How to talk climate change with a skeptic: 5 critical tips

Sam Parry

We've entered a new political era and emotions are raw – even over a scientifically settled topic such as climate change. Discussions that escalate into arguments can easily ruin a family holiday party or sour a dinner with friends.

That doesn't mean sensitive topics or opposing views must be swept under the rug.

The trick is to use patience, tolerance, an optimistic tone – and last, but not least, a keen understanding of your audience – to nudge your climate-skeptic sister or father-in-law. You may find they're suddenly open to your views.

Here are five tips to keep in mind as you get ready for the conversation.

1. First of all: Don't get angry.

If you begin a sentence with, "That's really stupid," the conversation might as well end there. Above all, show respect for the other person's position. The goal is to build trust – not to prove a point.

2. Leave apocalypse to the movies.

Avoid drawing a picture of planetary catastrophe. You might suggest that combating climate change could lead to economic opportunities, job growth, greater social justice and improved public health. Climate change doesn't have to be about how the world ends.

3. Seek common ground.

By expressing respect for people's religious or political views you may be able to persuade them that curbing climate change isn't at odds with their identity.

People of faith, for example, may respond to the fact that rising temperatures and stronger storms will threaten vulnerable groups around the world. They may also be interested to learn that religious leaders from every major creed, including the pope, have urged action on climate.

Those concerned about jobs may be interested in hearing how the United States is a leader in developing clean energy technologies, or that our homegrown solar energy industry is adding tens of thousands of jobs.

The U.S. military saying that climate change is a major threat to our national security, meanwhile, would interest people focused on that topic.

4. Tell your own stories.

Large data sets may be the best way to convince a scientist, but for the rest of us, shared personal experiences are the best persuaders.

Has the beach you've been visiting since childhood been eroding every year? Do you have a relative whose business out West is failing because of drought caused by climate change? Did your town unexpectedly flood?

Most of us have at least one of these stories. Share yours and ask your climate skeptic to think of changes to weather patterns or landscapes.

5. Stick to the facts.

Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists unequivocally agree that climate change is happening now and that humans are the main cause. Like gravity, our warming climate is a scientific fact. Step off a cliff and you will go down, regardless of your belief.

Having your facts straight is important, so do your homework and offer to get back to your father-in-law with more information if you can't answer a question.

Before you know it, he may soon come your way on the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions and start a conversation of his own with an old climate-skeptic friend. It's how we get the ball rolling. 


À la COP22, ils ont discuté tout la transition énergétique, les carburants fossiles, le charbon....sauf l'accroissement démographique.
En effet, tout est lié à l'accroissement démographique. Si le nombre d'habitants augmente, la consommation des aliments augmente, celle de l'eau et de l'électricité augmente, le nombre de véhicules augmente......etc, et par conséquent la pollution augmente.

D'autre part, chaque personne rejette par respiration environ 300 kilogrammes de dioxyde de carbone par an qu'on multiplie par 7 milliards (nombres d'habitants actuellement de notre planète) = 2,1 milliards de tonnes de CO2 dans l'atmosphère. En 2020, le nombres des humains dans le monde passera, selon une étude, à 9,6 milliards et le taux de CO2 dans l'atmosphère par respiration sera 28,8 tonnes. Si les plantes et en particulier les arbres ont l'avantage de rejeter le CO2 la nuit et de l'ABSORBER le jour par photosynthèse, ce n'est pas le cas pour les humains qui rejettent CO2 jour et nuit.
En outre, il ne faut pas oublier la déforestation, j'ai lu dernièrement qu'au Mexique, ils ont substitué plusieurs hectares d'arbres en cultivant l'avocat. Il y a aussi les lobby de l'immobilier qui occupent les forêts avec préméditation. Donc, les humains augmentent en nombre et les arbres diminuent.
Ma question est quels sont les moyens et les solutions pour limiter l'accroissement démographique ???

LAMIRI Moustapha
November 22, 2016 at 6:28 pm

I think this misreads climate change skeptics. They don't believe that there are real benefits in the clean economy, they don't believe "experts" and they believe ciaims of climate change are really a hidden agenda to socialism.

I believe the better approach is to work through the risk and insurance perspective. We don't expect our house to burn down, but we have house insurance because the potential outcome is catastrophic. Don't try to convince them that it will happen, rather focus on what could happen. And then go into the side benefits of investing in insurance.

November 22, 2016 at 9:53 pm

Conflict of interest:

"If your research doesn't support my political agenda, you will not receive the grant money."

John Baker
November 22, 2016 at 10:28 pm

This "old timer" has watched climate change for years. For some, "denial" is a safe place. Do hope they can remain there.

November 23, 2016 at 9:09 am

Nah, you have to equate that with air pollution and other pollution that are a problem worldwide. Also, if worldwide drought happens, that will affect food supplies in the United States. Also point to glaciers melting as proof.

November 23, 2016 at 12:54 pm

I like to use the hemp angle, planting to harvest cycle of 2 months or less, Sequesters carbon, harvested hemp can be made into hemp-crete, dimensional lumber and hemp-ply, all stronger with greater thermal values than existing products have, and carbon stays sequestered. Hemp used for human and animal foods, textiles, hemp-plastics, car, truck and maybe airplane bodies! All while absorbing pollution from air, soil and water.

Cultivated worldwide, hemp can have a major impact on climate instability.
Oh yes, hemp can also replace every product made from petroleum.

Paul Boehme
November 24, 2016 at 12:52 am

I have a few pictures of houses that have been near the beach since the 1940 's and some newer homes. Many are falling into the ocean. I'll ask the skeptics what they think it is. It is difficult to hold a straight face with some of the answers. I tell them even if it can't be global warming, do you see any harm in trying to be less wasteful or helping the poor guy who is losing his home?

Usually they are willing to try a few things. Many times I find the person develops new ideas on their own after a few good suggestions. If you tell them it is urgent, they seem to rebel more. There is also a few simple sayings I wish people [would consider]. "Leave it be." "Leave it how you found it, if not better." "If it's good for the Earth, do it, if not, don't."

November 24, 2016 at 9:25 am

This is so lame. Sorry, but it is. Sounds like my third-grade teacher. Better to stop trying; talk about sports and put your energy into electing a better government [instead].

aMan Bloom
December 23, 2017 at 2:24 pm

Why do you say lame? Does avoiding the discussion help you?

December 28, 2017 at 7:31 pm

In reply to by aMan Bloom

I wrote 'lame' because it's obvious that the writer hardly knows or has dealt with those who believe otherwise. No amount of hand-hoiding, obsequious understanding or halfway meeting will convince the die-hard denialist. The suggestions are so innocently presented as to be embarrassing. Better to fight against the injustice of their thinking than waste time trying to convince them otherwise. Get off the couch or out of the coffee shop, stop eating turkey, and take your case to the streets, the courtrooms, the voting booth.

aMan Bloom
December 29, 2017 at 2:26 pm

In reply to by Tilton

These days (September 2018), most skeptics and deniers concede that the climate is warming. But they deny the warming is caused primarily by man’s burning of fossil fuels. How would you suggest we make that point in conversations with skeptics?

Michael Weinreb
September 22, 2018 at 11:40 am

Hi Michael and thank you for your comment. I use this, lifted from the blog post:

“Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists unequivocally agree that climate change is happening now and that humans are the main cause. Like gravity, our warming climate is a scientific fact.” 

Karin Rives
October 1, 2018 at 12:31 pm

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