Finding common ground with climate skeptics has been a challenge for decades. And our recent election may make us think that, as a nation, we are more divided than we have been since the Civil War. Yet, as Americans we all share some values. Learning to find that common ground is a skill we all need to hone whether on climate or the other divisive issues.  Finding common ground between climate change “believers” and climate “skeptics” presents an opportunity to practice skills that can help us find areas of shared reality, heal divisions, and implement win-win solutions. 

Listen to People First

The first step to bridging any divide is to listen to those on the other side. Listening may be the most challenging step when we don’t share a common reality with another person. As Barack Obama said, “Everybody’s listening to people who already agree with them, further and further reinforcing their own realities to the neglect of a common reality.”  A good starting point is to seek out people with different viewpoints and ask them what they think is going on then listen and learn from them. There are several key components to good listening, including acknowledging that the other person has a right to a differing opinion and listening with respect, empathy, and presence without criticism or argument. Repeating the other person’s key points and asking if you understood them correctly shows both acceptance and respect. Lastly, look for ideas, values, or feelings they express that you agree with and acknowledge that agreement. 


Try to understand the source of their doubt. Some expect science to be certain and perfect, but science is a process based on measurements and probabilities, evolving as more data accumulates. This can be confusing for those who wonder why new information contradicts previous “truths.” (Is butter bad or is butter good?)  Many people are influenced by and accept the opinions of their peer group and believe them without thinking it through. Similarly, some climate change believers simply follow their own group; they have not examined the science either. One place to find common ground is to look at the benefits of skepticism and then examine the science together with the understanding that science is a process of discovery based on a set of verifiable findings.  

Skepticism Is Good!

Appreciate the value of skepticism. It is a value we all share and is the basis of science – it’s good common ground. Everyone has a right to be skeptical and everyone should be skeptical, especially when there seems to be almost universal agreement within a group even if it’s a group of scientists. As with most “truths” in science, human-generated climate change is a hypothesis. It is a hypothesis that has evidence both for and against it. While there is a large body of evidence to support human-caused climate change and general agreement among the vast majority of climate scientists in support of this hypothesis, it is still a scientific hypothesis that should be questioned and tested, like all other hypotheses. Climate is very complex and there may be unexpected trends and counter trends. So we can share this value of skepticism, discuss the evidence where possible, and reason forward even if we disagree. 

Nowadays even most skeptics acknowledge that the climate is changing. Yet they have a right to be skeptical because there is considerable uncertainty about how climate change will affect different regions and who will benefit and who will suffer from it. And the data and computer models supporting human-caused climate change are beyond most lay people’s understanding. For those who want to get immersed in science-based responses to skeptic’s concerns, has an exhaustive list of questions and science-based answers that could be used in discussions. However, a quick glance lets you know that approach is not for everybody, as it is very focused on point – counterpoint. For most of us, focusing on the other person and on what we share in common may be a better approach.


Focus on the Other Person

Most of us share the “me first” culture of the 60s regardless of when we grew up. We have gone from the community-focused culture of the 1930s through the 1950s, to an individualistic society that is very divided. We live in our own realities and often feel entitled, regardless of our economic status. Surprisingly, this shared experience of “me first” can create an opening for bridging the divide. We can start by owning and acknowldeging our own insularity and self focus. Reach out by saying “I would really like to understand your point of view,”  and use that as an opening to ask questions focused on them and their interests. The goal is to connect with them on common ground and find things you both care about.


Start with Where You Agree

Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist and born-again Christian who, in addition to many scientific papers on climate change, has written Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions. She suggests “that constructive conversation begins not with what we disagree with, but what we agree about. We have to begin the conversation with what we agree about…. If you don’t know what you agree with someone about, ask them questions and get to know them.” After you have discussed commonalities, you can introduce your concern about climate change and pollution, especially if they have concerns about the increasing number of natural disasters, the health of their families, or the future for their children. Sharing a concern about some of the risks of climate change and pollution can create common ground for discussing solutions, rather than getting caught up in whether climate change is primarily human-caused.


We All Share Fear

As humans, we all have fears. Commonly shared fears center around loss and change. Many fear losing jobs, their way of life, or their health. Other common fears include earning less than our parents, being in  debt, not being able to afford college for our children, or simply having to deal with change. People also fear hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, droughts, and other natural disasters. Sharing fears can build trust and provide opportunities to find areas of agreement. According to Haykoe, people are skeptics “not because they have a problem with basic science or what the Bible says; it’s because they’re afraid of the solutions. So you have to talk about the solutions in order to change people’s minds.”


End with Positive Solutions

In spite of people’s fears, most solutions to climate change are a win-win. Although there will be some job losses or transitions as we move from fossil fuels to renewable energy and conservation, the number of new jobs and the wages paid by renewable energy, clean technology, and building or renovating to zero carbon will far outweigh the jobs and wages lost. At the same time, the shift to a zero emission economy will enhance the health of every human on the planet as air quality improves, both inside and outside of buildings. An all- electric, zero- carbon economy will have quieter roads, schools, and buildings. And in most instances, as families and individuals and businesses move toward zero carbon, they will benefit financially from investing in energy-efficiency upgrades.

It is best to focus on what we can do that will benefit everybody regardless of whether you agree on the causes or extent of climate change. For example, Texas has extensive capacity for wind production, making electricity very cheap there and reducing air pollution. In Florida, regardless of their opinion about climate change, people are concerned about sea level rise. In both cases, people are agreeing to take positive action to build out renewable wind infrastructure or to mitigate the effects of flooding. People can agree that all-electric zero-energy, and zero-carbon homes are cleaner, healthier, reduce air pollution and cost less to own. And as we all see more wildfires, hurricanes, and other extreme weather events, we can all agree on the need for deep adaptations to prevent loss of life and property. 


Have Humility 

Most “climate believers” are also  “climate deniers” through their behaviors. We’re all living in a fossil fuel world. Even climate scientists are flying on airplanes and driving fossil-fuel-powered vehicles. Many of us live in highly energy inefficient carbon emitting homes and fail to take effective actions in our own lives. Before criticizing others, those of us that advocate for climate action must make a long-term plan to eliminate our own impact and begin to take these steps. While doing so, it is important to avoid self-righteousness. Let’s get on to problem solving and solutions with a sense of humility because if we want to get the job done, we will need many different viewpoints to be effective. So let’s start listening, finding areas of common ground, and taking actions that are win-win.