To Convince Climate Deniers, Try Fewer Charts and More Empathy

University of Kansas sociologist Jacob Lipsman is researching attitudes about climate change along the Louisiana coast, where sea level rise is altering the landscape and residents distrust government regulation.

But according to one researcher studying American views on the environment, the problem isn’t a lack of information, or that people can’t grasp the science — and it won’t be fixed by adding to the ever-growing mountain of data confirming that the world is getting hotter.

Rather, environmental advocates need to seek out new ways to communicate about the climate that account for local issues, notions of identity, emotions, and basic economics, the researcher says.

"The strategy from the left is to bombard people with statistics and numbers, and we just know that isn’t an effective way to convince people,” said Jacob Lipsman, a University of Kansas sociologist now studying communities along Louisiana’s coast. “I think we need to address the emotional and social reasons people have for not wanting to engage with this issue, as opposed to assuming these are all stupid people who can’t understand science.”

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In search of answers, Lipsman has gone to areas near the mouth of the Mississippi river that are increasingly challenged by rising sea levels in ways no one could simply ignore.

The state has already lost over 1,800 square miles of land — an area the size of the state of Delaware — to coastal erosion.

Despite the threat from rising seas, locals in southeastern Louisiana display higher-than-average rates of climate change denial.

Nevertheless, Lipsman said they also show an environmental awareness that, on the surface, seems inconsistent with their attitudes toward climate change.

“Everyone’s been very engaged in the local environmental issues,” Lipsman said. “I sat on people’s docks and listened to them say, ‘I used to hunt here, and now it’s open water.’ I’ve found people to be much more responsive when talking about the local issue. Will that translate into them talking about climate change? I’m still not sure.”

Indeed, Lipsman’s interviews so far suggest that residents in these threatened areas tend to be more focused on other reasons for the rampant erosion — like canals allowing seawater to move inland, or the levees that redirect natural sediment flows.

To be sure, coastal erosion in Louisiana is being caused by an array of factors, including several that are easier to observe than slow-moving, climate-related sea level rise.

Yet those charts and studies skeptics find unconvincing keep piling up, pointing to the rising threat of sea level rise to a region that is embroiled in a debate about coastal erosion and how to manage it.

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An analysis published last week by the American Statistical Association concluded that sea level rise on the American East Coast is the highest it's been for at least 2,000 years. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates overall global sea level rise to be above 1.7 millimeters per year. And a report by the Arctic Monitoring Assessment Program found that seas will likely rise by about two-and-a-half feet by 2100 under a “business-as-usual” scenario. The sea could even rise by as much as 8 feet by 2100 under an “extreme” scenario, according to a report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

So why isn’t climate a bigger part of the local debate?

Part of the challenge, said Lipsman, likely results from the fact that the local economy is heavily dependent on oil and gas production — meaning many people have incentives, either directly or indirectly, to keep fossil fuel production humming.

Yet the issue is even more nuanced than that, Lipsman said. Significant environmental regulatory changes — either in the name of climate change or local measures to forestall coastal erosion — could potentially unwind the fabric of the local community.

“There are a lot of people here who are fifth-generation oyster fisherman who don’t want to make a change,” he said.

Lipsman, who presented preliminary findings of his work to the American Sociological Association's 2017 annual meeting in Montreal on Tuesday, said outreach to skeptics needs to account for local concerns and identity issues — although precisely what that means remains to be determined.

“It appears that information isn’t the key to the debate, even though, as a scientist, I don’t like that,” he said. “I think it’s just something we have to accept. How many graphs and charts are we going to show people?”

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