Our Conversation with a Climate Change Denier, Lessons Learned Posted on Oct 05, 2020

This article was co-authored by Angela Lipanovich, Esq., Founder of Estriatus Law, PC and Jan Freiwald, PhD, Executive Director of Reef Check.  Ms. Lipanovich is a cleantech attorney with decades of experience in the renewable energy industry.  Dr. Freiwald specializes in marine science and runs Reef Check an international ocean conservation NGO with projects focused on climate science around the world.  This article is also posted on Estriatus Law’s Legal Review blog.

As we look across the charred remains of our communities from wildfires, an opportunity unfolds.  To live wiser, more prepared and resilient is possible with the right education and action.  It is true that some of the causes of climate change are natural, that the earth’s weather patterns have waxed and waned over centuries and millennia.  Our responsibility lies in what we can control.  While some communities are rebuilding and planning for their next extreme weather event, no community is safe forever.  It is only a question of when a fire, hurricane, tornado, earthquake, tsunami, sea level rise, heat wave, cold front or other weather event comes, and they are becoming more frequent.  

Given that the science about humans’ contribution to climate change and its very existence is clear now, why are many so called “climate deniers” holding fast to views that climate change is not human-made and over time things will even out eventually? Do biblical stories about God creating floods and other weather events play into this thinking?  In search of the answer, we asked a “climate denier” to explain her viewpoint and help us understand when her views were established.  For purposes of this article, she has chosen to remain anonymous. 

Excerpt from Our Interview


Question:  “Do you believe that climate change is real?” 

Answer:  “I believe climate change is happening, but not that it is human-made.  There have always been extreme weather conditions over time. I believe that eventually things will stabilize.”

Question:  “Where did you get the information for forming your beliefs on climate change?”

Answer:  “I don’t remember exactly.  I have read articles and stories that talk about climate change not being the result of human activities.  Really, I just believe that you have to trust your instincts on these types of things.”

Question:  “If we showed you a report from an international group of scientists which said that climate change is real and human activities are a significant contributing factor, would that change your mind?” 

Answer: [pause thinking]  “I don’t think so . . . no it wouldn’t.  I would just look for reports that say the opposite.  I know they exist.  Corporate money is behind the reports about saying climate change is caused by the use of fossil fuels.  I wouldn’t believe those reports.  I mean, California has a law, I can’t remember exactly what it requires, but it is something like no more fossil fuels are allowed.  And, look at California -  nothing has changes over its skies.” 

Question:  “Do you realize that climate change doesn’t just affect one area?  Rather, it is something that impacts weather systems worldwide?”

Answer:  “Yes, I understand that, but it doesn’t affect my opinion.”


Our Thoughts On How Climate Deniers Form Their Beliefs

As doctorate professionals with specialties focused on climate related issues, we sought to extract lessons from this interview to understand how climate deniers form their beliefs despite a 99.9% scientific consensus otherwise.  This article summarizes our analysis of a thinking that is common now in many areas of the United States. 

As fires rage across the West Coast and political tensions rise, a mounting fear underlies it all.   Many people fear the elite (e.g., corporate money for the interviewee, or academia for others) and all they represent, to the extent they consider them a boon to an American sense of freedom to do what you want, when you want (e.g., your instincts).  Many others fear that if a President is not elected who prioritizes stopping climate change that our planet will become uninhabitable.

Both sides are entrenched and their opinions are strengthened by what psychology refers to as “confirmation bias” that suggests that once people have formed a view, they embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring or rejecting information that casts doubt on it.  Basically, people pick the data that makes them feel right because it confirms their ideas. Confirmation bias results in people failing to be able to perceive situations objectively. 

Confirmation bias is what leads people to trust their own judgment on scientific issues related to climate science.  The stories of disbelievers in human caused climate change come in different variations, such as the beliefs of the person we interviewed, that climate change is happening, but it is not human-made; to that God alone can control the weather, to that there have always been extreme weather conditions and over time things stabilize eventually.  These themes are repeated in the media and in conversations among likeminded people. It makes people feel good to confirm their beliefs — something that can make people become prisoners of their own assumptions. This leads to distrust towards those who they see as “others” in the erudites who line the halls of higher education across the world because to accept that those others might be right is the most fearful thing they can imagine – a loss of control over what to believe, their faith and how to act according to their instincts or in their own best interest.

But, how was it possible for this confirmation bias to become so entrenched when the science is so clear?  To understand the answer to this, is to understand that most people were actually taught the exact opposite of today’s understanding of climate and human impacts on the world when they were in school.  Disbelievers in human caused climate change, for example, have concluded that because California’s skies are still hazy, it must all be a hoax — or that there is nothing anyone can do.

Climate Science

Climate science began in the 70s and 80s.[1]  Of course, it was not taught in high school or college to Baby Boomers (now 56 to 74 years old) or even to Gen X (now 40 to 55 years old).[2]  It was only about thirty years ago that climate science proved that human activities can have global climate impacts.[3]  Climate science became a widespread academic field and was gradually integrated into primary and secondary education (e.g. elementary and high school) during the Millennial’s generation, born between 1980 and 1994.  Even still, studies as late as 2016, show that climate change is not being taught according to the global scientific consensus in almost 2/3 of America’s school system.[4]  This means that 2/3 of America’s high-schoolers are still not being taught what 99.9% of the scientists worldwide agree on.[5]  Previous generations were taught that the skies and oceans are so big that humans could not possibly have any impact on them. 

Literally, Baby Boomers and Gen X were taught the opposite of today’s global scientific consensus.  Is it any wonder that many people from these generations do not believe that we are having an enormous, frightening impact on the skies and oceans? 

The main proof that human activities are causing climate change became public knowledge in the early 1990s.[6]  As a result of improving fidelity of computer models and observational work confirming the Milankovitch theory of the ice ages, a consensus position formed: greenhouse gases were deeply involved in most climate processes and human-caused emissions were bringing discernible rise in average global temperature.[7]  Since the 1990s, research has expanded our understanding of causal relations, has created links with historic data and increased our ability to model climate change numerically.

Climate change is caused by factors that include oceanic processes (such as oceanic circulation), biotic processes (e.g., plants), variations in solar radiation received by Earth, plate tectonics and volcanic eruptions, and human-induced alterations of the natural world.[8]  The term “climate change” includes both the global warming driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases, and the resulting large-scale shifts in weather patterns.  While climate change, broadly interpreted, is a significant and lasting change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns over periods ranging from decades to millions of years, it is the current human caused contributing factors that are within our control to stop. So arguments that climate change is natural are not wrong but they are distracting from the real issue.

Who’s Responsibility Is It?

Some may argue that people are responsible for educating themselves after they finish their formal schooling. But who is justified to say that people should prioritize education over other interests?  Many school systems suggest that high-schoolers have learned the essentials of life and that the pillars of knowledge they were taught when young will never change. Therefore, people assume that what they have learned in school is fact. Only in higher education are students taught that basic ideas can change and that what we learn today is only our best attempt at understanding the world. It is not the end all and, in fact, is likely to change as we conduct further research and study. Many people are simply not interested in reading scientific literature, taking continuing education or even reading non-fiction. Instead they pick-up bits of information (or miss information) that confirms their beliefs and what they have been taught when younger.

Our Conclusions

The learning curve about climate change is similar to that about smoking before everyone knew the risks.  Only decades ago, at the end of school and work days, kids sat in living rooms and at kitchen tables while their parents chain smoked cigarettes to talk about their days.  Now, we know that just as smoking cigarettes causes cancer, human activities can impact our weather systems.  Yet, the education on human contribution to climate change is far behind that of cigarette smoking’s link to cancer.  This needs to change. 

Only in 2013, were Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) introduced that explicitly include climate change in science curriculum.  As of 2019, nineteen states and Washington, D.C., had adopted NGSS and twenty-one states developed similar standards that require teaching climate change in K-12 education. [9]  Under NGSS, middle and high school students are expected to learn about how human activities—such as the burning of fossil fuels—contribute to global warming. They are also required to learn the various alternative technologies that produce less pollution and waste and consequently mitigate the impacts of climate change. It took more than 20 years from the first international assessment of climate change until American schools began to teach about it.  As more schools across the nation adopt middle and high school curriculums on climate change such as the NGSS or those based on curriculums such as those created by Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Science for example, the dangers of confirmation bias in climate deniers will lessen.[10]

If federal leadership is going to be elected that prioritizes climate change, “green” industries and their institutional investors must build on and address these recent educational efforts.  In this regard, fossil fuel money has been much more effective than “green” money with decades of influence campaigns directed at all levels of educational institutions.[11]  This makes sense, because if you are in an industry that is blamed for climate change, such as coal, you will go to great lengths to keep your job and to deny you are part of the problem.[12]  

Every step that our nation takes to teach accurate information on climate change is progress in creating the unified support needed to elect federal leadership that prioritizes climate change appropriately as one of the most important issues our nations faces. Compassion for those who learned differently must co-exist with the fear of where we are headed if climate change is not stopped.  Those fortunate enough to have received high quality education and current scientific knowledge about climate change have an obligation to educate others — so that they too can be part of the solution.

Moreover, regardless of the level of education, it is the understanding that our knowledge about the world and how it works is changing that needs to be taught.  The thinking in absolute truths and confirmation bias is a result of a flawed education system that failed to teach students about the constantly expanding nature of knowledge. For instance, teaching climate change is essential but if it is only taught as another “universal” fact then we are not addressing the issue remaining that people will believe what they were taught when young and not change their opinion as new information and knowledge becomes available. Without teaching that knowledge is changing and expanding and that what we learned when young might not be true as time goes on our society will not be ready for an ever faster changing world.  “Green” industries have an obligation to assist in ensuring all people, no matter their background, race or age, have access to this type of education. 

The investment of resources in education to ensure that good policies and leadership result at the federal level will take time to produce tangible results; but this is the long game.  As Ruth Bater Ginsburg said: “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”[13]  True leadership on climate change must include a compassion for why people believe what they do today along with a rethinking of how we approach science education and climate change in our school systems.  It is with compassion that embraces everyone no matter who they are or what they believe that will enable us all to live in a safer future.


[1] “Climate science” is the scientific study of weather conditions that exist in an area over a long period, and how and why they might change.  See https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/climate-science

[2] Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 are now 56 to 74 years old.  Gen X born between 1965 and 1980 are now 40 to 55 years old. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_boomers

[3] A Brief History of Climate Change at https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-15874560

[4] Article: Climate confusion among U.S. teachers available at https://science.sciencemag.org/content/351/6274/664.full

[5] “The scientific “consensus” on climate change has gotten stronger, surging past the famous — and controversial — figure of 97% to more than 99.9%, according to a study by  James L. Powell, director of the National Physical Sciences Consortium, he reviewed more than 24,000 peer-reviewed papers from nearly 70,000 authors on global warming published in 2013 and 2014. Only four reject anthropogenic climate change. See: Powell JL. Climate Scientists Virtually Unanimous: Anthropogenic Global Warming Is True. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society. 2015;35(5-6):121-124. doi:10.1177/0270467616634958.

[6] Climate Change: The IPCC 1990 and 1992 Assessments. IPCC First Assessment Report Overview and Policymaker Summaries and 1992 IPCC Supplement. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/climate-change-the-ipcc-1990-and-1992-assessments.

[7] See e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_climate_change_science

[8] See e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_climate_change_science

[9] “Some States Still Lag in Teaching Climate Science” By Ines Kagubare

E&E News on February 8, 2019. Available at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/some-states-still-lag-in-teaching-climate-science/

[10] Stanford’s recommended middle and highschool curriculum can be found at https://earth.stanford.edu/climate-change-ed/curriculum

[11] See., e.g., Merchants of Doubt. Naomi Oreskes & Erik Conway, May 2011.

[12] Could Greta Thunberg Inspire Appalachia And Coal Country To Embrace Change? By Ken Silvertstein. December 15, 2019 @ https://www.forbes.com/sites/kensilverstein/2019/12/15/could-greta-thunberg-inspire-appalachia-and-coal-country-to-embrace-change/#7693fce536d0.

[13] As quoted in "Notorious RBG"