What Is The Best “Gateway Belief” To Convince Climate Deniers To Accept Science?

A new study from researchers at Princeton, Yale, and George Mason University finds that repeatedly communicating the “97% scientific consensus” that human actions are warming the planet may help breakdown climate denier resistance to accepting the science:

After being presented with the consensus message, people on average increased their estimate of the percentage of scientists who agree about climate change by 12.8 percent. And the paper further found that when people up their estimate of the percentage of scientists who accept that global warming is caused by humans, they also increase their own belief in the science, and their own worry about it, becoming more likely to want the world to take climate action.

But Yale public opinion researcher Dan Kahan is skeptical of the report findings:

If this is the strongest case that can be made for “97% consensus messaging,” there should no longer be any doubt in the minds of practical people–ones making decisions about how to actually do constructive things in the real world– that it’s time to try something else.

Kahan argues instead that discussions of geoengineering are actually better at getting climate deniers to start thinking constructively about how to solve climate change, mainly because geoengineering as a solution doesn’t involve government intervention into the economy through taxes or regulations on fossil fuels. And it’s the fear of this solution or policy response that seems to motivate climate deniers to reject the underlying science that could justify them.

My feeling is it can’t hurt to try both approaches, provided there’s no evidence that either message could actually backfire. In fact, I found it reassuring that the 97% message didn’t cause a backfire, knowing how people with false beliefs can really get their backs up when others cite science that disagrees with them.

Ultimately though it will take a big cultural shift to truly kill off the anti-science beliefs, the same way the American South came around (largely anyway, or at least publicly) to reject legal segregation based on race. Some of that requires changing of the generations, but a lot of it requires changing events (like more extreme weather) and the relentless dialogue and discussions of the subject, even in the face of obstinate attitudes that seem impossible to change. Whether we start with geoengineering or the 97% message, the conversations just need to keep going, and the tide will keep turning.


Leave a Reply