Disinformation is stifling conversation about climate change, new research says — these 4 tips can help

When you're talking about climate change, facts alone may not be enough to make a compelling argument.

"It's not only what you say, but how you say it that's important," Arunima Krishna, an assistant communications professor at Boston University, tells CNBC Make It.

Krishna studies the spread of climate science disinformation, among other topics — and after conducting a recent survey, she found that 40% of respondents were "disinformation receptive," meaning they'd already accepted some type of falsehood about climate change.

What's more, she says, disinformation might be stifling conversation on the important topic: If you don't believe in climate change or doubt humans' role in accelerating it, you're less likely to want to discuss it, according to Krishna's survey.

That means you'll need to find enough common ground to set the stage for a productive talk. These four conversational strategies, Krishna says, can help.

Know who you're talking to

People fall into one of four categories, according to Krishna. You can be immune, vulnerable or receptive to disinformation — or, you can actively amplify it.

People who are "receptive" already believe some form of disinformation, and those who are "vulnerable" could potentially believe false information in the future. But, Krishna says, people in both categories will probably still be open to conversations.

When you start those conversations, use the first minute or two to figure out which type they are. Their phrasings should make it pretty clear, Krishna says: There's a big difference between "Why bother doing any of this, climate change isn't caused by humans" and "Are you sure any of this really works?"

The first response, Krishna says, indicates a negative predisposition toward climate change. The second one is more circumspect, and indicates that the person might be open to talking.

If someone has yet to accept or believe any disinformation, Krishna says, they're probably "immune" and unlikely to fall victim to it going forward. And if someone is regularly amplifying disinformation, trying to change their mind could be downright impossible.

Come prepared — and ready to listen

Krishna's first step is to understand the other person's beliefs, especially if some of those beliefs have been shaped by disinformation.

"There are so many different pieces of falsehoods that have been popularized by concerted disinformation campaigns, that it's important to disentangle the arguments that skeptics have accepted," Krishna says.

Once you understand the "facts" that disinformation campaigns are promoting, she says, you can use science-based facts to directly rebut them.

"Parallel examples are always useful," says Krishna. "Appeal to people's logic."

Say, for example, that you're talking with a climate skeptic who believes climate science is "shaky" or unreliable — a viewpoint Krishna says is encouraged by some big oil and gas companies.

You could dispute that idea by pointing the other person to NASA's global climate change research, which shows consensus in the scientific community based on decades of research that the earth is warming due to human activity.

Have a one-on-one conversation

Social media might be the worst possible place to have these kinds of conversations. After all, it's where a lot of disinformation happens — especially on topics like climate change.

A November 2021 report from independent watchdog group Real Facebook Oversight Board and environmental nonprofit Stop Funding Heat analyzed more than 195 Facebook pages and groups "dedicated" to climate misinformation.

Over the course of eight months, it found an estimated 45,000 posts downplaying or denying the climate crisis, receiving between 818,000 and 1.36 million total daily views.

According to the report, people tend to believe catchy headlines from unverified sources on social media more than they would elsewhere. Krishna's solution: Have conversations in person, or at least in direct messages, and rely primarily on primary scientific sources like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or NASA.

"Research tells us that one-on-one interaction can often be more effective than mass media messages," Krishna says. "Perhaps that's the best way to [elevate] voices."

Bring it into their backyard

Topics like climate change don't always feel urgent or imminent. People tend to separate themselves from the crisis, especially when some of the solutions are uncomfortable — like using less plastic or conserving electricity more consciously.

So, the more you can connect the topic to someone's actual life, the better.

"Many people have noticed and perhaps even commented on how weather patterns have changed over the course of their lives," Krishna says. "Pointing out that climate change has exacerbated the changes in these weather patterns may help place the problem in their backyard."

In California, for example, climate change has helped droughts become more extreme over the last two decades, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. And climate change is helping make hurricanes across the world stronger, according to an August study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Climate change is not something that's 20 years away," says Krishna. "It's something that we're seeing the impact of right now."

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