Lessons from the Field: How Climate Access Members Are Dealing with the Opposition

Lessons from the Field: How Climate Access Members Are Dealing with the Opposition

To find out what strategies for overcoming the opposition are most effective for those trying to engage the public on climate challenge, we asked a handful of Climate Access members working in the public and nonprofit sectors the following question: What is the main lesson you’ve learned from trying to dealing with opponents of action on climate?

We hope you find their responses and stories valuable and we encourage other Climate Access members to comment and share your lessons.

Annie Heuscher, land use program manager, Community Food & Agriculture Coalition:

I’ve learned that to meet the opponent where they are, I have to understand the psychology of why they might not agree or not be emotionally capable of coming to terms with climate change. Kari Norgaard’s work and her report for the World Bank in particular, have been very helpful at understanding this. Knowing the psychological challenges people face with coming to terms with climate change, I have seen groups that include a sort of AA-like group therapy finding a lot of success in helping others feel supported in coming to terms with some of the fear, self-loathing, and end-of-the-world type psychological obstacles that climate change can create for us.  That social support is really really important and I don’t think can possibly be overstated.


Kellyn Garrison, Southeast regional coordinator, US Climate Action Network:

Opponents of climate action and climate change deniers very often speak from a place of fear.  They may fear a loss of independence, property, job security, investments or any number of things.  Too often, we disregard or discount fears as unfounded, but I assure you, to the believer they are very real!  I’ve noticed that if I take minute to listen, meet the person where they are, and understand the basis of their worry, I have a much better chance at an honest conversation about climate change, while also avoiding an unproductive back-and-forth.


Heather Bauer, senior climate action analyst, Climate Action Secretariat, Province of BC:

From a public service perspective, any climate action must have some clear and tangible benefit to society. If the only benefit communicated is “to fight climate change,” this is when we find opposition: partially due to climate change denial, alternatively due to the breadth and complexity of the issue. Many people still do not fully understand climate change and what it means to them.

Carbon Neutral Government is a good example of a climate action that garners opposition. For the first few years it was mostly communicated as a “demonstration of leadership,” because it was a commitment to have government put “its own house in order” and to “walk the talk” given legislated province-wide emission reduction targets set in 2007. We were going to fight climate change.

When a high-level, leadership-oriented goal is the focus, it is easy for opposition to question it because there are few tangible facts to rebut with – it becomes mostly about ideology. The application of offsets, which are contested even by environmental groups, also created dissonance and hinders full support for an effective approach to reducing emissions overall.

In just the last year we have been able to communicate tangible benefits, because since achieving Carbon Neutrality in 2010, the policy is demonstrating it’s power.

The real, on the ground, in-your-community benefits of Carbon Neutral Government show that when you understand your carbon footprint (a requirement of carbon neutrality), you find savings. Saving emissions usually means saving energy, which means saving money. Requiring offset purchases also creates a strong financial incentive (that did not exist before) to reduce public sector emissions. A carbon-neutral public sector also means green jobs in every community where there is a school, college, university or hospital or a qualifying offset project.

In summary, we’ve learned that it is most effective to communicate the tangible, local benefits of a climate action policy whenever possible, without losing the message that we are helping to solve a global problem with local solutions.


Sascha Petersen, executive director, Adaptation International:

The main lesson Adaptation International has learned in from trying to deal with opponents of action on climate change is to start by focusing on the needs of the current climate and extreme weather-related concerns of communities and/or businesses.

Catalyzing action to increase community resilience to climate change does not necessarily require agreement about the human causes of climate change. In many cases, it is possible to have a conversation about current climate and weather-related vulnerabilities, such as drought and extreme heat, and to begin to develop response strategies without getting into the background on climate change.  Sure, it will be great to eventually incorporate climate change, so that the climate preparedness strategies address future needs, but getting the ball rolling to decrease vulnerability doesn’t always require that type of conversation.  

For example, water supply and availability is going to be a big issue under most climate change scenarios for central Texas.  We are working in help address these needs, but so far our conversations have focused on how to better prepare communities to face droughts like the one that occurred during 2011.  Addressing these needs will better prepare central Texas for a drier future, but does not require explicit agreement on the underlying causes of climate change, merely an acceptance of the observed reality.


John Atkeison, energy policy director, Nebraska Wildlife Federation:

It is important to differentiate between opponents and folks who simply have the wrong opinion and might be persuaded by being exposed to a different point of view or convincing arguments that address their actual concerns (as opposed to the crap memes put in their heads by opponents).

For a real committed opponent, determine that this is who they are, then walk away. If I still had all the time I have wasted talking with these people I could use it by actually educating the educable, organizing the organizable, and get them into the street to actually change the world…which is what we are about, right?

A very secondary thought—their opposition is very frequently tied up with their own identity. They are pro-coal, it is not just one of a collection of opinions, for example.  For many of these people, we would have to address aspects of who they think they are to change them.  Once they do begin to change, they can change profoundly, for the same reason; or they can withdraw altogether.  But this task is more akin to soul-saving than political campaigning.


Peter Bardaglio, coordinator, Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative:

Trying to discuss the need for climate action with those who oppose taking such steps makes clear to me that nothing I say or do is going to change their minds. In my role as coordinator of the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI), I’ve found that the best way to engage such folks is to stay focused on the need for improving energy efficiency and reducing energy consumption, building a more resilient local food system, and creating healthier neighborhoods.

This doesn’t mean giving up on the effort to educate the general public. We provide lots of opportunity on our web site, for instance, about what climate change means, why it is so urgent to take action, and the specific impact it will have on our state (New York). We also provide a significant list of resources relating to climate change, climate protection agreements, and climate action plans. But these do not make up the core of our main strategy.

Instead, we emphasize ways in which the transition to a cleaner, more efficient energy economy can promote a more sustainable economy and society. We highlight success stories in the community that make such efforts more personal and other similar efforts taking place in upstate New York. Our electronic newsletter as well as our web site seek to get the word out about this work. 

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment so far is to launch what will be the first community-owned wind farm in New York, Black Oak Wind Farm, a 20 MW project located just outside of Ithaca. We just successfully concluded our seed capital round, raising $1.2 million from about 76 individuals, and will be moving to the next stage of getting this project off the ground. We’ve been getting some great national press (see here, for example), but more important is the tremendous support we’ve been receiving from the community.

It’s this kind of effort, one that provides local investors a great opportunity to get involved in the clean energy economy, creates local jobs, produces competitively priced renewable energy, and by the way, helps to reduce the region’s carbon footprint, that TCCPI is trying to promote. And as president of Black Oak, I’m following the proverbial advice about putting my money where my mouth is.


William S. Spitzer, vice president of programs, exhibits, and planning, New England Aquarium:

In the world of aquariums (and zoos, science centers, etc.), I think there is a disproportionate fear of encountering climate change skeptics or deniers. However, the reality — and there is now considerable survey data to support this — is that the vast majority of our audiences accept the science, and understand that climate change is happening now, it has serious consequences, and it is being largely driven by humans. Most of our visitors fall into the “alarmed” and “engaged” end of the Six Americas spectrum. In fact, a problem is that many of these folks may not “oppose action on climate change” but are feeling overwhelmed and not sure that there is anything that they can do.

We see it as our job to help our visitors understand climate change as a problem with solutions that they can engage in on an individual, community, and civic level. For those who are less convinced, we aim to frame climate change in terms of values that are broadly shared — such as stewardship and responsible management. So, we have been working with interpreters and educators to help them create more dialogue with the public on this issue — using what we know about climate science, climate solutions, and communication to appeal to a broad public audience. We believe that informal learning institutions have a critical role to play — in that we reach large audiences, leverage the 95% of time that is spent outside of school, are well trusted by the public, and have the ability to translate science for the public.

We have found that bringing together informal educators to learn together with climate scientists and experts in cognitive social science has helped them increase their confidence, self-efficacy, and a sense of hope in their ability to effectively communicate to the public about climate change. And, this sense of hope and optimism has a powerful “ripple effect” on those they work with at their own institution, as well as others in their social and professional networks. I think there is often too much focus on climate change as a divisive issue, and not enough on how we be innovative and work together. As someone said “the stone age did not end because we ran out of rocks” — we can do better than to remain stuck in the fossil fuel age.


John Morris, interpretive program manager, National Park Service, Alaska Region:

In my case, I encounter skeptics infrequently, and in informal settings. The main lesson I’ve gleaned from many of these contacts is that their skepticism generally stems from ideological roots.  The science is pretty clear now – so unless they’ve just not paid attention, they have personal reasons to not trust the evidence.  Consequently, it’s not useful to argue or debate with them the “facts.”  However, if I listen and seek an honest understanding of their opinions, it’s often possible to find a common basis for conversation. The goal here is not to convince or persuade, but simply to have a dialogue – an honest exchange of ideas. If it’s possible to engage in this way – the exchange does several things. It offers me a clearer understanding of their ideology and of the studies, if any, that inform it. It enables me to connect with them on a human level, a place where mutual respect can develop and grow.  And it may give me an opportunity to offer a reference or quote, or an idea, which might open them up to further consideration.  It doesn’t have to – but sometimes it can.

We are in the early stages of a societal change that may take decades to accomplish – small steps are a good start.


Joelle Novey, director of Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light:

There is no other area of life where people say, “I want everyone else to stop doing that wrong thing first, and then I’ll do the right thing.” For instance, we don’t say, “I’m not going to stop stealing until every other person in my city isn’t stealing.” Yet I hear that argument around our responsibility, personally, and as a nation, regarding climate change all the time.

People say, “Why should we do right by our neighbors, why should we think of future generations, why should we have good policies on climate if China or India are not yet doing the right thing?” That’s not a moral argument we would accept in any other sphere of life.

I want to strive myself to do the right thing. I want to push my community to do the right thing. I want my country to do the right thing. I hope that caring people in China will also ask their government to do the right thing, but that to me is neither here nor there. I want to push myself and my community and to ask my country to be a leader in doing the right thing on climate, regardless of how other people are behaving.