Is climate literacy an effective approach to root out climate change denial?

January 15, 2013, by Michael Gillenwater

One of the more frustrating issues I deal with as an educator is the focus by many governments, NGOs, foundations, and much of the scientific community on “climate literacy” as a strategy for shifting the climate change policy debate.

Climate literacy is the label given by organizations, such as the U.S. National Science Foundation, to the work of teaching the lay public about climate science and global warming. Let’s be clear, I soundly believe that the world would be better if more people had a deeper understanding of science (perhaps starting with the reality of biological evolution through natural selection).

But working to expand climate literacy, executes on a strategy that assumes teaching more people will change people’s opinions on the topic. This assumption is based on the premise that we are each rational fact-seeking and analyzing actors, open to new evidence and information from generally credible sources. Yet, social scientists (yes, even economists) are increasingly recognizing that humans are not really very rational much of the time. Our consumption of science is not immune from this irrationality. Instead of seeking out new credible evidence, we process information through highly biased filters that can distort our understanding in radical ways. As a case in point, a recent study published in Nature Climate Change showed how attempts to increase climate literacy can actually be counterproductive for some populations (the article is behind a pay wall, but you can read a laymen’s summary here).

Now, I won’t go as far as to argue that we stop trying to teach kids about climate science in schools. If anything we should teach it more, given that it is going to be their problem to deal with since we seem to be mostly postponing doing anything about it now. But putting on my financial watchdog hat, I’d say that investments to teach and convince the broader public of the realities of climate science deserve close scrutiny. To us it seems far wiser to use those resources to help prepare with the skills necessary to address the problem the sub-population that is already interested and engaged. A strategy of focused deep skills development, rather than shallow and broad awareness.

Put more succinctly, in a world of limited resources, we think it’s critically important to separate out public awareness, education, and training, which are all too often lumped together under the banner of “climate literacy.” (To this end, we are excited to see developments to more coherently track these initiatives, for example the reporting infrastructure emerging under the Doha work programme on Article 6 under the UNFCCC.)

Changing minds, moving policy

It’s my belief that ultimately, the visceral impacts of climate change will eventually move a sufficient number of deniers and activate a sufficient number of the ambivalent. You can only deny that the Earth’s core is molten so long if you live on the top of an active volcano. But in the meantime, there are still a number of things we can do, starting by looking at how people actually form their opinions on issues and the powerful role of social networks. In these efforts of persuasion understanding the psychology of those that deny or simply ignore climate change is key (see this useful short video as a start). Making personal connections and gently leveraging social pressure is a good next step. People abhor being out of step with their peers.

But make no mistake, this is easier said than done. Success requires flipping highly networked individuals within communities with a propensity to deny or ignore climate change. I will not pretend to have the optimal strategy for how to do this, although here is a useful guide.

Professional service, personal ethics

Changing public opinion is not part of the mission of the GHG Management Institute for a number of reasons. For one, we are not an advocacy organization. But we do think that all of us individually, as GHG practitioners, bear a professional and ethical responsibility to leverage our personal story. So, the next time you find yourself rubbing shoulders with a dinner party guest who’s all too happy to tell your host that a one-world-government conspiracy underpins climate change, speak up. With all respect and with no prejudice just explain that you do not see it that way because your life experience has brought you to another conclusion. There’s no need to try and argue or convince anyone, and thereby provoke a defensive response. And in contrast to what you may want to do, which is distance yourself from an ideologically driven idiot, make an effort to identify with the person on a broader level while maintaining the awkward social disharmony on the one point of climate change. (For example, I will often create some shared identify with those from the conservative South here in the USA by talking to them about how I am a native Texan and Aggie alum.)

Your thoughts on how to deal with those that deny or actively avoid the issue of climate change are welcome. As a GHG professional community, one of our informal roles will be interfacing with the broader public. When doing so, we should at least strive to do more good than harm. My and your kids will thank you.

Happy New Year.

16 responses to “Is climate literacy an effective approach to root out climate change denial?”

  1. Javier Hanna says:

    Dear Michael,

    I only want to say congratulations!!! This is an impressive and excellent article. I share all your thoughts on this matter.


  2. “Let’s be clear, I soundly believe that the world would be better if more people had a deeper understanding of science (perhaps starting with the reality of biological evolution through natural selection).” – Michael Gillenwater

    I understand that it is a valid theory about anthropogenic global warming due to the increase in greenhouse gases. I
    am aware of evidence of evolution, but for me that is a work
    of God. I want to warn of the fallacy of reasoning called Post hoc ergo prompter hoc (Because of this therefore that)
    I believe in a God who works in mysterious ways. We all might read Isaiah 5: 8-9 before we become too proud.

  3. Klaus Radunsky says:

    Dear Michael,
    I have some sympathy with your article. But I want to add some aspects:
    – the goal should not be to try to change the mind of people but to build common ground about facts;
    – knowledge and better knowledge is quite useful to better understand what might be wrong and what be right;
    – and we should share important information – such as the increase in damage related to extreme wheather events, in particular in North America as highlighted by a recent report from Munich Re;
    – or about the significant share of renewables in power plants put into operation in 2011;

    – or about a sound risk assessment of the risks of climate change prepared by security experts on behalf of the MoD of the US;

    Kind regards,

  4. Ian Lipton says:

    Michael, well said.

  5. Some groups are a tough to reach. The Great Middle is open to learning, however. I’ve created this short video to help. Feel free to repost:

  6. John Buckley says:

    Let’s not forget how far we’ve come. 33 years ago I was interviewing through the career placement center at Penn State. They had a rule that you could apply to on-campus interviews that specified a particular engineering discipline only if you were majoring in that discipline. There was no one interviewing for Environmental Engineers at that time, so I could only apply to positions that were open to “any” engineering major. Even then, I recall one interviewer looking skeptically at my resume and asking, “Environmental Engineering? Is that really a major here?!” Needless to say, that interview didn’t go well.

    Over the years I’ve learned that the answers to problems are not found in the minds of zealots who see the world one way only, which ever way that is. I’ve also learned that while science is about about answering questions, much of engineering is about questioning answers. Scientists find problems; engineers find solutions. It’s really quite different, and we are past the stage where we should be still “finding this problem.” We should be working to solve it. Not to pooh-pooh the science, because I agree that the climate is changing; it has become obvious, and scientists re-prove that every day. What I don’t see happening much is the necessary engineering step of questioning solutions. It’s getting trapped by this notion that we have to convince everyone before we can start the engineering process of questioning answers. All questions aren’t bad. Questions hone in on solutions, but I find the black and white debate on climate change to be very un-instructive.

    Here’s a simple question that I think helps illuminate the complexity of the solution that we must endeavor to find. The world’s most advanced, first, best, most-impactful proposed solution to address climate change thus far has been to reduce CO2 emissions from fossil-fueled power plants, mainly from Europe and the Northeast US. Engineering question: what data do we have to support the effectiveness of this strategy?

    We have monthly CO2 concentration data from Hawaii that shows CO2 concentration rising every year for the past ~60 years. It increases to a peak, about 6 months later it falls halfway back to the last peak, and then it increases to a new peak. The peaks are a year apart. One peak, one valley, every year. It’s a consistent pattern over 60 years. How does that comport with our solution strategy?

    Over the same 60 years, both the Southern and (especially) Northern hemispheres have seasonal increases in fossil-fueled generation CO2 emissions corresponding to each hemisphere’s annual winter peaks in the 50’s and 60’s, and then with the advent of air conditioning, coincident summer peaks in the opposite hemisphere. Fossil-fueled electric generation CO2 emissions increase to a peak, about 3 months later it falls halfway back to the last peak, and then it increases to a new peak. The peaks are 6 months apart. Two peaks, two valleys, every year. It’s a consistent pattern over 60 years.

    If our strategy is to disrupt this 6-month peak pattern of emissions in hopes of disrupting the one-year peak pattern of concentrations, I fear we are missing some important complexity. Moreover, to your point, if our communication strategy is to generate “broad awareness” but not deep understanding of these complexities, I think we are risking credibility if our “first” “best” “most impactful” strategy solution has imperceptible effect. People who have now been convinced with “broad awareness” that they see climate change when a hurricane causes record damage, will not understand when that pattern continues in the face of continued fossil-fueled generation CO2 emission reductions.

    There is an interesting lesson from the Mayans, who had great scientists for their time. They encountered their own climate change impact and decades of drought, and they were wise enough to recognize it was happening. But as the water wells that sustained their cities dried up, they employed a strategy of human sacrifice into the remaining wells to stop the drought. It was the wrong solution strategy.

    It’s not enough to merely give people “broad awareness” that climate change is occurring. We have to get the best, most impactful solutions implemented, and we have to start by figuring out what those are. I don’t think we are there at all.

  7. James Gray says:

    I think you make a number of useful points and suggestions, Michael. I was a bit jarred, though, but your mention of the “ideologically driven idiot.” I sense some condescension bubbling through the attempt to show tolerance for those who see the world differently. This kind of condescension is what makes conservatives more resistant to liberals throwing more data at them.

    In addition to the fact that many people have a vested interest in the status quo situation (look at the business models of the world’s largest companies – cars and petroleum), liberals and conservatives get their information from very different sources. Books like George Lakoff’s The Political Mind explain eloquently how conservatives get meaning from sources that have authority, e.g. the Bible, the Constitution, the military, etc. In general, liberal academics are not in that category.

    However, if an authority figure in their community (a pastor, general, opinion maker) speaks out on a topic, that speaks many more volumes than an academic.

    Finally, I think that we need to partner with the most brilliant artists to find emotional messages that speak with conviction to people’s hearts about the urgent need to protect the planet. Part of making that case is calling on our love for the planet, and we shouldn’t hesitate to call it “God’s magnificent creation” in order to bring our religious brothers and sisters along for the ride.

    James Gray
    Sustainability Educator & GHG Consultant
    Kenosha, WI

  8. Tom Arnold says:

    Michael – With nearly 40-years of professional experience in environmental impact analysis and historical geological, meteorological, and biological studies behind me, I feel the need to scream some common sense toward your column. I am far from alone and what I and many of my peers see happening is the final successful collapse of the Global Warming mantra into the indisputable truth that we live on an ever changing planet with ever changing climate. So Climate Change as a term is correct and has happened since day one, not day one of our recent political memory but day one of our wonderful world. The truthful science (and yes there is plenty of untruthful politically-driven science) proving any actual impact or any influence by the human population on Climate Change has not been proven. We are in a climate cycle – no more and no less. Truly pollution is up as caused by increasing global population but significant global climate events as documented by ice core data, geologic history of the greening and drying of our worlds deserts, rises and fall of our oceans, ice ages and hot ages, documented impacts of solar cycles, earth axis wobbles and all the other mega-events puts us puny humans – that for political reasons only need populations to believe are to blame – back into perspective and proves we are not in control of the earth’s climate. Pollution control is good, energy efficiency is great … on their own; we don’t need self-perpetuating political hype and unending federal grants to support artificial self-serving science of politicians simply because political philosophers can’t control themselves. Now can we have a legitimate non-political discussion on water and other natural resources and the real impact of population growth? Our climate will continue to change, but what will become of our major world population centers when their water, wood, minerals, and other supplies are exhausted? The height of oceans, depth of ice, and other modest migrations in our changing climate are out of our control so yes, well need to spend some money to physically move to accommodate these proportionately small changes that will occur over several lifetimes. Our consumption and race-to-zero on natural resources is something we can and need to control.
    Thank you for your question that provided me the opportunity to vent. Now back to billable work for my clients that need to stay in business, be efficient and responsible stewards of resources, and show a profit.

  9. JD Polk says:

    There just simply is not a such thing as a “Professional that Denies Climate Change” if so they are no “Professional” they are a “Ignorant Fool’s” that just are following the rest of the ignorant fools off the cliff…of stupidity ..and believe all the “Cool-Aid” the Coal and Gas industry can throw out there…


  10. Michael,

    I wish everyone would let this one excerpt sink in:

    “…I’d say that investments to teach and convince the broader public of the realities of climate science deserve close scrutiny. To us it seems far wiser to use those resources to help prepare with the skills necessary to address the problem the sub-population that is already interested and engaged. A strategy of focused deep skills development, rather than shallow and broad awareness.”

    Let’s not forget, an element of the denial is the natural response to the situation. We don’t live anymore in the world we thought we knew, and learned about as children in biology class. With deniers, I tend to listen to which paradigm they are coming from. The one-world government conspiracy folks, for example, are too focused on government to really be reached.

    Focusing on the skills development is the best preparation. What do we teach our children about climate change? How about how to keep their curiosity alive? More important than learning to scold their parents into recycling.

  11. Neil Kolwey says:

    Hi Michael,

    I think your concerns are right on. I attended a recent seminar at the University of Colorado, in which a social scientist made some of your same points, namely that many people will simply not respond favorably to rational arguments to convince them of the soundness of climate science. There is research pointing to the well-known fact that many people “believe what they want to believe,” especially if any kind of emotional button is pushed. So basically he recommended not pushing any buttons, like saying to a conservative audience, “we need more environmental regulations on polluting businesses.” I personally feel that we need to invite people, whether conservative or else, to keep an open mind about the science of climate change, but that a civilized debate of the solutions would be welcome. This is analogous to tobacco/smoking. We should all agree by now that smoking cigarettes creates a serious risk of more lung cancer and heart disease. But then it is fair to debate policies such as high taxes on cigarettes or banning of smoking in public places. In this case, we should all agree that burning fossil fuels is causing climate change. And then it is fine to debate whether we should provide incentives/requirements for more energy efficiency and renewable energy, standards for CO2 emissions from power plants, and a tax on carbon emissions or cap and trade system. Agreeing on the science would be a positive step.

    Neil Kolwey

  12. Peter,

    Thank you for the video link. Very well done. I am frequently having to explain the difference between old and and new carbon, and this short video will make the job a lot easier.

    On a totally different end of the geek spectrum, you will likely be interested in this paper, which looks at this same issue.

    Gillenwater, Michael, “Forgotten carbon: Indirect CO2 in greenhouse gas emission inventories,” Environmental Science and Policy , volume 11, issue 3, May 2008, Pages 195-203.

    For pre-publication discussion paper version:

    Michael Gillenwater

  13. Ellen Seh says:

    (for Michael)

    Michael, given the subject of your comments, I wonder if you know folks who are using the social marketing/behavior change model to influence climate deniers, as well as to move people towards more sustainable lifestyle choices.

    I’m particuarly interested in social marekting for this purpose, and am contacting “everyone I know” in an effort to “network my way” into this arena.

    Any ideas/referrals?

    Thanks much,

    Ellen Seh
    h 415.924.6334
    c 415.302.0691

  14. Justus says:

    I would only add that there are – broadly speaking – two kinds of deniers: people who have a vested interest in confusing the debate, clouding the science, and delaying meaningful action; and those who repeat the talking points they hear from the first group.

    Group one is beyond redemption, our goal should be only to defeat them; group two, however, contains people who may be reasoned with, and it’s not unhelpful to try.

    I agree completely that funding organizations and major institutions are wasting their time with this level of literacy, but at the community/individual scale, it can bear fruit.

  15. Rog Tallbloke says:

    ” But we do think that all of us individually, as GHG practitioners, bear a professional and ethical responsibility to leverage our personal story.”

    Would you care to “leverage our personal story” so far as to tell us what your qualifications as a “GHG practitioner” actually are?

  16. Michael Gillenwater says:


    Sorry for the slow response on your request. I’ve been away from the office for a bit, which I will get to below. But to your question…I am not aware of anyone doing the kind of work you suggest. I think most of the attention is going to those that just have not made up their mind or are “influenceable.” Everyone I know of has given up on the absolute deniers. They will flip when their position simply becomes untenable, like we have seen in the past with so many other issues.

    Justus, I would agree. I would say that your second group will include those that do not hold strong beliefs. So there is some hope.

    Lastly, for Rog. I’m assuming your question is sincere and not an attack. To circle back, I am happy to say that the reason I have been away recently is that I finally (I’m in my 40s) completed my PhD at Princeton. Now I would not argue that a PhD makes you qualified as a practitioner. One could make the opposite argument. So, if you are truly interested, I’ll just refer you to a couple of websites with some background info on my previous experience.

    And for everyone else, as well as to be equitable, here is some background on Rog (at least I am assuming so).

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