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He got booted for discussing climate change. But he's undeterred, with science on his side

·9 min read
People will be going outside to watch the sunset as they wait for the fireworks to begin during Fourth of July weekend.
People will be going outside to watch the sunset as they wait for the fireworks to begin during Fourth of July weekend.

Richard Lavallee is a software engineer, Arizonan and former Republican. He says he started to feel overwhelmed by the idea of climate change after years of hearing about burning rainforests and melting glaciers. His daughters also influenced his sense that this was a serious problem.

Then he watched a PBS Frontline special about the consequences of climate change and the fossil fuel industry's role in delaying solutions, and knew he had to act.

“After I watched this show, I was determined to share my experience with anybody around," Lavallee said. "But I’ve had a difficult time finding people who really want to talk in-depth about something like climate change in their lives. They feel it's too huge."

He took to the neighbor-networking app NextDoor to start a conversation about the climate, thinking that it would be a way to converse with those around him and hear diverse opinions while avoiding the echo chambers of social media sites like Facebook.

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He posted a three-question poll asking his neighbors to weigh in on whether climate change is happening, whether there are solutions and, if so, whether we should implement them.

Lavallee says the post quickly racked up about 1,000 comments, with sentiments ranging from anger to aggression to fatalism to curiosity. Then it was deleted by the admins for being too political and he was temporarily banned from the site.

While he feels resilient to negative personal attacks and plans to strike up the conversation again once he's allowed back on the site, he is concerned about the level of climate denial, apathy and confusion he witnessed in what he thought would just be a civil community chat about a shared and well-known problem.

Studying fluctuations in climate beliefs

Lavallee is not alone in his distress about widespread climate denial. A study published June 21 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences came about when three researchers at three different universities in three separate parts of the country realized they were stuck on the same question: Why, with public access to accurate scientific information about climate change at an all-time high, do misperceptions stubbornly persist?

To find an answer, they set up an experiment in which they asked more than 4,000 study participants about their views on climate change and their political affiliations. Then, over a four-week period, participants were asked to read one article per week that had been categorized as either factual science news, partisan coverage of climate change, skeptical opinion content or an unrelated topic.

"We found that exposure to science news about climate change does make people better informed about what climate change is and the threats it represents," said Ethan Porter, one of the authors of the study and an associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. "However, that initial accuracy boost fades pretty quickly. What we observed is that people’s views tend to kind of snap back to their original opinion (over time)."

Fireworks from Harold's Corral light up the desert in Cave Creek.
Fireworks from Harold's Corral light up the desert in Cave Creek.

They also found that exposure to accurate science news content increased participants' support for government action to address climate change, such as expanding the renewable energy grid. This was true for both Republican and Democratic participant groups.

But knowledge gains regarding the cause of climate change and what should be done about it faded over time, and exposure to skeptical opinion content seemed to speed that up. Republican participants were especially quick to revert to their original beliefs after reading an anti-science opinion piece. At the same time, partisan coverage of climate change had no measurable effect compared to reading an unrelated article, and trust in scientists remained unchanged overall.

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Porter thinks this vanishing impact of efforts to educate the public could be due to the fact that the serious battle against climate change we have ahead of us can be a hard pill to swallow. It's less overwhelming and less complicated to just believe it isn't happening. That way nothing has to change.

“There’s something reassuring about skeptical climate change articles, to be sure. I think that may play a role."

This comfort in climate denial creates a fertile environment for misinformation, as Lavallee found out when he started his quest to understand why this problem still exists.

One reason is that the fossil fuel industry has been quick to recognize opportunity in the idea that the problem is not really a problem. Two examples of many include the evidence that oil giant BP invented the term "carbon footprint" as a way to minimize the impact of emissions and shift responsibility for them onto the individual, and a 1992 video bankrolled by the Western Fuels Association that argued that more carbon dioxide would be good because it's an ingredient for plant growth (it is, but that's not its only role in our atmosphere).

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The answer, Porter postulates, is persistence. As relentless as corporate-funded misinformation campaigns can be, the dissemination of accurate science news can make in-roads if it is as ever-present in our lives as plastics and fuels marketing. Groups like the Yale Program in Climate Change Communication, which tracks attitudes about climate change over time across the country, have seen this in action.

He recommends finding reputable news sources and trying to consume a steady diet of verified information — articles that cite evidence-based sources, quote actual scientists and are produced by real journalists whose jobs depend on them publishing accurate information. Being aware of fact-checking sites like PolitiFact and FactChat also helps.

“Science news can have effects even on people who were skeptical, to begin with, which is a positive finding," Porter said. "It’s not the case that someone describing a scientific result is merely shouting into the wind. I would encourage people to read science news even if it sometimes feels like you’re taking a test or you’re back in school. The facts about climate change are pretty dire. It’s time to grit your teeth and read the bad news."

That's exactly what Richard Lavallee has been trying to do.

As temperatures rise during the summer months, families start taking their children to play in public pools to endure the 100-degree weather.
As temperatures rise during the summer months, families start taking their children to play in public pools to endure the 100-degree weather.

Sparking the community conversation

While waiting out his ban from the neighborhood networking site, Lavallee has been thinking about the comments he received on his post and considering how to approach bringing up the topic there again. He's looking for sincere dialogue and for people to respect each other's perspectives.

"Maybe half the people were in favor of recognizing the problem, not that they know exactly what to do, but they’re interested even if they're overwhelmed," Lavallee said. "My focus is on exposing the issues we haven’t been talking about and then softening resistance to it."

Much of the climate denial Lavallee encountered on NextDoor was based on a misunderstanding of the science: that it's rigged, that there's not a strong consensus on the human causes of climate change, that it's a political hoax designed to take control away from the people.

“That’s the crux of the denial argument, that the science isn’t clear. Even though that’s been debunked and it’s very clear."

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As just one example of that clarity, in April the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest assessment report. The 3,600-page document authored by 278 scientists from 65 countries over five years — a collective unlikely to be swayed by any one region's politics or benefactors — states in no uncertain terms that the climate is warming, it is because of humans and there will be dire consequences if we don't rein in fossil fuels. Beyond this, there is an overwhelming and enduring consensus on climate change among scientists, with fewer than 3% expressing contrasting takes.

Outside of a long-winded report, the effects of climate change can be felt directly in stronger storms, longer droughts and more extreme overnight heat. On June 11 this year, Phoenix set a new record for the earliest date that temperatures failed to drop below 90 degrees, in addition to logging a new record high for that date of 114 degrees.

The past nine years ranked among the Earth's top 10 hottest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. All over the world, based on weather data often going back more than a hundred years, high-temperature records have been falling like dud fireworks at an ever-accelerating pace.

This holiday weekend, as family and friends gather around the grill and attempt to cool off in the pool, temperatures could hit 106 degrees in parts of Arizona. While grabbing another burger or trying to keep beverages chilled, it may be hard to steer clear of comments imbibed with climate denial.

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In Porter's view, we all have a responsibility to engage in combating climate misinformation. But he recognizes it's important to budget your energy for these difficult conversations. Sometimes, he says, it can be ok to pass on confronting someone and instead respond by posting accurate information on your social media feed where they might see it and feel safer exploring new ideas.

Conquering misperceptions may not be enough, however. Climate fatalism and apathy can be obstacles to enacting sweeping climate action.

Lavallee noted that, on his NextDoor post, some neighbors expressed an understanding that climate change is real, but a sense of powerlessness to stop it. There's only so much the U.S. could do, some said, about high emissions in other parts of the world. (Fact check: per capita emissions in the U.S. are double the rate in China.) Others expressed faith that technology or a higher being would sort it all out.

There was also a strong sense of anti-socialism, Lavallee said, with some commenters seeming to view the idea of any sort of centralized action as "evil."

Lavallee says he recognizes the need to avoid the slippery slope of giving up too much control to the government. But he thinks any solution to the climate crisis will likely require us to "behave more as a unit."

Regardless of political beliefs, he sees this as a crucial conversation "we just flat out need to have." Armed with accurate science news and a desire to leave his grandchildren a livable world, that's exactly what he'll be doing this Independence Day.

"It’s like a hole on a boat. It doesn’t matter how it happened, we have to find it and fix it so we don’t all sink."

Joan Meiners is the climate news and storytelling reporter at The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Before becoming a journalist, she completed a doctorate in ecology. Follow Joan on Twitter at @beecycles or email her at joan.meiners@arizonarepublic.com.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: There are many causes of climate denial, but science is the solution