This group brings together the best thinkers on energy and climate. Join us for smart, insightful posts and conversations about where the energy industry is and where it is going.


Using insights from social science to understand climate change deniers

Karen Street's picture
Friends Energy Project

Karen Street has an MSEE from UC, Berkeley. She worked as an electrical engineer for a number of years before becoming a teacher of high school math and physics until 1994, when after losing much...

  • Member since 2018
  • 50 items added with 6,930 views
  • Jul 24, 2012


I learned some years ago that climate change is not a popular subject for presentations. Groups with so-called climate skeptics find that the doubters and deniers, often a small minority, take over the discussion with arguments that shift over time, and many groups just don’t want to deal with them, or haven’t figured out how to do so. Groups without dissenters often feel that they already know climate change is important, although very few in the audience, no matter how much they accept climate science, have internalized how fast and profound the changes might be. I’ve met people my age and younger who expect not to see harsh changes in their lifetime and as a result lose any sense of urgency. Others may have an alarmist or fatalistic reaction that makes them want to give up and go party. These groups tend to prefer reducing the focus on harsh realities in favor of solutions, preferably those they already believe in or are attracted by.

Presentations focusing on solutions are hard because so often we are mainly looking for something to allay our anxiety. Unfortunately, most solutions are problematic in one way or another, which people aren’t all that glad to hear; all solutions are partial. Nuclear power is a topic many prefer, because it gives us a chance to take sides, saying YES! or NO THANKS!

For a number of years, due to these group preferences, my presentations on climate change have ostensibly been about nuclear power; the majority of the slides have been on nuclear, certainly. For climate change, I usually include only about 2 slides explaining why scientists and national security types are worried, plus 3 slides on changes we might see in the next half century, both changes we cannot prevent and future harm we can reduce. I then introduce nuclear power as a necessary and relatively safe partial solution to climate change, according to energy scientists and policy experts. The core of the presentation focuses on answering the concerns of those who oppose nuclear, and listing the advantages of nuclear, from low greenhouse gas emissions to low pollution to reliability.

In two presentations in Philadelphia in June, I added another component: what social scientists say about the reasons why many people reject scientific consensus, whether it’s in climate science or nuclear energy. As usual, the presentations were billed as being mostly about nuclear energy. Both groups, one large and one small, accept climate change for the most part, with the large group divided on nuclear power, while the small group was mostly anti-nuclear.

In the past, my presentations on nuclear energy in a warming world were generally appreciated by people open to scientific information, and a few who became open. But most, on all sides, wondered, why do I need this information, and what do I do with it? This is in part because the science in isolation is insufficient to inspire action, whether on climate change or particular solutions; it doesn’t tell me what my role is.

Interestingly, the addition of the social science perspective helped in both groups. I worried that people would feel insulted about generalizations that they, like everyone, see what they want to see, and that what we want to see is largely determined by what our group believes. Instead, most felt that it helped make sense of the confusion in the public discussion of controversial social issues.

Social scientists say (a few examples):
• We react from the gut, often in less than 1 second, on topics for which we have no background. Those who read more become even more polarized, as almost all of us find information that confirms our gut reaction. One person in the polarized group said, questioning information I had presented, “I’ve read that Fukushima was worse than Chernobyl.” It is easy to find sources that agree with our own preconceptions, and to believe, as one person wrote years ago in attacking the sources I rely on, “Any source that disagrees with me lacks integrity.”

• According to Jonathan Haidt and others, a primary evolutionary advantage of reasoning is to support opinions that show that we are good and trustworthy members of the group. A less common use of reasoning is to explore open-mindedly issues which require us to move into a state of tension, where we might be wrong, where there is nuance. Most avoid exploratory reasoning, especially where our group takes a stand, where exploration could challenge group expertise.

• It’s easier to attack people I don’t know than people like ourselves who use energy and products in the home. Who wants to alienate our friends?

• We all make a number of common critical thinking errors, which we can learn to do less often. Here are a few:
—failing to make direct comparisons: looking at nuclear waste rather than comparing the waste stream of various energy sources.
—question substitution: “How long does nuclear waste last,” rather than “Does anyone die?”
—the halo effect: if I like/dislike something or someone, I like/dislike all aspects. If I want renewables, I insist they are safe, sufficient, and cheap (or will be by a week from Tuesday).

• The media quote those who disagree with the best understanding of scientists on climate change and nuclear power, no matter how odd their opinions or how few agree with them. The media feel that they are covering the political controversy, but readers assume they are covering the scientific controversy, giving credence to both sides. And then there are those who get their information from unapologetically biased sources, which consciously or unconsciously make claims that sound scientific, but are no more so than Creationism.

What We Can Do
While we all want to do something about climate change, I’m not sure that we can move as fast as we would like. The one thing in our immediate control is to continue reducing our own greenhouse gas footprint. This helps reduce our cognitive dissonance (if I believe the climate is important, then I want to live as if it were important) and gives us better understanding of policies that encourage us to change our behavior.

Harder but more urgent is to begin working with society to encourage implementing good policies. Before we can accomplish much, however, two steps seem critical: move our planet’s accelerating climate change and the need for a steep cost on greenhouse gas emissions onto the list of what we all pay attention to. And secondly, tone down the rhetoric: instead of polarizing the discussion by attacking those who disagree with us, start questioning and testing our own assumptions and those of like-minded people in our group. Working with like-minded people, to help bring the discussion of controversial social issues to a better place, can be difficult; it is also where we are most likely to be successful.

Both steps require us to consider which sources are trustworthy, and to study those that point to possible errors in our thinking. Learning that we might be wrong feels awful, but it’s in a good cause, increasing the chance we will find actual solutions to problems such as climate change.

Image Credit: Skovoroda/Shutterstock

Original article

Karen Street's picture
Thank Karen for the Post!
Energy Central contributors share their experience and insights for the benefit of other Members (like you). Please show them your appreciation by leaving a comment, 'liking' this post, or following this Member.
More posts from this member
Spell checking: Press the CTRL or COMMAND key then click on the underlined misspelled word.
Karen Street's picture
Karen Street on Jul 24, 2012

Jim, are you referring to the heat waste that is a necessary part of every thermal power plant, from fossil fuel to biopower to thermal solar to nuclear? Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change does not list that as a major forcing.

This post focuses on what social scientists say about the motivations and methods of those who disagree with scientific consensus, especially on climate change and nuclear power, and how bringing their insights into the discussion appears to improves the discussion.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jul 26, 2012

Jim, If someone were to :

1) Build working utility scale OTEC plants that can economically provide power

2) Demonstrate (independently) their reliability, and that they won't harm the ocean environment

3) Find a way to apply them to Land-Locked state/countries/places.

Then Ofcourse we should use OTEC. However, there are no signs of the above 3 conditions as far as I can see.

I do have to ask why you seem to excude an Either OTEC or Nuclear stance everytime you comment on nuclear power.

Nuclear power can replace current Carbon producing power plants and can be adapted to the grid, and can be used in land locked places, and depending on the type, dont even require water for cooling in deserts.

Most  Nuclear power will be replacing other existing or planned Thermal power plants, franly I have no problem with this.  


Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 27, 2012

Jim, this is a great opportunity to test Karen’s social science insights.  It turns out that your idea (and that of the New Scientist “Power Paradox” article you linked) that the non-solar energy that humans use has an important impact on global warming goes against one source that I found.  For now I’ll call him Richard.  He says that solar heat trapping by atmospheric CO2 produces about 1.66 Watts per square meter of global heating, whereas direct human use of all energy only amounts to 0.03 W/sq.m., or 55 times less.  In other words, we’d have to reduce our equivalent CO2 emissions by 98% in order for direct human use of energy to dominate.

Do you have any gut reaction to Richard’s claims?  Are you willing to consider them?  How did you react to the New Scientist article? Are you temped to dismiss Richard as one of those fossil fools, who want to pretend that the party can go on forever?

I have no personal expertise in climate science, but Richard strikes me as a rather solid source.  He’s Richard B. Alley (a professor of geosciences and member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and the numbers are from his book “Earth, the Operator’s Manual”, p. 146 & 225.

[I’ve got nothing against OTEC, especially for locations near equatorial waters.  Here’s a talk that combines OTEC with ammonia fuel synthesis, an area of interest to me: ]

Karen Street's picture
Karen Street on Jul 27, 2012

Nathan, thanks for finding Alley's numbers. I do know that I hadn't found waste heat on IPCC's list of major forcings. Also, I would guess that if waste heat were the only change we were making, Earth would eventually radiate it away.

Jim, in addition to checking the IPCC reference I provided, you may also want to check a first year college physics text, as your use of the term entropy and your units for entropy are non-traditional.

Social scientists who are looking at why the public discussion is such a mess include motivated reasoning—finding sources that agree with your preconceptions, working out an end result that agrees with you preconceptions. I find it useful to check my understanding against what Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says — do they accept/ignore solutions in the same order and to the same degree that I do? Rarely. I've often found mistakes in my thinking while reading their material. There's that famous quote, "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy." Nor will a simple solution to climate change survive, no matter how attractive it may be.

Nathan and Jim, thanks for the discussion of Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion. Last I heard, there was concern that all marine energy systems would be as damaging to marine ecosystems as dams are to land. As I understand it, recent experiments are looking at cost, ecosystem damage, reliability, etc to see how much ocean systems can contribute. We need all the energy solutions that we can think of, and a few more, so we can only hope that experiments go well.

reinholt niehbur's picture
reinholt niehbur on Jul 27, 2012

How about working on the demand side?

+ Require all new construction or gut rehab to be Passivhaus standard or better.

+ any new project needs to provide plans on how it can be paid for over at least two lifecycles

+ Stop building roads - start investing in inter-city mass transit

+ recognize that some places we chose to build in an era before expensive energy, water shortages & an understanding of GCH are no longer sustainable (Phoenix & Las Vegas come to mind)

If you want a real row at a presentation, try bringing up these topics!

Brian Reynolds's picture
Brian Reynolds on Jul 27, 2012


Thanks for the great article.  All this summer I and the marketing and development teams here at Global Power Solutions have been wrestling with this issue.  The intersection between what people believe, what they say they believe and how they act has been on the main stage in our office because of a new product offering we're working on.  We've covered George Lackoff's writings on the minds of liberals and conservatives, "action-reinforcing-misconception" activities like describing a suspect prior to seeing him in a lineup (you're more likely to be confused, uncertain or wrong at a lineup if you try to describe a suspect orally first - a serious law enforcement problem), public radio pledge strategies and a gang of other resources.

What I've come to understand is that it's a losing arguement to try and convince an individual of the veracity of the climate crisis.  An understanding is helpful but not required for the crisis to be addressed.  However, there are a lot of in-obvious levers that can be thrown to influence the comfort level a person has with taking actions that address climate.

One of the big problems that many in climate conflict have is that they put disproportional weight on the value of being right.  Being right isn't a goal.  It isn't even the most valuable tool to achieve the goal.  I think you're article (and the effort of social scientists in general) makes it clear that there are a large swaths of the public to which direct conversation on this topic is a waste of time.  We'd all be better off designing more clever messaging plans that don't run headlong into the same brick walls we've been running into for years.

Brian Reynolds

Global Power Solutions LLC

Karen Street's picture
Karen Street on Jul 27, 2012

Yes, bringing up demand upsets people beyond their ideological blinders, even for those who belong to the cultural worldview where many favor changing behavior. See for more on ideology.

Karen Street's picture
Karen Street on Jul 27, 2012

Brian, I found the opposite is true. By bringing in the social science along with the facts, people became much more open-minded. Now to find some formats with a greater number of climate deniers/skeptics.

I recommend Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, which I intend to reread (and have found people who are willing to discuss it!)

Brian Reynolds's picture
Brian Reynolds on Jul 27, 2012


That's really interesting.  I'm curious what you mean when you say "By bringing the social science along with the facts, people become much more open minded."  The realities of the climate crisis are by definition problems of the entire population.  What does direct messaging look like that exposes a general audience to it's own psychological shortcomings and still wins them over?

Brian Reynolds

Global Power Solutions, LLC

Karen Street's picture
Karen Street on Jul 27, 2012

As I say in the post, I start with the facts, and then include a lot of why social scientists say the public is not open to the facts. This helps open people to the facts. I need to reformat the discussion for groups with a lot of climate deniers, but have contacted someone about spreading this presentation over 2 weeks—the controversy I address is nuclear power, but their group includes a small number of vocal climate skeptics/deniers. If this works, I'll have a test on how this works on that group. The presentation made sense to a lot of nuclear skeptics.

reinholt niehbur's picture
reinholt niehbur on Jul 27, 2012

Reality is that mother natre doesn't negotiate, and ALWAYS gets the last say.

Roger Brown's picture
Roger Brown on Jul 27, 2012

Unfortunately climate change deniers are merely a subspecies within the larger grouping of limits to growth deniers. There are plenty of people who think that climate change is real and that serious actions should be taken to reduce GHG emissions who, like Al Gore, see no conflict between those actions and the health of the economy. 'The economy' in this context is a code word for private credit markets and the unlimited competitive accumulation of consumption rights. Many climate change deniers believe (correctly, in my opinion) that any serious action to reduce GHG emissions will harm the the short term 'health' of the economy in the above sense of the word. Nuclear power may have an important role to play in maintaining human welfare in the long term, but given the high up front capital costs of new nuclear plants, the high levels of global debt, and the constraints of liquid fuel supply on the global transportation system, it seem unlikely that an economic system based on the the principles previously described is going displace a significant amount of fossil fuel generated electricty with nuclear power any time soon.

Real progress in bringing human economic activity with ecological limits requires changing our conception of economic health from a focus on unbounded competitive accumulation to a focus on cooperatively providing "that necessary minimum of food, shelter, clothing, leisure, comfort, freedom, solitude, and happiness, which is certainly real, essential and indispensable" (from The Complex Vision by John Cowper Powys). If such an ecomic focus is utopian and unrealizable, then we have nothing to do but wait for the wave of destruction to arrive.

ramon leigh's picture
ramon leigh on Jul 27, 2012

Let's see now. Apparently one wins a climate debate these days by claiming the other guy is denying reality. If that slander were backed up with convincing scientific evidence that goes beyond the obvious (that the Earth has been warming since the last Ice Age) and contends that it not only is accelerating but due primarily to MAN (even "deniers" assume small small portion is due to MAN), then perhaps I would take junk psychology  like this seriously. By the way, do you deny that there has been no global warming since 1999?  If so, where's your evidence? (I do not accept anything from the IPCC or NASA). Global warmists I view  as I do religious zealots - out to save humanity from itself, and incapable of being swayed by logic.  By the way, there is reportedly a big announcement coming Sunday around noon PAcific time.

You might want to rehearse some denials of your own. Happy warming!!

Karen Street's picture
Karen Street on Jul 28, 2012

Roger, social scientists, eg, , the successors to the Cultural Theory of Risk people, separate us into 4 cultures, or worldviews, based on hierarcy vs egalitarianism, and individualism vs communitarianism. We favor problems based on the distortion of the lens through which we see the world, we favor solutions based on that lens. Some of what we see is valid, although probably too simple. A lot of what we see is not.

When the question of climate change comes up, people often favor solutions they feel will solve other problems they have long thought important. And there are other important problems in the world. A lot. But at this point, International Energy Agency and others no longer believe it possible to keep temperature increase below 2°C by 2100. Assuming 2°C is a solution—150,000 died in 2000, according to WHO, from disease, landslides, floods, and starvation, and surely many more this year. Yet I hear you reject nuclear power, one of the larger solutions to climate change, because it's not good enough. You use arguments that I haven't seen in International Energy Agency and other high-level reports. A social scientist might ask, how do you test your thinking?

Scientists are challenged by Nature, their worldviews are always under attack. Many in the public trying to sort through the public argument often pay attention to whether arguments show awareness of other worldviews—do those who worry about climate change, for example, accept solutions different from those they favored before they ever began to worry about climate change? I have heard a number of people explicitly reject the seriousness of climate change beause so much of those worried about climate change also oppose nuclear power. (I explain that scientists are worried about climate change, and support nuclear power, but some insist on their right to make up their minds based on what the public thinks.)

I won't argue the economy because it's not an issue on which I am knowledgeable. I do alert people to the costs being higher than most people want to pay—economists will be correct or not in their assesment of the effect on the economy. I do alert people that one of the needs of policy is to interfere with our "follow our bliss" sense that we can do whatever we want whenever we want. I occasionally let people know that economic justice is necessary for the public to buy in. I talk and write about these because they are solutions to climate change, not because they are the solutions I favored before I heard of climate change, even if I did. (I am particularly reluctant to let go of following my bliss.)

I respond in this manner because I hear from your style of writing that you want to solve a large number of the world's problems. Similarly, I hear from others that we can't address climate change until we have addressed campaign finance reform, or child raising, or ... And so in my heart, and this is my problem, I wonder if these people wholeheartedly want to address climate change. If I hear it that way, there may be others.

Roger Brown's picture
Roger Brown on Jul 28, 2012


I did not reject nuclear power. I mere doubted it could be deployed fast enough in the context of current global resource constraints and within the current economic paradigm. It is possible, of course, that this doubt arises out of some strong idealogical bias that I hold rather than out of an objective evaluation of physical reality, but I think you will be hard pressed to present any evidence for this proposition in the couple of paragraphs that I wrote.

My own view is not that people view the world through ideological lenses but that there are important aspects of reality about which they have never developed a habit of critical thought. In the words of John Dewey:

Words, the counters for ideals, are, however, easily taken for ideas. And in just the degree in which mental activity is separated from active concern with the world, from doing something and connecting the doing with what is undergone, words, symbols, come to take the place of ideas. The substitution is the more subtle because some meaning is recognized. But we are very easily trained to be content with a minimum of meaning, and to fail to note how restricted is our perception of the relations which confer significance. We get so thoroughly used to a kind of pseudo-idea, a half perception, that we are not aware how half-dead our mental action is, and how much keener and more extensive our observations and ideas would be if we formed them under conditions of a vital experience which required us to use judgment: to hunt for the connections of the thing dealt with... (from Democracy and Education)

Of course I cannot prove my that opinions were formed under a process of vital experience, constant self doubt, and constant testing and reformulation of ideas, so you may well doubt my objectivity. Neverthless I assure you that my ideas (and thus my mistakes) are largely my own. I did not read Marx or Kropotkin and 'see the light'. I view myself as a pragmatist, and I would compromise my aesthetic and moral ideals to bring humanity into a condition of physical safety without hesitation. However, if achieving that safety requires challenging the the infinite growth paradigm then it is the business of those who belive in that necessity to issue the challenge.

Karen Street's picture
Karen Street on Jul 28, 2012

Roger, let me begin by apologizing for misinterpreting what you said, and also saying how much I like the Dewey quote. Take 2: does this work better?

Let's begin with nuclear—the range of scenarios I've seen show nuclear power increasing even without a cost for greenhouse gas emissions, but not as rapidly. Yes there are high capital costs (though lower than for renwables), but nuclear has other advantages. 

Nuclear power is not the majority of the solution, let alone all, but it is important. It is not all of the electricity solution, and for a while, is of little importance in transportation, and for a while, of little importance in industry where fossil fuels are used for heat rather than electricity, and of little importance in reducing climate change caused by our agricultural practices. I focus on it because it is important, and because the controversy interferes with addressing climate change—a fair number of people devote way too much of their time on climate change to opposing nuclear power, and very little to opposing climate change. The tension over these fights goes beyond the one issue, to allowing some to justify denying climate change, as I say above. If by constraints of liquid fuel you are saying that nuclear is not currently important for transportation, yes. If you mean something else, please explain.

It was what you said about economics that I reacted most to, and may have misunderstood. It's more than competitive accumulation, or accumulation with perhaps just an eye to comfort and pleasure—addressing climate change also requires a GHG cost on flying to visit family members, or visiting other cultures to learn more. We need to pay for road maintenance and sewers infrastructure maintenance, and for GHG because we are polluting. We need to pay much more because we have delayed paying for either so long, and costs are much higher.

We may agree up to the last sentence. What if there are ways to keep the temperature increase below 2°C (there likely aren't and 2°C may be too high), and yet we fall far short of cooperatively providing "that necessary minimum of food", etc? What are you trying to say here?

Roger Brown's picture
Roger Brown on Jul 28, 2012


Thanks for taking the time to respond to my ramblings. By the way I am very much in agreement on the urgent necessity of developing non-fossil energy sources. I have training in physics and a couple of decades of experience as a computer hardware engineer. I am very much aware of the importance of energy in maintaining our economic productivity. However, after seven or eight years of following the developments in non-fossil energy sources and electrified transporation I am convinced that the probability is high that a full transition away from fossil fuels will necessitate economic contraction for the OECD countries. As an analogy imagine that you lived in a huge drafty mansion with constantly rising heating fuel costs. If you move to smaller, better insulated living quarters, then the problem of obtaining an affordable heating bill using alternative energy sources becomes much more manageable.

Of course, in a culture which associates progress and status with consumer goods (not to mention the structural dependence of our financial system on constantly increasing sales volumes) promoting economic contraction is not conducive to personal popularity. Eventually we need create a new idea of progress based on intellectual and aesthetic achievment rather than on consumer goods. No, I am not holding my breath waiting for this development either. If you want to influence energy policy over the next few election cycles then promoting nuclear energy may indeed be your best bet. However, somewhere down the road more radical social changes will be required.

Karen Street's picture
Karen Street on Jul 28, 2012

Roger, I don't disagree. But what I want to emphasize with this post is the possibility that this method helps tone down the hostility, helps move us toward a willingness to find solutions to problems other than establishing group membership.

Mark Lazen's picture
Mark Lazen on Jul 30, 2012

Great stuff Karen. I've just finished Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, and I would articulate the relevant takeaway a tad differently: until those that disagree with you on climate change come to like you, they will be impervious to your arguments. This is going to require a lot of patient and sincere one-to-one interaction.

Karen Street's picture
Karen Street on Jul 31, 2012

Mlazen, that's part of why I suggested that we want to work with like-minded people! If you are in a group with someone, if they see you as like-minded, they have more respect for you going in, and it's easier to find common language. But being nice does make a difference. I did a presentation on nuclear power, and felt beat up after all the hostile questions. At the end, several people came running up to me and said that went really well—anyone who was undecided before that last question isn't now. They told me that people might or might not understand the details, but they could tell who was naughty and who was nice.


Get Published - Build a Following

The Energy Central Power Industry Network is based on one core idea - power industry professionals helping each other and advancing the industry by sharing and learning from each other.

If you have an experience or insight to share or have learned something from a conference or seminar, your peers and colleagues on Energy Central want to hear about it. It's also easy to share a link to an article you've liked or an industry resource that you think would be helpful.

                 Learn more about posting on Energy Central »