How to Talk to a Climate Denier — It’s All About Resiliency!



How do you communicate the perils of climate change without any reference to government, academia, science or the media? Trick question; you can’t, as many climate activists and forward-thinking city officials already know all too well. For many, climate denial is an emotional issue for which no amount of logic can reverse. The more we try to convince climate deniers to see the light, the more entrenched they will become.

As the legendary Republican communications strategist, Frank Luntz, once said:

“Eighty percent of our life is emotion, and only 20 percent is intellect. I am much more interested in how you feel than how you think. I can change how you think, but how you feel is something deeper and stronger, and it’s something that’s inside you.”

Luntz realized that humans are emotional creatures, and we are much more likely to respond to emotional triggers than sober science. Conservatives seem to be particularly susceptible to this. Luntz used this concept when he invented “climate change” — that is, coining the term as a less menacing way of referring to global warming.

The consequences of climate denial have gone from reactionary to outright threatening, as the effects of climate change become increasingly more apparent — in the form of climate disasters. In 2012, extreme weather events which scientists say were either caused or exacerbated by cost the United States $100 billion, most of which went towards federal crop, flood, wildfire and disaster relief.

Of course, climate disasters don’t discriminate against those who do or do not believe in global warming — they equally ravage conservative and liberal towns. Sadly, these are the political lines that have been drawn and perpetuated by those with a vested interest in Big Oil. Over 58 percent of congressional Republicans from the 113th Congress actively deny the existence of global warming. These same representatives also have taken over $58.8 million from the fossil fuel industry.

Instead of continuing to fight a pointless battle, many community leaders are turning to Political Communications (and Dating) 101: if you can’t win an argument, change the conversation.

With climate disasters expected to grow in frequency and scale but many communities refusing to accept global warming as the cause, major cities and small towns around the country are reframing the conversation in terms of “resilience” and “sustainability”. After all, global warming may be for commies but this is ‘merica, and if there’s one thing we are it’s resilient, right?

This focus on resiliency is empowering communities to shore up dams and dikes, upgrade sewage treatment plants to prevent overflows, and use roof gardens to absorb rainwater. Some are planting urban forests to provide shade from extreme heat, and farmers are receiving assistance from extension agents to fight against an influx of new pests.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, city planners decided to reframe the conversation when they realized discussing through the frame of global warming was a moot point. This is the same town that once elected as mayor Senator James Inhofe, a legendary climate denier who literally wrote the book on climate denying.

“The messaging needs to be more on being prepared and knowing we’re tending to have more extreme events,” Graham Brannin, Tulsa’s planning director told the Associated Press. “The reasoning behind it doesn’t matter; let’s just get ready.”

True, flood control projects and other resiliency efforts were underway long before global warming entered the public discourse. However, the sense of urgency created by climate change awareness has led to creative new proposals such as helping people escape blazing temperatures or protecting coastlines from rising tides. It has also led to new sources of government funding.

Tulsa, for instance, has been buying out homeowners and limiting development near the Arkansas River to help prevent flooding from major storms. With threats of future drought, Brannin is starting to push for water conservation efforts. A local non-profit, Tulsa Partners, Inc. is advocating “green infrastructure” such as permeable pavement to soak up storm runoff.

Though these activities clearly are aimed at protecting communities from the effects of climate change, the city is not calling it a climate change initiative — the emphasis is on disaster preparedness.

But this may not be enough. Preparing communities for climate disasters is a practical and important endeavor, but it will all be in vain if we don’t find a way to change the national conversation over global warming from debate to dialogue. Oil and gas companies continue to pour millions of dollars into propaganda public relations campaigns aimed at to perpetuating a debate that should no longer be taking place.

Until we rid Capitol Hill of climate deniers, these policies will be extremely difficult to implement. By then, it may be too late to deal with the causes of global warming, and we will be left to face its effects.

Keep that in mind when you head to the polls in November.


About Mike Hower

Mike Hower is a writer, thinker, and strategic communicator most interested in the intersection of sustainable business and policy. Currently based in Washington, D.C., he is a graduate research fellow at The George Washington University, where he is pursing a masters degree in Media & Public Affairs and researching the impact of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) on sustainable development. He is hopelessly addicted to travel and has a borderline unhealthy obsession with his golden retriever, Gerico.
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