The political environment in America is gripped by deep polarization. No news flash there.
Throughout the presidential campaign and in the initial months of the Trump presidency, the public and national politicians have been digging themselves ever deeper into entrenched positions, leaving little hope for compromise or reconciliation.
But sometimes people do the unimaginable: They change their minds.
An AskReddit discussion poses a tantalizing question, “Former climate deniers, what changed your mind?” Responses to the query offer a rare glimpse into the processes of how some people switch camps, outgrowing their parents’ values, having trans-formative experiences, or being worn-down by continually mounting scientific evidence.
The gems of the discussion were 66 posts by people who did a turnabout on their views of climate change. Their comments provide insightful narratives describing the origins of their skeptical beliefs, the reasons they changed their opinions, and the events that caused them to reverse course. Their comments reported below have been lightly edited in a few cases to fix the kinds of typos that routinely characterize such online chats.
One helpful commenter suggested, “Someone needs to take these stories, make a ’10 people who stopped fearing science – number 7 will shock you.’” So I pulled out all the responses, analyzed them for common themes, and digested the takeaways. Wait ’til you see number four.
Family values most common source of science-resistant beliefs
About a third of the commenters started off their post by discussing underlying reasons they originally rejected climate science. Of those, the most common involved beliefs of their family members.
I denied it through middle school, mostly because my family rigorously shot it down whenever it was remotely mentioned.
I grew up actively and obnoxiously denying climate change because my dad told me it wasn’t real.
The Reddit commenters pointed to partisan and tribal values as the second most-common basis of their earlier climate change denial.
I never really questioned my opinion on climate change for a while; a lot of people I know denied climate change, so I figured they must be right.
I had kinda developed the idea that liberals were the “bad guys.”
… raised Republican. Naturally, I believed climate change is leftist bullshit.
I was just in denial and didn’t want to concede any points to the other team.
A surprising source of pushback involved a reluctance to confront the overwhelming scientific evidence that humans are contributing substantially to the problem.
I really doubted it for a while, because honestly it scared me. I figured if I just denied it and pretended it wasn’t a thing, it wouldn’t be and it would just go away.
I believed the ‘climate change is happening but humans aren’t the main cause’ bull. No idea why I thought it, guess it was just said enough and sounded good [because] it removed any blame from us (as a species).
I have never been a Climate Change denier, but didn’t want to believe that it was man-made.
Religion was only a minor factor the Reddit commenters pointed to, and it was commonly entwined with family influences.
I was a complete science denier because that’s what my parents and my private Christian school taught me.
With an understanding of the roots of their beliefs, people settled in to write about what prompted them to do a 180 on their outlook of climate change. Here are the top four factors that caused the Reddit commenters to stop rejecting climate science.
Top four reasons people changed their minds
Science is the biggest factor in shifting mindsets
Nearly half of those previously hell-bent on rejecting climate science actually credited science for updating their views on climate change. The most common rationale was that they simply learned the scientific basis for how human activities and greenhouse gas emissions are principal factors behind the changing climate over the past several decades.
… I reali[z]ed that co2 has an extremely long lifespan in the atmosphere compared to these other gases, and it’s the only one that we are directly responsible for producing via fossil fuels etc.
Another prevalent science-assisted conclusion was the ever-increasing evidence that the climate is changing. The relentless accumulation of data finally became inescapable.
The amount of measurable, observable proof was just too much to ignore.
For me it was when I saw a simple chart – world temp and world CO2 levels, on [a] marked timeline.
… it’s just difficult for me to deny it with the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence that supports it. From what I’ve learned about the process it just makes too much sense to sound fake.
Lastly, 9 percent of the commenters acknowledged trust in scientists or recognized the weight of the scientific consensus.
I started trusting what actual climate scientists said and not what politicians or political pundits were saying.
I’m not an expert so I need to take my lead from them. At a certain point it was no longer possible to deny it.
This sentiment was often paired with commenters’ saying that many voices discrediting climate science appear to them to be untrustworthy or conflicted (more about that later). In essence, these people switched camps based on which side they perceived to be more credible.
The strong influence of science in the responses is bound to be encouraging for scientists who have made understanding the climate system their life’s work and passion. Teachers and science communicators strive to make science relevant and understandable. And at least by this sampling, their work appears not to have been in vain, despite what some describe as an anti-science countercurrent in today’s popular discourse.
Stewardship and care for Earth have universal appeal
Regardless of political ideology, few people admire or yearn for pollution. The notion that we humans ought to take care of the planet struck a chord with more than one-fourth of the Reddit commenters. People recounted stories of polluted skies, dying coral reefs, and collapsing glaciers. Witnessing damage to the environment caused some to acknowledge that humans are altering the earth after all. These anecdotes stood in stark contrast to a common misconception in some quarters that humans are too insignificant to affect the planet.
I’m just worried that future generations down the line that do have to worry about it … (and when it will be too late for them to do anything about it, if we ignore it) will look back and wonder why we didn’t do anything when we had a chance.
The benefits of clean energy also emerged as a theme.
Like a lot of people in this thread have been saying, whether you believe in climate change or not, shouldn’t we just take care of the planet regardless? I mean working against climate change would create advancements in technology, and potentially a more sustainable energy source than fossil fuels, which would solve the inevitable issue of when we run out of the stuff.
One commenter made an appeal to humans’ better nature.
I’d rather unnecessarily make the world a nice place to live than unintentionally contribute to making it less livable for many.
Climate change for many can certainly be a depressing topic, and beating people over the head with doomsday scenarios is unlikely to be effective. But humans can and often do respond to information, experiences, and visuals that ask us to confront the way our species treats the planet. This sampling of Reddit commenters provides some hope that policies and solutions that create less pollution can appeal to the responsibility we feel toward the environment and toward future generations.
Weird, warm, and wild weather help convince people that climate change is real
One of the difficulties in teaching about climate change is the mistaken perception that impacts will take place far-off into the future, and someplace far away. For some, the problem simply lacks immediacy. However, when people have a first-hand experience with changing weather, their views can be profoundly altered.
The most common observation of the weather expressed by the Reddit commenters was that it has been just plain weird.
… the past 3 or 4 years the weather has just been totally bizarre. Winters have been unusually warm, with flash major snow storms scattered throughout, and it’s gotten to the point where something just blatantly feels wrong about it.
Others noted the warmth; several people linked their weather experiences to outdoor recreation, or lack of snow in the winter.
The seasons get worse and worse every year at my local ski resort.
I started looking at winters and how there is less and less snow every year and that made me a believer.
… it was 70 degrees in February and 20 degrees in March.
Public opinion researchers at Yale University and George Mason University find that 51 percent of Americans think global warming is harming people in the U.S. already, or will do so within the next 10 years. This outlook is particularly prevalent in the coastal states. Moreover, unusually warm weather patterns have been shown to increase people’s acceptance of climate change, at least temporarily.
Number Four Will Shock Some: Climate denial appears to be untrustworthy
An interesting sentiment among the commenters was that climate science deniers’ attempts to discredit climate science often had the opposite effect. Commenters concluded that many of those denying climate change do so for political or financial gain, or that they are simply untrustworthy.
I realized that many of the other people denying anthropogenic climate change were being funded by the fossil fuel industry and that almost everyone else – most importantly, the vast majority of climate scientists – agreed on the human cause.
I quickly discovered that every single argument meant to dismiss the science or discredit it was rooted in profound ignorance. Which makes sense in hindsight as how can we expect conservative bloggers to know anything about carbon isotopes, silicate weathering, aerosol dimming, albedo effects, mean resident times of green house gasses etc.
Then I started thin[kin]g about it on my own and realized that everyone who was a “denier” had a vested financial interest in ignoring the problems of fossil fuels. Basically coal companies and oil companies.
… the major deniers were becoming more and more just cranks.
Long-time climate scientists and climate science educators can find it frustrating to go head-to-head with those indelibly determined to reject climate science. The Reddit commenters suggest that their efforts to undermine sound science can backfire, and can actually boost people’s sense that the science is legitimate after all. Despite initially being doubtful about climate change, people’s exposure to misinformation in a number of cases led them to reevaluate their original views. That’s cause for hope, and it shows that it’s worthwhile to illuminate how abject climate science denial in many cases is spurred by financial, political, and “world view” factors unrelated to actual scientific understanding.
The circumstances of changing viewpoints
Many of the Reddit commenters noted a specific catalyst that shifted their stance. The most common was a science class in high school or college.
… in [high] school, we had a week-long segment on weather systems and climate change. We watched a documentary on climate change which included an interview with Al Gore (didn’t like Al Gore at the time due to my parents). I wasn’t interested in what Al wanted to say, but couldn’t turn away from the data that he was showing….I didn’t like his conclusion so I did A LOT of research on the topic. Reading through many of the reports that were cited in the documentary, I was very surprised to realize that the docuentary was not at all exaggerating. My view did a 180. I felt embarrassed for being so rude to my teacher when topics like this were discussed.
Videos and films also proved to be game-changing, such as Chasing Ice, Planet Earth, or a video in church:
… the biggest turning point was then a video put out by my church actually touched on the importance of caring for the Earth as a gift from God and as a home for future generations. Until that point I had kinda developed the idea that liberals were the “bad guys” but that video forced me to put a little more thought into things.
A conversation with a peer or trusted expert helped people get their questions answered.
I changed my mind by having a very civilized discussion with another student, we acknowledge the shortcomings (aka arguments against it), and supporting evidence. I realized that there wasn’t a choice between everything is right, or nothing is right. Some is more right than others, and there [is] some very good core evidence to show that the essence of climate change is in fact a thing.
But after I talked with an actual expert who wasn’t involved in agendas at all, it was clear that it wasn’t some skeevy political front, it was actually sound science.
Changing one’s worldview is psychologically difficult. Admitting being wrong is not something most of us can do casually. Some commenters noted that their evolution was in part due to simply growing up and becoming their own person. Others recalled a watershed moment, like observing sea ice from 35,000 feet on a flight from northern Europe. Lastly, some people said their resistance were succumbed to mounting evidence over time. These insights reveal some of the mechanics of changing one’s mind and different pathways that can lead people to re-calibrate their opinions.
For those wanting to help others improve their understanding of climate change, the Reddit thread offers some tangible takeaways.
- Don’t be afraid to use science – either the scientific basis for how we change the climate, or the enormous body of evidence that it’s happening.
- Point out the shared values in taking care of the Earth, polluting less, and allowing future generations greater opportunities to flourish.
- Help people realize that climate change is already upon us, right here, right now. It’s not remote in time or in distance: The changing climate is altering our weather systems and outdoor environment.
- Leverage many peoples’ well-established public trust in scientists while acknowledging the public’s healthy skepticism toward special interests.
Allow me my own bit of parting advice: be nice. None of the commenters lauded the effectiveness of flaming arguments, shaming, or condescending treatment. Letting go of a long-held belief is hard. We can support people and give them rational, relatable reasons to appreciate the science of climate change. We have the evidence and the credibility on our side. Let’s not squander the high ground.
Letter to the editor
The article, “Changing minds on a changing climate”, by Kirk April 18th describes an interesting but potentially dangerous (i.e. misleading) self-motivated social news aggregation online service called “Reddit”, where a reddit member poses a question, and other Reddit members can choose to respond or not with an answer/comments/discussion.
The particular thread discussed in the Yale article was in response to an initial question posed about what caused individual climate-change deniers/skeptics to change their minds and now believe (accept) that global warming is occurring and that humanity’s activities are primarily responsible due to those activities causing an increase in the amount of greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide and methane) in the atmosphere.
This is about as far from being a scientifically-conducted study as could possibly be imagined. It plays into and risks almost every conceivable opportunity for distortion, both unintentional (for example, confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, cognitive bias, motivated reasoning, heuristic bias, and a long list of processes that result in irrational thinking) and intentional (the Machiavellian sowing of misleading information in attempts to distort readers’ conclusions, etc). Potential biases built into the phrasing of the question, and the lack of random sampling of potential responders are related concerns.
As interesting as the results and conclusions may appear, we can only guess at the relevance of the responses and their potential correctness or incorrectness by comparing their conclusions to the conclusions of carefully planned, designed, executed, analyzed and discussed, peer-reviewed, scientific studies.
Most conclusions of the Reddit exercise are consistent with conclusions of those of real scientific studies, other conclusions seem novel.
As interesting as this study appears to be for us who are desperate for more effective ways to convince deniers and skeptics that the science is strong and valid, we must be ever-vigilant not to be swayed by unsubstantiated opinions, anecdotes, and faulty evidence.
I’m surprised that Yale would publish such an analysis without at least alerting the reader to its unscientific methods and its severe limitations and potential pitfalls. If Reddit were a scholarly endeavor, an excoriating “letter to the editor” would be needed. But the whole purpose of Reddit is not to arrive at objective truths, I presume, but rather to gather some interesting thoughts and anecdotes that might lead to well-designed studies in search of objective truths. It may have achieved that goal.
Ray Frackelton, PhD
Editor’s Response: We appreciate the constructive spirit with which Dr. Frackelton offered these comments. The piece we posted by Karen Kirk was based on her analysis of the relevant Reddit comments. Nowhere did Kirk claim the analysis to be scientific or suggest her conclusions are generalizable. They are just interesting themes drawn from an online discussion, and neither she nor we claim these as scientific findings. It would indeed be interesting and worthwhile to conduct a peer-reviewed scientific review of the literature. But that clearly is not what Ms. Kirk did, and not what this journalism site is. We’re gratified that others who have referenced the article for what it is, and not for what it is not and did not seek to be, have found it of interest and value.