How to Conduct Healthy Conversations Around Climate Change

Our resident psychiatrist weighs in on conversing thoughtfully with climate-change skeptics.

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Q: I am very passionate about eco causes. How can I even begin to communicate with climate-change deniers?

Trying to connect with those who actively oppose your views is a good way to lose your cool (pun intended), but listening is a good place to start. A hot-button issue like climate change may seem to present a gulf too wide to bridge, but research shows that there are, in fact, productive ways to engage with people on the other side of an issue. For starters, avoid adopting an “us versus them” mentality. The moment we stop thinking of people as individuals and cast them as members of a group, we run the risk of creating stereotypes. Sweeping assumptions like “They just want to ruin the planet” and “They only care about themselves” limit the possibility of a dialogue. When we actually talk to individuals about their opinions and, more important, hear what they’re saying, we create an opportunity to engage.

It’s tempting to just rattle off statistics and cite studies about how climate change is melting icebergs and endangering turtles, but facts don’t necessarily change minds. People have reasons for their beliefs, and those reasons aren’t always obvious. Try asking about their values, and seek common ground. For instance, if the person’s chief concern is what opportunities will be available for grandkids, explain how renewable energy is generating lots of jobs.

Another point to keep in mind when encouraging others to be more environmentally conscious: Guilt doesn’t work. It often backfires; people get defensive when they’re told they should feel guilty about not making more sustainable choices. Data from Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions found that highlighting their pride is a more effective approach. Reminding someone that he or she can make a real difference is more powerful motivation.

Dr. Samantha Boardman is a clinical instructor in psychiatry and an assistant attending psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York and the founder of positiveprescription.com.

This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Marie Claire.

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