Can we win arguments with climate deniers?

Should we make the effort to counter those who flat-out deny the reality of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming? David Roberts at Grist thinks it’s a waste of time to try to persuade climate-change contrarians; but take heart, he says. They will die off, and sooner rather than later, given their age. He cites the effect of “cohort reduction“: social change comes about when leaders of an organization, culture, or profession give way to those in the next generation who have different beliefs and values and new frameworks of thought. Because the deniers are for the most part older white conservative men, this is the best hope for those of us who recognize how close the world is to the climate tipping point. He notes,  “People rarely change their minds, especially about matters core to ideology and identity. But they do die!”

Despite the provocative headline and opening gambit, Roberts knows that we can’t wait for this cohort to be replaced. They can do too much damage, as witnessed by the leaked plans of the nonprofit group the Heartland Institute to undermine teaching about global warming in public schools. If the group’s plans to insert any part of this body of non-evidence and pseudo-science into the curriculum succeeded and climate change was discredited, the aging cohort’s denialism would live on after their demise, just as science educators still have to fight attempts to require the teaching of the unscientific theory of creationism.

There’s no time to waste while waiting for the shift to happen through attrition, especially given the funding available to the deniers and the dysfunctional Congress that supports their cause. Roberts recommends several actions climate hawks should take: ratchet up the intensity of argument, build political coalitions, organize those who have shown they “get” climate change,  and don’t spend any effort on arguing with a group “unmoored from reality.” (Roberts describes in more detail how we can  mitigate the damage done by these contrarians in a 2011 Grist post.)

To this I’ll add the opportunities for the non-scientists among us to become knowledgeable about climate change through films and DVDs, books and blogs, and courses like Open Climate 101, a course taught at the University of Chicago by David Archer that the university has made available on line for free. Watch a video lecture and read a sample chapter from his text at the Dot Earth blog; then go to the course website to register for free.

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