Scientists have been researching human-caused climate change for more than 50 years, inexorably fitting together puzzle pieces of atmospheric composition, interactions between different parts of the Earth system, rates of change, and feedback mechanisms.

Their efforts have led to huge strides in understanding of the Earth. But one variable stands out as perhaps more stubborn than the rest; a factor that defies laws of physics: human behavior. A number of physical scientists have wandered into the unfamiliar territory of social science as they try to understand what leads people to accept or reject the findings of scientific endeavors. They’ve learned that to better grapple with the problems of human-driven climate change, they must also learn more about what makes humans “tick.”

That’s one of the motivations behind the recent Yale Climate Connections “Common Ground” series, the subject of a brief video made as part of a presentation in December 2017 at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, AGU. The ideological stalemate around climate change in the U.S. by now is sadly familiar, with an intractable gulf separating the ranks of — by whatever terms seem adequate or inadequate — “believers” and “doubters.”

Image credit: Karin Kirk

It’s not difficult to get a sense of that stalemate while skimming comments on social media or dodging the topic at a family gathering. But climate change also offers tantalizing opportunities for finding common ground: energy efficiency is something few argue against, for example. The notions of stewardship of the planet and clean energy enjoy broad acceptance across the U.S. So can areas of general agreement serve as a launch pad to venture into trickier, more polarizing aspects of climate change? Will people join a conversation with those holding different viewpoints? Would mutual understanding be possible?

In challenging times for public discourse, this project offered an opportunity for people to interact with those beyond their usual ideological sphere in an attempt to resolve differences.

The project involved learning how to uncover common ground between varying ideologies. Collaborators helped refine the questionnaire used to invite participants and measure their ideologies. Once the methods were firmed-up, pairs of people engaged in live conversations via video conference, leading to a series of articles along the way.

With each dialogue, the approach has yielded worthwhile insights, and, taken together, promising themes.

Forget the tirades, quell the yelling

One way to foster productive dialogue is to steer away from those harboring strongly polarized and perhaps unchangeable positions. That kind of cable news “face off” can make for clickbait journalism, but a clash of ideologies is unlikely to reveal insights about how to overcome what amounts to institutional divisiveness.

On both “sides” of the climate change issue, some self-nominated volunteers appeared more interested in advancing a particular point of view than in appreciating someone with a different outlook. “The public has been fooled into believing such nonsense as ‘97% of scientists support the alarmist global warming position,’” wrote one respondent, showing little interest in broadening that perspective.

But amidst the din of daily he said/she said, most Americans aren’t hyper partisan; those extreme voices may be loud, but they don’t represent the public at large. Only 10 percent of Americans are “dismissive” toward climate change, according to Global Warming’s Six Americas* data. Most Americans – around 60 percent – are somewhere in the middle. Theirs are the open minds on climate change, making them more willing to engage with those having hardened views.

This sentiment was echoed during the interviews: “There’s too much screaming and not enough talking,” said one as he described the state of the climate conversation.

Even with the extremes screened out, the pool of volunteers offered sufficient contrast to create intriguing matchups. For example, a Seattle resident unsure she could trust climate scientists paired with a climate scientist. A Republican wary of government involvement spoke with a volunteer from the Citizen’s Climate Lobby.

Not so divided as many might think

Throughout their dialogues, each pairing agreed on key points, and in each case there was at least one topic where the two interviewees took positions contrary to what one might have predicted of them.

For example, a Republican college student was more trusting of climate scientists than a climate advocate. In another example, a participant voicing a more conservative perspective expressed stronger support for protecting Earth’s resources than did the environmental scientist she was matched with.

Of the nine topics on the questionnaire, the most common areas of agreement were:

– Corporations’ having little to no role in setting public policy.
– Humans’ having a significant negative impact on the Earth.

Each conversation began with an exploration of these shared values, which established trust and laid the groundwork for the productive dialogues that followed.

When people predict what others think, they are often wrong

Read a few posts deep into a social media debate and you’re likely to come across an odd behavior. In an attempt to cast the other side as unreasonable, commenters assign a bunch of additional – and extreme – positions to their adversaries.

Anyone gullible enough to believe climate “science” obviously can’t think for themselves … you’re too busy worshipping Al Gore and his plans for wealth redistribution.

This piling-on of assumptions happens on both “sides” of the issue, and is a sure bet to cripple prospects for rational discussion. So, how well do assumptions about other people’s views mesh with reality?

Prior to each of the two-person dialogues, both participants learned about their dialogue partner: age, occupation, hometown, hobbies, spirituality, political involvement, and Six Americas profile. Based on that information, each person tried to predict the partner’s stance on environmental topics.

So, for example, based on what Brenda Alfred and Heidi Steltzer learned about each other, how well could they predict each other’s views about the tradeoffs between environmental regulation and job growth? Or the extent to which environmental problems are exaggerated?

Here are Alfred and Steltzer’s responses to the environmental questions. Even without reading the exact questions, the overlap between their views is clear.

Image credit: Karin Kirk

And here’s what they thought each other’s positions would be. Look at the big gaps that they anticipated.

Image credit: Karin Kirk

Here is another example from participants Susan Elizabeth and Ed Maurer. Actual answers:

Image credit: Karin Kirk

Predicted answers:

Image credit: Karin Kirk

Steltzer and Alfred each laughed when they saw their real vs. predicted answers. “It’s fantastic!” Steltzer mused enthusiastically. “It’s easy to think someone’s one dimensional.”

This exercise allowed people to appreciate their interview partner as a real person with complex views, rather than a stereotype. It helped, too, that people invariably were closer together in their attitudes than they expected. As a result, they had an interaction in which neither person was defensive, and both were instead primed to be inquisitive and open.

Highlights from each conversation

Frame solutions to show immediate, tangible economic benefits: Paul Agle and Travis Madsen

Paul Agle, an oilfield geologist turned science teacher, joined Travis Madsen, a professional climate advocate, for a discussion focused on renewable energy. Agle didn’t view climate change as a pressing problem, and thought the free market should usher in renewable energy when it made sense to do so.

Madsen advocated that cleaning up our energy supply now saves money now, as a result of lowered health care costs, job growth, and consumer savings. Agle was swayed by the idea of immediate benefits, rather than distant intangibles. “We can focus on those aspects where there’s a net positive economic gain, regardless of the climate change issue.” Agle said, “Everyone should be able to get on board with that.”

Engage as a fallible, inquisitive human, not as an all-knowing scientist: Brenda Alfred and Heidi Steltzer

The biggest area of discord reflected in the two-person dialogues was the gulf between Brenda Alfred and Heidi Steltzer on their confidence in science. Alfred scored her trust of scientists with the lowest possible rating. “A lot of data can be skewed. Any answers can be come up with that could be different,” she explained during the interview.

Steltzer, an environmental scientist who studies climate change, did not seek to override Alfred’s point of view. Instead, Steltzer asked questions to learn more about what shaped Alfred’s perspective. Steltzer also acknowledged that scientists have work to do, “We haven’t shared science in ways that build trust,” she said.

Steltzer went on to explain her research not by talking about her data and conclusions, but by painting a visceral narrative of the struggles and joys of field work in Alaska as she investigated “collapsing” lakes in the Arctic tundra. She was fallible as she shared aspects of her work that humbled her. Alfred listened intently, became engaged, and ultimately had a change of heart.

Acknowledge valid questions; give answers in plain English: Susan Elizabeth and Ed Maurer

Susan Elizabeth spent years thinking and reading about climate change, but found herself hesitant to accept some of the scientific claims. Her primary concern was that scientists might be likely to “pile on” and simply repeat each other’s conclusions. Ed Maurer, a climate researcher from Santa Clara University, was gracious and calm as he listened to Elizabeth’s questions and presented answers in a non-confrontational way.

Like Steltzer, Maurer was careful not to dismiss Elizabeth’s questions, but rather he heard her out and acknowledged that she raised legitimate concerns. Maurer agreed that it can be hard to find accurate yet easy-to-digest information about climate change. “We’re loaded with jargon that obscures what shouldn’t be as impenetrable as it is.”

Maurer’s approach helped Elizabeth appreciate climate science: “The conversation gave me enough information to feel more secure about accepting scientific claims about climate change,” she wrote in a follow-up e-mail.

Republican values are not per se inconsistent with climate policy: James Wilcox and Don Kraus

College student James Wilcox has deep Republican roots, and he viewed climate policy as an economic hindrance with little to offer working people and rural populations.

In his conversation with Don Kraus, a tireless optimist and volunteer with the Citizen’s Climate Lobby, Wilcox came to appreciate how a carbon tax could return money to people in rural or economically depressed areas.

Wilcox also illuminated several strategies that he thinks could resonate with Republicans: Don’t create policy that punishes companies or regular working people; give financial support to people at risk from higher energy prices or fearing loss of jobs; find conservative messengers who can advance climate change issues; look for win-wins like renewable energy; and above all, don’t be condescending toward rural communities.

What’s next?

More conversations are planned and new collaborations are emerging. The University of California Cooperative Extension used video from Elizabeth and Maurer’s conversation to help faculty and staff practice climate communication. An Iowa college professor has adapted the questionnaire for discussions with an ideologically diverse student body, and a student environmental club in Alabama is seeking to use the interview format to guide its own conversations. A group called SMART is interested in training climate scientists and advocates to have conversations that are both civil and persuasive.

These are promising developments, each one broadening the reach to new audiences. In the meantime, there’s hope too that readers here can use these examples to reflect on their own roles in the ongoing dialogue on climate change challenges and opportunities.

The author is grateful for guidance from Don Haas, PhD, and Katharine Hayhoe, PhD, to help shape this project and communicate the findings. Haas helps educators grapple with teaching controversial topics in the classroom and is the director of teacher programming at the Paleontological Research Institution. Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist, professor of public policy, and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University.

*Editor’s note: The Six Americas study referred to in this series is the work of Anthony Leiserowitz, PhD, who heads the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, publisher of this website.

The ‘Common Ground’ Series:

Seeking ‘common ground’ in climate change dialogues

Changing one’s views through dialogue

Middle ground: Fertile for climate change dialogue

Dissolving stereotypes and seeking climate ‘solutions’

Finding common ground amid climate controversy

Karin Kirk

Karin Kirk is a geologist and freelance writer with a background in climate education. She's a scientist by training, but the human elements of climate change occupy most of her current work. Karin is...