(Header Image via Death and Taxes Magazine)

There is a huge debate about climate change in America. Nearly half of the country is either unsure or outright dismissive of scientific evidence that humans have caused current climate change. Although the actual dispute is not about the science behind radiative energy transfer or the greenhouse effect; it’s a war between cultural and social identities. How can we as meteorologists clear up confusion in the public discussion of climate science?

The first step is to understand and respect the culture and motives of people who deny climate change. Luckily for us, there are studies that delve into the divide between attitudes on science in America. Dan Kahan, who runs the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School, explains that people who care about individual liberties and personal accountability are more likely to reject evidence of human-caused climate change because of the perception that it stifles businesses. Kahan further explains “people find it disconcerting to believe that behavior that they find noble is nevertheless detrimental to society … Because accepting such a claim could drive a wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional predisposition to reject it.” 

With this rough understanding of the motivations behind climate change skepticism, we as meteorologists and weather enthusiasts can figure out the best ways to address their concerns. First, I can not stress enough the importance of having these conversations with people face-to-face. While it’s tempting to ‘school’ the hundreds of climate change deniers who comment on The Weather Channel Facebook Page, it’s unlikely to change their minds and could even cement their opinions even more.

There is an undercurrent of suspiciousness among many Americans toward scientists and meteorologists particularly. Professional meteorologists are accused of “getting the forecasts wrong half the time” and “hyping up storms.” While there are nuggets of truth in these stereotypes, they hurt discussions about climate change. The common segue is “if you can’t get the weather right, how can you get the climate right?” or even “if the weather models are wrong all of the time, then climate models are bogus!”

Sidenote: The best way to respond to these arguments is to explain the difference between climate and weather. Describe the climate as a long-term and large-scale trend in temperature and precipitation, as opposed to the weather which changes on a daily basis. It is much easier to predict whether the northern hemisphere will warm or cool over the next ten years than it is to predict what the temperature will be in Seattle in ten days. In addition, the evidence of human-caused climate change is clear even without the use of any computer models.

These views fit in perfectly with the reason for science denial – there is a cultural barrier between scientists and the public. This barrier leads to many scientists who disrespect and dismiss deniers as “illogical” or “uneducated” and the public who then sees scientists as biased elitists led by political agenda. The best way to approach discussions with the public is to be as neutral and apolitical as possible. You must not be condescending, but instead be polite, patient and helpful.

It might seem obvious then to simply throw facts and evidence at someone who denies climate change, but it’s not that simple. Most people are swayed not by facts and figures alone, but by relevant “concrete emotionally interesting information.” (Perloff 2008)  It is more effective to supplement the data with emotional appeals, visual aids and how this information is relevant to their lives.