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Talking with Climate Skeptics: How to Engage Separators, Bargainers, and Harmonizers (Part 2) | Righting America

by Emma Frances Bloomfield

Today’s post comes from our colleague Emma Frances Bloomfield, an Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies the intersection of science, religion, and politics from a rhetorical perspective. She received her PhD from USC Annenberg and wrote her dissertation on the similarities between science denial in the human origins and climate change controversies. She has written and presented on topics of the environment, digital rhetoric, narratives, political communication, and health. Her new book, Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment, is available now through Routledge’s series on Advances in Climate Change Research.

Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment

My previous post explained my typology of the separators, bargainers, and harmonizers and their rhetorical features as analyzed in official organizational discourse and interviews. In this post, I provide brief overviews of my proposed strategies for responding to the disparate motivations and frameworks of each category. It is beyond the scope of this post to explain these strategies in detail, but I offer brief overviews and examples of dialogue in hopes of piquing readers’ interests to explore further.

I propose three strategies for engaging separators in conversation. The first is asking questions, where we seek to learn more about the root of our dialogue partners’ skepticism. The second is accepting premises, where we do not alter but instead embrace our dialogue partners’ driving values. The third is making it personal, where we redirect existing values to align with pro-environmental policies. In a conversation with a separator, I accepted their premise that Christians should primarily be concerned about evangelization but asked if Christians could also be environmentalists. During the conversation, the separator noted it was acceptable for “us [C]hristians to care for our common household” as long as we prioritize “faith and moral issue[s]” over environmental protection. For this separator, caring for the environment was not a negative behavior; it only became so when care for the environment displaced other concerns. In accepting the value they placed on evangelization, I was able to modify and expand the separator’s perspective to include environmentalism as compatible with evangelization.

I propose three strategies for engaging bargainers in conversation. The first is working within frames, where we do not seek to shift the conversation back to climate science, but instead remain within religious and economic frames. The second is joining the revolution, where we embrace the uncertainties inherent in scientific knowledge and measure current climate skepticism against scientific criteria. The third is employing examples, where we find concrete information and statistics from within bargainers’ frames that disrupt stereotypes and generalizations that bargainers may hold. In a conversation with a bargainer, I sought to disrupt their assumption that environmental policies would make life less comfortable. After discussing research I had done on renewable energy, the bargainer responded, “if sustainable and renewable power is the solution, I really don’t care where the electricity comes from as [long as] my computers and phones and tablets … work.” This bargainer assumed environmental policies would interfere with their everyday life, but during our conversation, my openness to listen to their concerns enabled me to speak from a position of trust and correct this perception.

I propose three strategies for encouraging environmental behaviors in harmonizers. The first is shifting frames from private to public, where we emphasize the importance of community and public behaviors. The second is communicating urgency, where we infuse the reality of climate change with immediacy. The third is thinking globally, where we build on the harmonizers’ ecological worldview, so that they may see that actively protecting a variety of different forms of life is implicated in Christian stewardship. These strategies largely build on harmonizers’ existing environmental values in order to encourage them to view their environmental behaviors as globally important. Many harmonizers I spoke with were already committed to personal changes, but they did not feel comfortable sharing them with others. One harmonizer I spoke to argued, “Even though God will instantly transform nature when Christ returns, that does not mean Christians should just wait for God to do the work when Christ returns.” This quotation reveals an interesting tension between environmental restoration and the apocalypse that repeated itself in my interviews.

The most prominent contributions of the book are the interviews that are examples of how people think about, talk about, and express themselves on these important topics. I greatly enjoyed my conversations and found that all my dialogue partners (save one or two) were respectful, open, and willing to talk; they showed me that we have far more in common than we might assume. Even separators and bargainers were concerned about the environment, wanted to invest in more eco-friendly technology (largely for economic benefit), and cared about long-term impacts. What was different were the labels people were using, and their perceptions of what it meant to adopt the term “environmentalist.” Willing to listen and be open to new information, my conversations and dialogues fostered mutual respect and understanding.