Climate change is a topical—and divisive—issue in today’s landscape

While there is widespread recognition of the climate issues facing our planet, there are also many people who remain skeptical about the extent of the crisis.

Discussing climate issues with those you disagree with can be a frustrating challenge, but it doesn’t have to be futile. Experts say the key to reaching climate change skeptics is to utilize patience, empathy and shared values.

Here's how to discuss the crucial topic of climate change with a skeptic, whether it’s a friend, family member or peer...

According to Aaron Bernstein, co-director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (C-CHANGE) at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, try explaining climate change using issues the other person values, rather than utilizing familiar talking points. For example, consider approaching the conversation from an economic or energy independent standpoint so you are speaking about an area they might relate to.

Bernstein explains that a common issue for climate change skeptics is not necessarily a denial of the science, but how much the government may need to be involved in their everyday lives—and society's as a whole—as a result of tackling climate change. Acknowledging these concerns with tolerance and understanding can help keep both sides on stronger ground.person holding plantPhoto by Akil Mazumder from PexelsAlso, have a clear goal in mind when having this discussion. For example, do you want the other person to vote for or support a specific energy policy? If so, it might help to outline why that particular policy is important, how much the government may realistically be involved in society should it be implemented, and what science backs up the policy’s goals.

Another strong point Bernstein makes is to know your audience. Who are they affiliated with (religious or social groups, or their employer)? The more you know about who you’re talking to and what is important to them, the better the conversation will go for both parties.

Emma Frances Bloomfield, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says to approach these conversations with mutual respect.

“You can disagree, but enter the conversation understanding the intrinsic value with the person you’re talking with,” she says. “It’s a dialogue, not a lecture to tell them what they don’t know. You may find that you agree on common points.”

You may receive pushback and some resistance, but Bloomfield says it’s OK to inquire why they think and feel the way they do. A simple question to ask is, “What do you think about the environment?”

“Some people who are admittedly deniers or skeptics still care about the environment.” says Bloomfield. “If you go into the conversation assuming they don’t care about science or the environment, you put yourself at a disadvantage and the conversation at a rocky start.”

Another crucial step in discussing climate change with a skeptic is to just listen. Arunima Krishna, an assistant professor at Boston University College of Communication, says that as the consensus about the climate crisis becomes louder, skeptics may feel more marginalized because they feel like their viewpoints are not being represented.

Don’t ridicule or ignore how the other person may be feeling, even if their views frustrate you. In an era of increasing polarization, we forget that others have their own point of view. Krishna adds that “defaulting to lecture mode on the sea-level rise is not the best way to break through, since it could feel more like an attack”.

Once you understand where they’re coming from, you can formulate your strategies for figuring out the best way to convey your message.