it's ok not to know

Here are some tips from scientists on how to talk to your climate change-denying friends (and enemies)

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You may, at some point or another, have found yourself having to explain that climate change is a real thing. Maybe you’ve had a friend who wonders if global warming is definitely caused by humans, or whether it’s just a quirk of nature. Maybe you’ve had these thoughts yourself.

It shouldn’t be hard to argue that climate change is happening, and that it’s caused by humans—the scientific community overwhelmingly agrees that’s exactly what is happening. But it often can be hard, and nobody knows that better than climate scientists themselves, who are constantly challenged to explain why they should be taken seriously.

On Thursday, two climate scientists conducted a Reddit AMA in an attempt to give both scientists and laypeople the tools to combat climate change denial. “We are here to talk to you about improving how scientists can talk with the public about climate change,” Jessica Hellmann, who heads up the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, and Tessa Hill, a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, wrote in an introduction to the Q&A. “Even the most capable science communicators can improve how they talk with non-scientists about crucial social and scientific issues in ways that both capture their complexity and move the dialogue forward.”

The AMA is worth reading in full, and Hellmann and Hill recommended checking out these sites for common myths, but here are some key takeaways for your next climate-based debate.

Dazzle with facts

Some readers used the session to share their own doubts with the scientists. “While I wouldn’t call myself a denier, I do have questions,” one Redditor started out. “If we know that the climate has fluctuated greatly throughout the history of the world (ice ages, evidence that current major cities used to be under water, etc.), how do we know that the climate change we’re seeing now is not just the next part in those fluctuations? How do we know we’re accelerating it?” (This isn’t an uncommon question.)

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In response, Hill pointed out that what we’re seeing now falls far outside recorded fluctuations. “The paleo/fossil record of climate change is actually quite powerful in illustrating that we are far outside the range of ‘normal’ natural variability for the climate system,” she wrote, adding, “we actually have learned a tremendous amount from the history of past climate, using both the ‘paleo’ record as well as modern, recorded observations that go on for decades to centuries… what you can see in this illustration is that there is no precedent – in the past 1 million years – for carbon dioxide concentrations at this level.”

Make it personal

Hellman and Hill also pointed out that though it might feel like there’s an unbridgeable gap between climate change deniers and believers, that’s not necessarily the case. “Can you give an example of how you or someone else found common ground with a climate science denier in order to open them up to climate science?” one Redditor asked.

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“There is a lot of potential common ground,” Hellmann wrote, “especially at the local scale when there is trust and a common goal.” She continued that it helps when lives are on the line. “In the Chicago Climate Action Plan, for example, there was considerable collaboration between scientists, city planners, and business because the broader goal was about protecting the people of Chicago and building a better, more resilient future,” she explained, adding, “there is a lot of bipartisan support for renewable energy around job creation and reducing air pollution, often more so than greenhouse gas reduction.”

One Redditor even weighed in with a personal example, writing, “I am an engineer and I used to respond to climate change deniers with data. Then they would respond to me with data (which always turned out to be false or misleading). We would go back and forth like this and never really resolve anything but to breed anger toward one another.”

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Ultimately, the commenter said, a personal approach worked best:

Then one day, my uncle was trying to tell me how climate change is not man-made. I took a different approach. I told him how my college roommate of 3 years was now a PhD student studying ice cores. His career has taken him from Greenland to the Antarctic. He has dedicated his life to this field of study. So, when you (my uncle) tell me that climate change is bogus, you’re telling me that my close friend is either lying to me or incompetent. While that didn’t change his mind on climate change, it did give him pause.

It’s okay not to know

At one point, Hellmann admitted that she too, sometimes has a hard time responding to climate change deniers. A Redditor asked, “Have you ever gotten a question from a Climate Change denier that stumped you, and if so, what was it, and what did you later find the answer to be?”

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“There are lots of things that stump me in the moment, honestly,” Hellmann said. “I’m not afraid to say ‘I don’t know.’ Sometimes I follow that with ‘but what I do know is…’ or ‘I know where to find the answer to that.'”

Also, Hellmann pointed out that sometimes she doesn’t know the answer to a question because nobody knows the answer to a question: “I often point out that there is lots of disagreement in the climate community, it’s just not about whether or not greenhouse gases affect global average temperature/global warming.”