How to Deal With Climate Skeptics At Thanksgiving Dinner

Ah, the holidays. The time of year for cozy gatherings with family and friends, homemade pie, and festive traditions. Many people will embark on long car rides and trips across state lines to visit loved ones in the hometowns they feel they’ve outgrown. And in between mouthfuls of stuffing and gravy, political gripes and disagreements are almost a guarantee.

You might, for example, hear a grumbling or two about the so-called “climate hoax,” backed up by a statement that our current rate of global warming is nothing but a “natural process.” Uh-oh.

At this point, more than half of Americans are now “alarmed” or “concerned” about global warming, but the issue is becoming more polarized. Many people distrust the scientific evidence that humans are responsible for pushing our world’s climate toward its breaking point, despite scientific consensus. So, what do you do if you are in the alarmed majority and want to talk about climate science with people who are disengaged, doubtful, or dismissive of it? What if some of those people are your aunts and uncles, or your mother or father? Is it possible to change their minds if the topic comes up over Thanksgiving?

Here’s some good news: you are exactly the right person to talk about climate change with your relatives. You are what communication experts call a “trusted messenger,” which is the idea that people are more likely to believe people they trust and more likely to trust people they are personally connected to. And one of the biggest superpowers you, as an individual, have is the ability to communicate the facts.

To best figure out how to communicate climate science to skeptics, we spoke with Sarah Finnie Robinson, senior fellow at BU’s Institute for Sustainable Energy and founder of the 51 Percent Project, which studies the most effective communications messaging for optimal public engagement about climate science. And we spoke with Arunima Krishna, BU College of Communication assistant professor of public relations, who has spent years studying how people talk about controversial social issues like vaccines and climate change. Here’s their advice for how to prepare yourself for any potential dinnertime squabbling on the topic of climate science.

As the consensus about the climate crisis becomes louder, “there could be a feeling of marginalization,” says Krishna. “In the sense that there is a war against people who don’t want to vaccinate their children, for example.” So, defaulting to lecture mode on sea-level rise is not the best way to break through, since it could feel more like an attack.

“Sometimes we forget that the other person also has a point of view. I think we need to listen, not to respond, but to understand,” says Krishna. Have a conversation and get to know where your family member or friend is coming from. Why do they believe what they believe? Where are they getting their information?

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