How to Talk to an Environmental Skeptic

Inspired by Coby Beck’s How to Talk to a Global Warming Skeptic, I’m creating this guide to help influence public debate on the environment and convince people that there is a problem. The guide will have two parts: a series called Why Nature Matters and a series on persuasive techniques and the arguments that skeptics use. This first post will cover persuasion.

Please comment if you have any suggestions for techniques or arguments, and thanks for reading.

Pick your battles

Don’t try to convince people that they are immoral for using toilet paper.

Many people who are deeply committed to the environment are comfortable giving up many things that others take for granted. I took a lower paying job so I wouldn’t have to drive as many miles. I use an electric lawnmower, I don’t eat meat or watch TV, and I can be obsessive about the amount of electricity I am using at any given time of day.

I don’t think I have gone far enough, but I still get strange looks. The first impression of “eccentric” could devolve into “freakish” or “holier than-thou” after a short conversation.

You will sooner convince your friends to spend 30 dollars on flourescent lightbulbs for their home than give up their car. Trust me.

Talk to the people who can be persuaded

Don’t spend much time arguing with people who are convinced that they are right.

An exception to this would be when other people are witnessing the debate. In this case you might win some converts in a good old fashioned argument: present the facts and expose the flaws in your opponent’s arguments.

Use jujutsu

It’s easy to become adversarial when we try to persuade people. Discussions deteriorate into an argument as each side tries to prove they are right and the other is wrong. Soon agreement is impossible because neither side wants to lose face.

Just about everyone values nature. Our differences arise from our perceptions of how big the problem is and what the best solutions are. Strip miners and loggers often believe that they are doing good for the environment – they think in terms of “mine reclamation” and “salvage logging” rather than “mountain top removal” and “clear cutting.”

Try a sort of jujutsu. When your discussion starts to turn into a debate about economic costs, point out the economic benefits of green technologies rather than pointing to the costs of environmental destruction. When faced with a debate about the benefits of industrial agriculture, talk about the promise of organic farming, local foods, and permaculture. When we talk about the costs of mitigating global warming, talk about economic benefits and easy solutions: Socolow’s stabilization wedges (pdf link), sustainable housing, or the money saving benefits of flourescent lighting.

Ask them what they think!

Ask people what they think about the issue before you launch into a heated debate. Try to identify areas you agree on, and identify what they value. Then you can frame your argument in their terms.

Ask open ended questions that don’t offer a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. For example:

  • “What do you think about this new study on global warming?”
  • “What do you think is a bigger threat, global warming or pollution? Why?”
  • “Did you hear that the oceans will be out of fish in 50 years if we keep fishing like we do? What do you think about that?”

Know your argument

Be sure you know what you are arguing about. You may find that your friend is arguing about the economic costs of environmental regulation while you are arguing about the value of biodiversity. Or your opponent might shift the goalposts when you make a good point.

Consider the other person’s values

When you talk to fiscal conservatives, frame your position in terms that conservatives value: responsibility and economic values. When you talk to religious people, talk about the sacred nature of creation. For social conservatives, talk about responsibility and tradition.

To do this effectively, spend some time beforehand thinking about the value of the environment. How does it provide economic value? How does it promote health? How is it tied into our concept of freedom and individualism?

George Lakoff has great ideas about how to do this. This interview is a good introduction to his concept of framing, and this interview has ideas for environmentalists.

The facts are on your side, and the tide of public opinion is turning. I hope this guide will be of some use in bringing about change. Thanks for reading, and feel free to comment.

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One response to “How to Talk to an Environmental Skeptic

  1. Nice, for some reason my dad doesn’t believe in global warming, but I convinced him!

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