Monday, 28 October 2013

How to talk to uncle Bob, the climate ostrich

Willard of Never Ending Audit recommended a video on climate communication in the comments at HotWhopper that deserves more attention. In the video George Marshall of explains how to talk to climate ostriches, for example by being respectful to climate ostriches. In the video, he is not talking to the fringe ostriches, however, but to the mainstream. Talking about the ostriches the way one talks when they are not in the room, makes the climate ostriches go mad in the comments. I would advice any ostrich with blood pressure problems not to watch this video.

The video is called "How to talk to a climate change denier" and halfway Marshall explains that that term is best avoided in a productive conversation. Furthermore, it is not about the oddish "debate" in the blogosphere, it is about talking to someone you know about climate change. This is why I rename the video to "How to talk to uncle Bob, the climate ostrich". Marshall offers the term "climate dissenter", I personally like "ostrich", it fits to these people denying that climate change is a problem in a wide variety of (conflicting) ways.

The conversations with family and friends are probably the most important discussions, while you might have the tendency to avoid them. You are more likely to convince your uncle Bob as someone who build his internet identity around refuting that climate change is a problem.

Quotes from the video

Are you struggling to find ways of talking to people who simply do not believe that climate change is happening. ... Do I fight it out with them? ... You just laugh it out and let it go. Actually that conversation is really important. The fast majority of people form their views from the social interactions with people around them, with their peers.

Common ground

Do not go into an argument, seek common ground. ... When you think of the times when you have been challenged. And someone has changed your views. Was that an argument that was won or lost? Did you ever at the end of a conversation with someone say: you know what, you were right all along, silly me, I was wrong all over, you are right.


Okay, I know it is hard to feel much respect for people that ...
They are forming their own views, they are expressing their own views. ... The easy option is to say. Climate change is a huge problem and then not to think about not, not to do anything about it. At least they are engaging. ... Let's respect that quality that they make up their own mind.

Hold your views

It is important that you own your views. Don't make it an argument about an "it". ... Don't seek to undermine their sources of information. That is another discussion about the "it". ... This is again going head to head about the "it".

Your journey

People form their opinions over time, it is a steady process of negotiation. ... So it is important you tell them about the process how you came to your views.

Fits worldview

There is no reason why climate change cannot be a matter of deep concern for conservative people, to traditional people, to old people. ... Try to find ways to talk about it in a way that it concerns about them.

Offer rewards

People who do not believe in climate change nonetheless have very strong values in other areas. They are people who have very strong interest in their community, in their family, in a social life. They'd love to be quite traditional in the sense that they have a very strong sense of identity. ... These are values to speak to.


Bernie West:
"Who is this some government programmed prat. The consensus on this fraud subject was reached before the research had begun."
Had this been the case, I am sure that the consensus would have been that an ice age is coming. Much more scary, much better for science funding.

"cough cough bullshit cough cough... the climate change is a myth and co2 in the atmosphere is good for the plants in the environment..."
Skeptical Science Myth #42.

Fone Star:
"The "environmental movement": orchestrated by planet Earth's biggest scumbags. Create a false crisis and get people to give up their rights, their property, their expectations, their dreams, their sovereignty and their lives."
Relax and try to see the symmetry of the "debate".

robert ludlum:
"I truly believe that all you chicken littles out there should go and live in a deep cave somewhere and leave the rest of us alone. We want oil and natural gas to heat our homes and fuel our cars. If you don't fine, don't use it but stay out of our way."
Sometimes you wonder whether comments are fake.

further reading

How to convince your friends to believe in climate change. It’s not as hard as you think.
An interesting article about the same topic, the first half is about George Marshall. I am not sure whether the strategies would work for me. It would be hard for me to act as if I do not understand the science and am only 90% sure and to fake support for nuclear power as solution.


  1. I've seen that video before and it is very good. It's hard to talk to family members about climate change when they either don't think it's happening or don't think we have anything to worry about. We still have to all get along and so it's often easier just to avoid the topic all together.

    I have two climate science contrarians in my family and we have had many heated discussions. I am glad we live in different countries otherwise we'd be arguing all the time! Sometimes I think it's a pointless waste of energy but then their position has shifted slightly over the last year from climate science is a hoax to it's nothing to worry about. So perhaps it has not all been in vain.

  2. It's hard to discuss climate change because scientifically so little is certain. Too often - as here - the climate science community and activists supporting action against climate change, think it is only a "communication problem". It is not, there is lack of evidence for GHGs being a (big) problem for the world. Any warming above 1 degrees C for a doubling of CO2 is debatable on the grounds that observational evidence for positive feedbacks (even water vapor on climatic time scales) is scarce.

    So if you are concerned about the increase of GHGs then you better accept that many people will not be convinced in the near future and look for common ground on the policy side. So what measures make sense even if you don't see GHGs as a problem. Most policy progress is to be expected when such common ground can be found.

    Marcel Crok

  3. Rachel, yes, such talks are hard and I typically avoid it not to get into an ugly fight. Maybe I should reconsider and I must admit I have some psychological curiosity and would love to understand how these people tick. Internet discussions do not help much for this.

    The most awkward moment was when one of my uncle Bobs came with the argument that it was all a conspiracy of scientists, that is that I was in the conspiracy (I think it was not on purpose, he forgot my profession in the heat of the discussion). Luckily, then his girlfriend stepped in, she has a PhD, and explained him that scientists are curious people and would never do such a thing and that science is also organised in a way that a larger conspiracy is impossible. Mistakes are always possible, conspiracy is nonsense.

    "their position has shifted slightly over the last year from climate science is a hoax to it's nothing to worry about. So perhaps it has not all been in vain."

    That is an important step. I can life with humanity choosing to suffer the consequences. That is democracy. It is allowed to value your current comfort over the future. But I am so fed up with the continuous stream of misinformation and hatred at blogs such as WUWT. Such a important decision should be made well informed, not based on fairy tales.

  4. Marcel Crok, if the uncles Bobs would only challenge the parts of climatology that are uncertain, we would have made a huge stride forward. That would be interesting discussions, that is my job.

    The Serbian climate sceptic I know thinks it is a conspiracy by NATO (it is always funny how short the memory of climate ostriches is, in the 80ies and 90ies the environmental movement had to put a lot of pressure on the governments to break the bonds with their buddies of the oil companies and nowadays these same governments supposedly organised the conspiracy).

    A German colleague is hoping for some miracle not yet known alternative mechanism.

    And the German friend mentioned above simply reads too many blogs and sees it as a conspiracy of scientists and has picked a lot more nonsense from the likes of WUWT.

    It is not my field of expertise, but the assumption that the relative humidity will stay about constant seems logical and warmer air can simply hold more humidity. Do you have any arguments for that being wrong? Preferably with a reference to the scientific literature. Do you have reasons to expect a strong increase in the precipitation efficiency?

    I fully agree with you that there are many more reasons to make the transition to more energy efficiency and renewable energy. I am less sure whether there would be more support for that because most climate ostriches do not like these policies and it sure makes the impression that that is their reason for opposing the science, rather than the science itself.

  5. Victor, I have similar experience with climate ostriches. Moreover, in Slovenia it is quite popular to add chemtrails into the story as another worldwide conspiracy. Our meteorological society has been once accused (and threatened with punishment) that we cooperate in "chemtrail activity" thus harming all population.

    Some people won't accept human-driven climate change as a serious threat no matter what you say. This could be due to negative consequences (thus one should adapt life-style), false impression of climate science (or science in general), wishful thinking about future technology etc. Some of these beliefs have roots in a school system or social environment thus it is very hard to change them quickly. I read an article saying that only 15 % of people don't adjust to the social and cultural habits when moved to another environment (region). I think this clearly demonstrates the importance of what the majority believes in a certain region.

  6. Hi Gregor, I hope the people worrying about chemtrails are not the same as the climate ostriches. The only thing these topics have in common is the supposed government conspiracy.

    When I was doing more work on clouds, I used to get some mails about chemtrails. The tone of the discussion was a lot nicer, maybe because the chemtrail fans do not assume that scientists are involved in their conspiracy.

    Some people cannot be influenced, but I think for most it is not possible to influence them with just arguments, but if their peers have another opinion and see them as fools for being a climate ostrich, that is quite influential. That is likely another reason why there are such large differences in the percentage of climate ostriches between countries. If it were about science, the percentage should be the same everywhere, the evidence does not change nationally.

    It is not for nothing that the Taliban fights school education.

  7. Victor, I think there is some overlap between climate change ostriches and people worrying about chemtrails, but it is not very important. I agree with you that government conspiracy is the common thing of these two groups.

  8. Gregor and Victor, can you find a chemtrail believer who acknowledges climate change? Eli suspects not.

  9. I don't think we should worry about the tiny minority of people who have strong views that climate change is a conspiracy by governments, scientists or both. If you on your own with them just tell them they're wrong and then change the subject.

    However, in a group of people—say your relatives at a festive get-together—if I find there's one person with this viewpoint (usually the person with the loudest voice) I come right out and tell them they're wrong and then cite the 97% and the fact that every major scientific body on the planet states that climate change is happening and is human caused. Whatever they say to support their position I then accuse them of spreading denial memes. If that person ends up falling out with me, then so be it—even if he's my brother-in-law.

    The important thing is not this one person who's in denial but all the other people listening in, who by now have gone quiet. They are the people who can be influenced and all one needs to do is appear the more rational of the two parties arguing.

    So how do you appear the most rational? Well best is to pick up on the extreme weather events in recent years. At the moment one mentions the record December temperatures around the globe, in New York, in Tasmania; the record floods—3 times in one month in Cumbria. And particularly if you know anyone in the room has experienced any aspect of climate change then chances are you will have an ally. Provided one is calm, thoughtful, respectful—but firm and well informed—you'll make your opponent look the irrational oddball.

    What you mustn't do, ever, is let the denial meme slip by unchallenged. Well that's the way I do it. best of luck with it!

    Merry Christmas to all.


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