How to Deal with Climate Skeptics at Thanksgiving Dinner

Two BU communications experts share advice on handling dinnertime squabbles over the validity of climate science

By Jessica Colarossi for The Brink

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Feel like you’re at a loss for words when a loved one says global warming is a hoax? Arm yourself with advice from BU researchers on how to respond. (Greta Thunberg would be proud.) Photo by Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images

Ah, the holidays. The time of year for cozy gatherings with family and friends, homemade pie, and festive traditions. Many people will embark on long car rides and trips across state lines to visit loved ones in the hometowns they feel they’ve outgrown. And in between mouthfuls of stuffing and gravy, political gripes and disagreements are almost a guarantee.

You might, for example, hear a grumbling or two about the so-called “climate hoax,” backed up by a statement that our current rate of global warming is nothing but a “natural process.” Uh-oh.

At this point, more than half of Americans are now “alarmed” or “concerned” about global warming, but the issue is becoming more polarized. Many people distrust the scientific evidence that humans are responsible for pushing our world’s climate toward its breaking point, despite scientific consensus. So, what do you do if you are in the alarmed majority and want to talk about climate science with people who are disengaged, doubtful, or dismissive of it? What if some of those people are your aunts and uncles, or your mother or father? Is it possible to change their minds if the topic comes up over Thanksgiving?

Here’s some good news: you are exactly the right person to talk about climate change with your relatives. You are what communication experts call a “trusted messenger,” which is the idea that people are more likely to believe people they trust and more likely to trust people they are personally connected to. And one of the biggest superpowers you, as an individual, have is the ability to communicate the facts.

To best figure out how to communicate climate science to skeptics, we spoke with Sarah Finnie Robinson, senior fellow at BU’s Institute for Sustainable Energy and founder of the 51 Percent Project, which studies the most effective communications messaging for optimal public engagement about climate science. And we spoke with Arunima Krishna, BU College of Communication assistant professor of public relations, who has spent years studying how people talk about controversial social issues like vaccines and climate change. Here’s their advice for how to prepare yourself for any potential dinnertime squabbling on the topic of climate science.

1. Listen first

As the consensus about the climate crisis becomes louder, “folks who aren’t convinced that climate change is real may feel increasingly marginalized because they feel like their viewpoints are not being represented,” says Krishna. “We’ve seen this feeling of marginalization among vaccine-skeptics, for instance, who feel like their viewpoint is either ridiculed, attacked, or ignored.” So, defaulting to lecture mode on sea-level rise is not the best way to break through, since it could feel more like an attack.

“Sometimes we forget that the other person also has a point of view. I think we need to listen, not to respond, but to understand,” says Krishna. Have a conversation and get to know where your family member or friend is coming from. Why do they believe what they believe? Where are they getting their information?

“Consider who your loved one, for example, trusts for information,” says Robinson. That will help gauge how and why they feel the way they do.

After you’ve listened to your loved one’s perspective, consider sharing your own worries, fears, and hopes for the future. “Share what resonates the most with you,” says Robinson. You can always share some of the actionable lifestyle and behavior changes you have adopted to lower individual carbon impacts, and share how you’ve gotten involved with collective actions.

“I would urge you to really listen to what others are saying if they have a differing opinion, to understand where they’re coming from. And then you can formulate your strategies on how best to convey your message,” says Krishna.

2. Bring on the science (but know when to walk away)

“We know 97 percent of all scientists say global warming is definitely happening because of burning fossil fuels. And we know what we have to do to stop it,” says Robinson. She draws on the analogy, “If 97% of doctors told you your appendix should come out, you’d have the surgery. Right? Climate change is happening here and now. And the clock is ticking. The consensus we have is a very powerful fact to convince people around the dining table.”

Generally, it can never hurt to brush up on your climate facts and answers to common myths. But, as experts like Robinson and Krishna have also pointed out, not everyone responds to facts the same way. The truth is, some people who do not accept scientific facts won’t change their mind because of another bias or interest related to their view of the climate. (Like, what if someone in your family owns a gas station? Or works for a natural gas company?) Most of us are not blank slates when it comes to the topic of climate change, and the more informed we are, the more inclined we are to cherry-pick information that confirms already-held beliefs and attitudes.

“You’re going to get blue in the face, and steam is going to come out of your ears, and you’re going to waste all kinds of time that you could have spent with your other, more fun, relatives at Thanksgiving dinner,” says Robinson. “If you try to argue, it’s just not going to work. You just have to say, well, you’re wrong and move away.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t skeptics who will listen and be open to a conversation, Robinson cautions. She says the only way to find out if someone has an open mind is to listen, have a dialogue and stick to sharing facts and stories that have resonated most strongly with you.

3. Take the issue close to home

Researchers have continuously found that the farther away a climate-related event is perceived to be — like, the notorious lonely polar bear stranded in a melting sea of ice — the less a viewer or listener feels connected to the issue.

“For decades people immediately went ‘Oh, well, too bad that’s happening to the polar bear, but it’s certainly not happening to me, that’s happening far away,’” says Robinson. “Now, public concern is actually increasing because people are beginning to see the impacts of a warming planet more and more with their own eyes.”

It has also been found that when local news stories cover climate change, people are more likely to understand the direct impacts. So, why not take the same approach when talking with skeptical loved ones? If you’re a Boston local, you can talk about how climate change is already threatening the coast of Cape Cod, causing residents to prepare for stronger storms and rising seas. Or perhaps someone you know has been impacted by the California wildfires that are becoming increasingly more devastating, or the record-breaking flooding in the Midwest, or by storms like Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Harvey that destroyed US communities.

“Climate change is not something that’s 20 years away, or 40 years away, or 100 years away. It’s something that we’re seeing the impact of right now,” Krishna says. “Bringing the issue home or at least talking about the human effects that we’re seeing could be helpful for getting that point across.”

4. And if all else fails…

Krishna says it can never hurt to remind people, “What’s the harm in trying to have a better, less polluted world? We’ll have cleaner air, cleaner water, a more sustainable planet. How can that be a bad thing?”

But if things start to escalate and the conversation doesn’t feel productive, your best bet is to step back for the sake of your own mental and emotional health, and spend time enjoying your holiday, like Robinson pointed out earlier.

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. Follow Sarah Finnie Robinson on Twitter at @SarahFRobinson, Arunima Krishna @ArunimaKPhD, BU’s Institute for Sustainable Energy at @ISE_BU, and BU College of Communication at @COMatBU.

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Cutting-edge research and commentary out of Boston University, home to Nobel laureates, Pulitzer winners and Guggenheim Scholars. Find an expert: bu.edu/experts

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