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Indy Q&A: UNLV professor talks about communicating climate change with skeptics

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg

It’s still a common refrain on climate change: “I don’t believe it.”

President Donald Trump repeated those words in November to reporters after agencies in his government released a report showing that climate change poised a substantial risk to the U.S. economy. The Fourth National Climate Assessment, a 1,656-page report prepared by 13 federal agencies, inventoried the wide-ranging impacts of a warming planet and more extreme weather.

In the Southwest region that includes Nevada, researchers reported that weather driven by human-caused climate change has already contributed to larger fires and streamflow declines in the Colorado River. The report predicts that if nothing is done, climate change could raise temperatures across the Southwest by about 8.6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, straining an already hot region. 

But for the scientists who compiled the report, describing the impacts of human-caused climate change is only part of the equation. In recent years, scientists have come to recognize that communication is another key element. It’s one thing to generate research findings in a lab, but it’s another thing to communicate those issues, especially when a percentage of Americans do not believe that global warming is happening — and many more disagree that humans are the cause.

According to data compiled by the Yale Program on Climate Communications last year, about 18 percent of Americans do not think global warming is happening at all and about 34 percent do not agree with the scientific consensus that humans are causing the overall warming trend.

As an assistant professor in communication studies at UNLV, Emma Frances Bloomfield studies why some Americans are skeptical of climate science. Bloomfield, whose focus is on religious groups, hopes to use some of her research to help scientists and organizers better communicate with people who are skeptical but might be willing to change their minds with new data.

“There are a lot of different ways that people come to know the environment or come to think about the environment, as influenced by their faith,” Bloomfield said in a recent interview. “Some people's faith leads them to climate skepticism, but you're right. There are a lot of other people who identify as Christians who also identify as scientists and environmentalists.”

Although some religious groups and leaders are looking to address climate change, (the Pope’s encyclical on the environment and young evangelicals), many are still skeptical, Bloomfield said.

The Nevada Independent talked to Bloomfield about her research, faith and her new book, “Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment.”

Q: What conclusions have you learned about communicating climate change with groups that are maybe a little bit more skeptical or individuals that are in groups that are more skeptical?

Bloomfield: One of the more interesting things that I learned is that communicating with people who identified as climate skeptics [is that] they would still say that they cared about the environment. It was just that they didn't like the term "climate change." They didn't like the baggage that came with it. They were concerned about potential government overreach or taxation that came with believing in climate change. But they would oftentimes willingly agree that pollution is a problem, air quality is a problem [and] we should invest more in green technologies and encourage more job growth in those sectors. For me, it was more about shifting the conversation into areas where there was already agreement, instead of trying to push this [phrase that] "climate change is real, climate change is real, climate change is real," on repeat.

Q: Right. Was there a difference in how people viewed the cause of climate change?

Bloomfield: Who is responsible for climate change, you mean?

Q: Yeah. Whether climate change is human-caused or as some people say, just the weather.

Bloomfield: Yeah, so that's a good point. I typically use the term "climate change skeptic" because very few people still deny that the climate is changing. But you're right. Climate skeptics will largely say, "Oh, it's mostly natural cycles, or it can be largely attributed to natural cycles and humans aren't really influencing it that much. Or even if climate change is happening, it's not this doom-and-gloom, end-of-the-world, apocalyptic narrative that scientists and environmentalists are talking about." Whereas people who identify as environmentalists are likely to say, "Humans are causing this problem, and also we need to do something about it."

Q: Do you think people you're interviewing about their opinions and how their religion informs their opinions are influenced by other factors, like politics and the media landscape?

Bloomfield: They have to be, yeah. People's ideological systems pull from lots of different places — from politics, from economics, from their faith, from values that they hold, from their social lives growing up, and of course the media they consume. All of that works together, and people do pretty much whatever they can to find alignment between all those areas of their lives, or they might have, you know, cognitive dissonance and have some difficulties.

I was going to say it reminded me of a conversation I had with someone for my book, and they were sending me links to climate-skeptical websites. I told them, "Hey, I'll read your link. But for every link you send me, I'm going to send you one of mine." That's a way to encourage people to get out of their echo chambers. It’s to be open to reading different sources and sharing sources with people. Sometimes people just get into that rabbit hole where all they read is climate-skeptical stuff, and Google keeps feeding them that stuff because that's what they click on. Getting people out of that echo chamber and seeing other perspectives in media I think is really helpful.

Q: Yeah. I mean, it's hard to see any other perspective because we all live in this social media-driven echo chamber and then there's the geographical sorting and all of that stuff.

Bloomfield: Yeah.

Q: We talked a little bit about strategies for communicating, and one you mentioned was finding a place of agreement and expanding from there. What are some other useful strategies?

Bloomfield: I think the best strategy is to not have a strategy at all and to go into conversations being curious and wanting to ask questions, valuing the other person and what their beliefs are. I do want people to think about the person behind the belief. Don't go in assuming that this person is ignorant or that they're stupid, but these are the same claims often levied against me by climate change deniers who don't like the work that I'm doing. I want to say, "I'm really trying to help," to them, but some people are really going to be unreachable, unfortunately.

Q: How important are the opinions of a group leader in shaping the opinions of the group? For example, the Pope coming out with his encyclical or other leaders, or even the president's views on climate. How significant are those views in shaping the views of the whole group?

Bloomfield: They can be extremely important in the sense that the leader is the figurehead. If a person really connects their group identity to that political party or to that religious denomination, that leader can have a really important impact on how they choose to believe something. They call it social identity theory. Group memberships are going to influence my beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. [But] as a figurehead changes the opinion of the group, there can be struggles, there can be tension. I'm thinking about one person I interviewed for my book who was Catholic, and he actually didn't like what the Pope was doing with the environmental encyclical. I said, "Well, how can that be? That's the leader, right, of your faith," and [he] had issues with the Pope and his leadership, which [he] ended up separating from their faith. That can lead to tension, right.

Q: Have you learned anything about communicating with other skeptical groups that might not be religious groups?

Bloomfield: I hope these strategies I propose in the book are applicable beyond just people who are religious. I think I have that hypothesis because a lot of the conversations that I had with religious people eventually moved off of the topic of religion. People make sense of the environment [in] a lot of different ways. The anchoring of faith was an important inroad for me to get into the conversation. But that wasn't the only thing driving people's beliefs and thoughts about the environment. It gives me optimism that these strategies might be useful for people who might have [be skeptical], but are not strongly influenced by their faith on the environment.

Q: What would you like readers to take away from your book and your research?

Bloomfield: I'd like them to take away that we have far more in common than we might assume on first blush. We are people. We have values. We weigh decisions. We pull on our personal experiences and from authorities in our lives. If we can locate where our disagreements come from — why we think the way that we do — we can have a lot more productive conversations than just trying to get people to believe that climate change is real and exists. We can instead shift the conversation to how do we have better cities? How do we have a more sustainable future?

This interview was shortened and edited for clarity.


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