So You’re Interviewing a Climate Change Denier…
Tips for getting the truth out of those who deny scientifically-established facts
In recent years, it had become less and less necessary to treat climate change deniers (no, not skeptics) as serious or influential. Their position runs so contrary to established, mainstream science that their opinion was irrelevant and predictable, and giving them a platform to disseminate misinformation was a breach of a journalist’s responsibility to report the truth.
Unfortunately, those taking a factually incorrect stance are now entering positions of power. This makes their opinions on science, flawed though they may be, an important aspect of reporting on the new administration. But letting their false statements go unchallenged presents it as true, so how does one seek answers without misleading readers? By asking the right questions, framed carefully with the facts. Then inform readers of what the evidence shows while reporting on what claims have been made.
What follows is a guide for how to interview a climate change denier. It provides the science needed to keep readers informed about the reality of our warming planet, along with some tips and techniques for holding interview subjects accountable without being needlessly combative.
It’s based on our experience over five years of watching, researching and debunking climate change denial. With these tools, you can turn an interview with a denier into a learning experience for your audience.
➡ Stay friendly. Try and stay positive throughout, and particularly at the start. When presenting the evidence that conflicts with their statements, do so neutrally and with sufficient detail to avoid stonewalling or deflection. If they change a previous statement, be mildly positive to encourage further changes. The friendlier you are and more comfortable they feel, the more they’ll talk, so resist the urge to present the truth during the interview until you’ve gotten sufficient material if they walk out.
➡ Get background information before getting into the hard-hitting stuff. Ask about their relationship to nature growing up (and hear about how they played in the woods) and their favorite outdoor activities. If it’s a member of Congress, ask about national parks in their state, or other tourist attractions built around natural resources. Odds are these places are vulnerable to climate change, something you can then point out in your story, or if you’re brave and well-prepared, later in the interview.
➡ Focus on actions, not words. They will eagerly tell you that they’re all for clean air and clean water, but is that what they’ve done? Follow-up by asking what actions they’ve taken in that pursuit. If they can name any, you have something to research later.
➡ Call out the consensus among climate scientists that warming is real and man-made, once you are ready to push back. By now many are aware of the 2013 paper that found a 97% consensus, though fewer are aware that there were a number of similar studies with similar findings that preceded it. Yet the public is still confused on this, still often thinking there is genuine widespread disagreement among scientists when there is not. Because it is a persuasive argument, the scientific consensus is a frequent target of deniers, who say it has been debunked. A reliable talking point has been to refer to (perceived) problems with an earlier study, Doran and Zimmerman ‘09, a giveaway is if they mention something about 79 or 77 respondents. If that happens, then you can simply accept their criticism and point to other studies which aren’t covered by that specific talking point.
For example, the consensus was recently reaffirmed by a 2016 paper that looked at past studies and found a clear consensus. If they argue that the fringe constitutes leading scientists, a 2010 study that found the small minority of scientists who are unconvinced by the evidence of man-made climate change publish much less frequently and are cited much less frequently than those who accept the link, making if false to assert that “leading scientists disagree.” An objective measure of the quality of a scientist is their peer-reviewed work, and Anderegg ‘10 found a stark contrast. So don’t let them get away with misleading statements about there being experts on both sides- only a tiny fringe are on one side, and they’re considerably and objectively less qualified than those who accept the consensus.
➡ Get the receipts! Ask them for sources, specifically from the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Be prepared to provide your own. For example, when they assail the “hockey stick” they are referring to Michael Mann’s work, which has been repeatedly exonerated, and one of his strongest defenders was Sherry Boehlert, the Republican chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. But even more importantly because this is a matter of science, an international consortium of scientists replicated the findings. So ask them why they’re focusing on a 1998 paper, when a much more recent one (published 2013) reaffirmed its finding?
Push them to provide the sources of their “skepticism,” even if it means sending you a list of links before or after the interview. That way you can assess their sources and inform your readers if they are basing their policy on peer-reviewed science or industry-funded “reports” not published in academic journals (a study has found that 90% of climate denial books are not peer-reviewed). Sourcewatch provides funding information for most groups regularly cited. Explaining this funding relationship to your readers is an important way to show potential motivations for these baseless claims.
➡ Are they biased? It is a perfectly legitimate question to ask if they recognize they might be biased, particularly after they’ve accused mainstream science of it. A key excuse given for rejecting mainstream science is that scientists are biased, and came to the conclusion that climate change is real either because of a fear of reprisal in the community, or because government funding has motivated them to provide the government-friendly answer that climate change requires public policy solutions. This sounds convincing, because funding bias is real. But not the way they think- it’s industry funding that skews studies, not public.
Once you get past the basics, ask why they think the overwhelming consensus among scientists that fossil fuels cause climate change is wrong? Strident deniers like James Inhofe will say it’s an outright hoax, more nuanced ones will say it’s group-think. If they don’t say it outright, get them to clarify by asking a follow-up to see if they think that scientists are biased by their government funding. They will likely agree.
At that point, you should ask them if they think they might be biased- or will consider the thought. Is it possible that the money or support and attention you’ve received from the fossil fuel industry and its funded organizations could be influencing your opinion? Perhaps subconsciously? If they are one of the few deniers who is free from funding conflicts (press them on this) then use the groupthink-style question to see if they think it is possible that they could be biased by the fact that conservatives view climate change as a leftie, “Al Gore” issue?
If they acknowledge it’s possible, then they’re at least honest about that, and you can include it in the story. If they insist that they are free of bias despite funding, then that can also be included AND you can follow-up by asking “If you aren’t biased by your funding, why do you/others believe scientists are biased because of their government funding?” Though it’s fallen in popularity in recent years, Trump has obliquely mentioned Climategate, so be prepared to inform the subject that all eight investigations into that came up empty.
➡ Recognize industry talking points that they will use, and consider asking where they heard it. When they demure and decline to provide sources, you can search a phrase to find prior uses, though again, feel free to ask in a follow-up email if they’d like to send you any sources. Then you can inform readers of the point’s provenance. For example, the concept of “energy poverty” is one pushed by a number of fossil fuel industry spokespeople and advocates to argue that coal (and cheap fossil fuel energy) is a cure for poverty. The Guardian exposed this as a Peabody Energy rebranding effort (they also pushed it as an answer to Ebola) and Vox has a great piece showing the various groups espousing this, as well as a report from 12 development agencies debunking it. A variant of this is “the Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,” addressed here.
Other commonly used talking points include a supposed “pause” in warming since 1998. Given that 2016 beat 2015 as the hottest year on record, and 2015 beat 2014, that one has gotten less use lately. But 2017 is unlikely to beat 2016, suggesting they might bring this up again. “The Escalator” is a .gif that shows why the focus on a short-term trend is misleading.
Another allegation is that climate models overstate the problem, with a particular non-peer-reviewed, debunked chart being a favorite. The peer-reviewed literature shows the opposite: “The claim that climate models systematically overestimate the response to radiative forcing from increasing greenhouse gas concentrations therefore seems to be unfounded.”
There is also a conspiracy theory that NOAA and NASA are manipulating data to show warming, something Texas Republican Lamar Smith has focused on through his authority in the House. But one peer reviewed study shows this myth to be false and another recent one just validated NOAA’s findings.
➡ How did they reach this conclusion? Ask them to tell you the story of their skepticism, as a way to show what convinced them to deny the consensus. If the interview is going well and the subject affable, consider asking them to recount their position in reverse chronological order ( especially if you suspect them of being untruthful.) If they have a well-rehearsed story, for example to cover for campaign contributions or professional bias that likely determine their position, they will have a mental script prepared. However, by asking them to work backwards from the present, it is more mentally taxing, making it more difficult for them to keep their story straight. Similar to a police officer asking a suspected drunk to recite the alphabet backwards, you can more easily spot deception in their response by asking them to work backwards from the present. But since you’re not a police officer and they’re under no compulsion to answer, they might bristle at the rather unusual reverse-chronological order ask, so be careful not to upset the subject and risk them ending the interview here.
➡ Follow up on as many responses as you can. They will likely have canned responses for most standard questions. By asking follow-up questions, you can begin to determine the depth of their understanding, an important point for your readers. If they are well-informed, which they should be if they are refuting the many reinforcing lines of evidence for human’s influence on climate, they should be able to talk at length about the issue. Those who hold the position for less intellectual reasons will only be able to recite what they’ve been told. So keep following up and note their reaction- are they frazzled and repeating themselves, or able to respond gracefully and uniquely to questions? The answer will provide valuable context for your readers understanding of the interview subject’s position.
➡ Fact-Myth-Fallacy is the ideal way to structure a quote with misleading information, for example when including a single quote in a larger story than for interviews. By putting the denial myth after a fact and before an explanation, it sandwiches the misinformation and reduces the likelihood that readers will get the wrong impression. Though it may seem formulaic, the structure works to educate by framing the issue with facts, and explaining why the myth is false.
First you provide the factual information relevant to the claim or quote. For example, you might tell readers that satellites are one of many tools scientists use to measure temperatures in the air, but they underestimate warming and are considered less reliable (even by the scientists who run them) than the thermometer and ocean records. Then you present the claim made by the denier, and coming after the real fact it will be less likely to mislead the reader. For example, Ted Cruz has cited the satellite record as justification for opposition to the conclusions of climate scientists. Then depending on the nature of the statement, you can consider identifying the key flaw(s) in the argument that make it wrong, or the motivation for why a particular claim would be made. For example, since 90% of the energy trapped by greenhouse gasses go into the oceans, which satellites don’t measure, they underestimate warming.
Image source: Skeptical Science
Keep the Skeptical Science list of myths handy. There are few “new” arguments, so most everything claimed by deniers is addressed in this list of nearly 200 myths. (There’s even an app for iPhone and Androids.)
The Debunking Handbook is a short read on how to avoid reinforcing the myths you’re debunking, and if you’re interested in an online course, there’s "Denial101x - Making sense of climate science denial".
OpenSecrets is a database of funding for politicians, offering breakdowns by year or career, and for industries or individual donors. Not surprisingly, the most vocal politicians are often heavily funded by fossil fuels.
Sourcewatch.org is a database of organizations and their funders, an easy resource to determine the independence of a given group.
ExxonSecrets is a database of the organizations who have received $30 million in funding from ExxonMobil, based on primary sources and compiled by Greenpeace. This funding what deniers don’t want to talk about when addressing the #ExxonKnew reporting done by Inside Climate News.
DeSmogBlog maintains pages on prominent deniers, listing past statements and actions
IRE Radio panel on “Interviewing Liars”Flickr