial,” Cook said. “We’re seeing them argue, ‘Climate policy is going to raise prices, hurt working families and destroy the economy.’” If you’re already talking about climate change with friends and family, take heart. It’s working. If not, it’s a great time to start.

Christian Elliott is a science and environmental reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @csbelliott.

Editor’s note, Dec. 24, 2021, 2:40 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct the affiliation of researcher John Cook, who is with the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub.