Why I’m swearing off engaging with climate denial

Arguing with deniers doesn’t work; let’s focus on encouraging action amongst our allies instead

Climate denial is as old as our understanding of climate change itself. I’m sure that even Theophrastus (fourth century BCE Greece) or Shen Kuo (Song dynasty China) had their scientific observations met with a fair share of shrugs, frowns, and outright laughter. Sadly, after decades of modern efforts to raise awareness of our inbound anthropogenic climate catastrophe, denialism remains an inescapable feature of the landscape today.

I won’t give the main offenders any more oxygen by calling them out here – we know who they are, both as individuals and corporations. What is worth highlighting is the way that contemporary denialism has become an adept shapeshifter in response to the success of the wider climate movement. Flat-out (flat-earth?) denial still exists, although it looks lonelier by the day; but it is being replaced by more subtle forms of foot-dragging, distraction, relativism, greenwashing and greenhushing.

Anyone who has been in this game a while will have their war stories from engaging with deniers. It is exhausting – not only emotionally, but also in terms of time, energy, resources, and attention. No wonder swathes of the climate community suffer burnout and issue fatigue.

Today – and in the spirit of belated new year’s resolutions – I am swearing off engagement with climate denial completely. Frankly, this decision has been coming for a while. In 2022 I decided to approach skeptics as partners rather than opponents. I still believe in that approach for those who are open to a conversation in good faith. But denialism is something else – and a recent conversation with the brilliant Zoe Chance LINK made up my mind for good. Zoe is an Assistant Professor at Yale School of Business, the author of Influence is your Superpower, and a growing activist in the climate space. All of which means she was able to offer the behavioural science and psychological insights that transformed my long-held hunch into a clear path forward.

Here is the case for giving up on denial for good. But first, why do we think engaging with deniers is so important in the first place?

The Case for engagement – targeting ‘social referents’

The urge to get into the ring with climate deniers is a natural one, and founded on a genuine insight: if you want to make an impact, start with the influential people. Sadly, a small number of climate deniers have been having an outsized impact for too long. Again, I won’t give them the space here – but a cursory look at the history of right-wing think tanks and the Republican party in the US should be all the evidence we need.

For an interesting parallel, Professor Chance pointed to high-school anti-bullying campaigns. One Princeton study found that, by targeting efforts at just the most influential children (so-called social referents) rather than the entire student body, schools saw greater reductions in conflict. This kind of social network mapping focuses our limited persuasive resources on those who will, in turn, be able to persuade others most effectively. In focussing on climate deniers, we are instinctively targeting those nodes of greatest influence on the other side of the conversation.

Why arguments fail

Unfortunately, trying to convince these people just doesn’t work – and behavioural science can also explain why.

Firstly, we all suffer from false polarisation bias. This psychological finding observes that people on two sides of an issue generally believe that their opponents are more radical than they really are. The result is that we over-estimate the gulf between us, which makes it even harder to approach debates with an open mind and a generous view of our opposite number. This certainly rings true in the climate debate, with both sides seeing the other as extremists – mad, bad, or simply blind to the truth.

Secondly, denialists are generally too deeply committed in their positions to be open to change on a psychological level. We all suffer from loss aversion – the sense that giving something up is more painful than gaining something new. It is easy to forget that this applies to our beliefs and public positions too. Asking someone to publicly change their mind involves a lot of sacrifices; and, as status quo bias teaches us, it’s much easier to ignore new information and stick with what we know. Zoe pointed to Bret Stephens as a recent high-profile convert to climate change; but even here some within the climate community have questioned how far he has really been able to let go of his old positions.

Perhaps most profoundly, we humans just don’t take well to overt attempts at persuasion – particularly when the other side’s argument is deemed bad news. In the face of fear, our System 1 lizard brains (the alligator, in Chance’s metaphor) kick in, and our deliberative System 2 brain (the judge) is relegated to the back seat. As Chance put it:

The reason that I chose the analogy of the gator is because gators are super, super lazy. They’re so efficient that they have a brain the size of a walnut and body that weighs half a ton… and so gators spend almost no resources on thinking or acting. They can go up to three years without eating anything at all. They’re constantly scanning and perceiving, but in almost every case what they’re actually doing is nothing.

Constantly perceiving, but doing nothing – that image will be sadly familiar to anyone who has tried to convince a denier of the urgency of the climate cause.

Priming for action

I’ll be honest here – given up on deniers is a bit of a relief. I agree with Chance that we have been wasting a great deal of energy on those who are most difficult to reach. Furthermore, letting go will release all those resources for something more constructive – convincing those who agree with us to take more concrete action.

‘There are so many of us who are believers, but we’re not yet actors; or we are actors, but not to the degree that we could be,’ Chance said. Our focus, therefore, should be to ‘mobilise the willing.’ None of us are strangers to the fact that the scale, complexity, and urgency of this crisis can be paralysing, no matter how committed one is to the cause. Now that we have won over the majority, we need to help them overcome any such blocks and convert understanding into action.

This is where Professor Chance’s last behavioural hack comes in: implementation intentions. This takes a lofty goal and concretises it into a clear set of if-then steps. Simply going through this planning process in advance – in the form of a conversation, say – primes the brain to store and subsequently activate the desired behaviour when the cue arises. This process – creating strategic automaticity – recruits our System 1 brain to help achieve the goal selected by System 2. Or, in Chance’s image: ‘your judge has made the plan, but the gator has set an alarm clock.’

To take an example close to my heart, let’s imagine we have a friend who is new to the climate cause and wants more renewable energy in their local area. We can help set their implementation intentions with a few simple questions [assuming the following answers]:

  • Who could you speak to about making that happen? [their local planning department]
  • How will you work out how to contact them? [look up the head of planning on the local government website]
  • When will you do that? [Saturday afternoon, after my morning run]
  • What is the first question you will ask that person? [What are the barriers to installing more solar on our local buildings]

Now, when Saturday afternoon rolls around, our friend’s gator brain alarm clock goes off, and they know exactly what concrete actions to take. And regardless of how that first effort pans out, the biggest barrier to action – taking a first step – has been overcome.

This is what becoming a climate influencer can look like. We don’t all need a book deal or a million followers to make an impact. We can start by helping those closest to us turn attitude into action.

It’s easier, gentler, and much more likely to succeed than wading into another Twitter debate with a climate denier. Above all, it works; and easy, gentle, and successful sounds like a recipe for a great 2023 to me.


This article was originally posted on LinkedIn by Christopher Caldwell CEO @ United Renewables | MBA, Sustainability Columnist & Podcast host on


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