First Published in The Guardian

When does a social attitude become morally unacceptable enough that it is OK to challenge and confront it?

That is the question that motivated a new study conducted at the University of Exeter in which participants were given descriptions of people being confronted after expressing certain views. When the views expressed a disregard for racial equality, the confrontations were approved of. But challenging – even politely – a disregard for climate change was seen as carrying a social cost by the students taking part in the experiment.

Participants in the study felt less warm towards the character in the scenario (and were less likely to want to be friends with them) when they challenged views dismissive of climate change.

The findings add to a long line of research showing the importance of social norms in guiding people’s attitudes and behaviours. But they might also tell us something important about the value of publicly debunking climate change contrarians.

Clearly, neither people nor the planet are well-served by accepting, propagating or ignoring myths and falsehoods. But the potential collateral damage caused by challenging climate denial is important to consider too. It is well known that what drives people’s views on climate change are values and political ideology rather than levels of knowledge about climate science. Dismissing climate change has become a social norm on the right of US politics – reaction to the Republican party’s dismantling of Barack Obama’s energy policies is the most vivid current example – and is present to a lesser extent in the UK.

What if debunking climate sceptics allows minor battles to be won, but risks losing the bigger fight for public opinion by stepping over invisible but powerful social lines? Bridging the ideological divide on climate change is essential. But that means changing the prevailing social norms – not ignoring them.

While a lot of attention has been given to communicating the scientific consensus on climate change and concerns raised about the fact that people consistently underestimate it, the social consensus may be just as important.

Several studies have shown that while most people in the UK are in favour of renewables, they don’t think other people are. Because of the continuing social silence around climate change and the space given to contrarian views in the media, the sense that other people don’t care is widespread – even when they do. Emphasising positive social norms is an important way of dispelling misconceptions around others’ views, and can help build momentum for a society to move towards lower carbon emissions.

A commitment to the truth is a non-negotiable component of any credible communication around climate change, but campaign strategies also need to go with the grain of human behaviour. And if the unsettling swing towards “post-truth” discourse has taught us anything, it is that being right is not the same thing as being persuasive. Climate communicators need to get better at doing both at the same time.


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Credit: Flickr Duncan Hull – Climate change denial by Banksy

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