by Caleb Fricker
Decades of accurate data, calculations, and peer-reviewed studies have solidified climate change as scientific consensus. So why do 8% of Australians deny this overwhelmingly supported fact? To properly understand climate change sceptics, it is important to analyse the socially persuasive factors that are not scientific studies.
First, it must be acknowledged that climate change offers no immediate obvious consequences. The severe consequences of the climate emergency will only present themselves once it is irreversible. While the experience of pain keeps us from hugging cacti, there is no instant repercussion for driving your petrol car from A to B. While some Australians, such as farmers, have observed years of depreciating yield, the majority are shrouded by the conveniences of modern society — there are always veggies at the supermarket. Regardless of the topic, without obvious physical evidence there will always be uncertainty.
Misinformation or disinformation on climate change is everywhere, especially on social media. It can arise anywhere — from a confused individual on social media, to a company exploiting outrage online to generate advertisement revenue. Online, everyone is an author, and anyone can post any sort of information at any time. The regulation of false media online is extremely poor, especially in languages other than English. While most articles on climate change are correct, false media is much more likely to be shared.
Mainstream media also tends to play a significant role in the distribution of misinformation and disinformation. While the reporting usually involves the rebuttal of absurd theories, consistent consumer exposure to false information is dangerous. Media outlets often explore misinformation to ensure that the content is newsworthy. For instance, the headline ‘Climate Change is a Scam?’ could be used to advertise a story that is myth busting climate change propaganda. While many people will process the buzzword-filled headline, only a select amount of people will actually read the article. As a result, people recall the falsely informed headline, without the knowing why it is incorrect.
It’s also a strategy that is seen in our politics, since it’s technically not illegal, the practice of strategic lying has become common in political advertising. Political disinformation surrounding climate change has been a huge problem in recent years, often manifested to boost voting or protect the economic value of politicians mining-based investments. For example, in 2022, the Morrison government paid advertising agency The Monkey $1.1 million to write articles falsely praising them for successfully reducing emissions and promoting renewable energy. Political advertising’s aversion to ethics is, unfortunately, nothing new.
Amid comprehensive scientific data supporting the existence of climate change, the community of climate change deniers would likely never become very well established. But a plague of misinformation makes it difficult for them to learn otherwise.
So, why don’t people accept the science?
Changing someone’s inherent beliefs is always difficult, regardless of subject. Sometimes this involves challenging ideologies that have informed people’s decisions for a significant portion of their lives, such as political stance, media outlet loyalty, or religion.
When asking someone to adjust their beliefs, it can feel like you are also asking them to betray the community of people that believe the same. It’s more than just taking a stance, its defending connections with their friends, family, and idols. Written media is often more effective in persuasion. Here, alternate opinions are being read by choice, as opposed to being forced on them by someone else. This is also part of the reason that satire can be an extremely successful form of persuasion. As communications expert Alan Bush said, ‘effective parody can serve to help us re-describe what we take for granted as conventional wisdom, rational thought and timeless truth to be absurd wisdom, incongruous thought and unreasonable truth’. Essentially, people are often willing to accept the argument or criticism of a personal belief when humour is present.
What can be done to help?
It is essential to recognise the spectrum of beliefs. This exists for all things, but in the context of climate change, some people feel very strongly that it exists, some people feel very strongly that it does not, and some people are just unsure or sceptic. You are more likely to believe someone who agrees with you on most topics. It is unrealistic to be able to change the minds of anyone sitting toward the extreme ends of the belief spectrum, as they likely have many differing ideologies, and doing so requires individual and specifically catered approaches. However, people who are climate change sceptical are usually open to influence from other directions.
If you want to persuade someone that climate change does exist, the best thing you can do is provide credible information, rather than debate with them. When you provide open-minded people with quality resources, they can choose to take their time to absorb and be persuaded by the information. Every little bit of exposure helps, you can’t learn for them, but you can make the process easier.
When you argue with someone, it is much harder to persuade them. They will act in the defence of their social ties, and as trivial as it sounds, you are asking them to lose. If you choose to start a debate about a piece of misinformation online, even though you are acting against it, you are broadcasting the misinformation to more people, thus extending its life. You also risk providing the material to people who take it at face value and then share it again, extending its life even further.
It is also critical that we educate ourselves and peers on media literacy. The USA’s 1992 National Leadership Conference on Media Literacy define media literacy as ‘the ability to access, analyse, evaluate, and create messages across a variety of contexts’. Beyond the improved regulation of online and print media, developing media literacy skills is the best thing we can do to decrease the uptake of disinformation, thus limiting the presence of false media.
In the end, you we can use these skills to identify and remove support for media outlets that blatantly broadcast false media, at the expense of us all.
Caleb Fricker (he/him) is a final year student at QUT, studying a dual degree in Science and Communication.