Eco Etiquette: Help! My Dad Doesn't Believe In Global Warming

My father is an extremely intelligent man, and I respect his advice about a lot of things. I'm embarrassed to admit, however, that he's a global warming denier. I've tried to change his mind, but he just doesn't want to listen. How can I get my father to come around on climate change?


Your dad isn't the only one who's going to need some serious convincing: The number of Americans who believe global warming is real has fallen from 80 to 72 percent in the past year. This, all before emails from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia were stolen and subsequently leaked, raising questions about the integrity of the scientists' global warming data. Add to that the ensuing "Climategate" frenzy by the cable news talking heads, who often seem more interested in sound bytes than exploring the nuance of any given issue, and the result is a population divided into believers and deniers.

But some think there's more to consider. To understand where your father is coming from, I turned to a family member of mine who is a scientist, environmentalist, and one of the most brilliant people I know. He also happens to be skeptical (his words, not mine) that we fully understand the science of climate. Here's what he had to say:

My conclusion here is not that the prevailing climate change theories are necessarily wrong. But I have always been skeptical that we understand how our planet works to the extent some believe that we do, which is a subtle, but different assertion than saying I do not believe in man-made climate change.... Science of natural phenomenon (chemistry, physics, how the human body works, climate, etc.) is very very complicated.... In every other realm of science we always discover that our earlier models of nature are usually incomplete or wrong at first, and find that continued scientific inquiry improves our models and understanding. Since the science is young, I am skeptical of anyone who claims to understand it fully and with uncanny certitude...

He went on to say that the world should focus on more tangible environmental solutions than creating carbon trading schemes, like stopping factories from dumping waste in our water and developing clean energy technologies that reduce our dependence on oil.

And that's when the light bulb went off: I had wrongly assumed that anyone who doesn't fully embrace the science of global warming must be an anti-environmentalist, throwing McDonald's wrappers out the window of a Hummer on the way to her job at ExxonMobil.

Your dad's probably not that bad, but how can you sway him nonetheless? You could use scare tactics, sending your father photos of drowning polar bears and articles about London being underwater by the year 2100. You could also take the scientific approach, pointing out that leading climatologist Dr. Stephen Schneider has long since debunked his own 1971 theory about global cooling. Neither approach is likely to work. Why? Well, you say your father is an intelligent man, so I'm assuming he knows how to use the internet, just like I do. It's not that he doesn't have access to the information; it's that he either isn't listening, or has already listened and simply doesn't agree.

But I believe there's an environmentalist in all of us -- whether it's the hunter who doesn't want to see forest converted into a shopping mall or the truck driver who thinks his rig runs better on biofuel -- and if we make the issue about climate change and climate change only, we lose the opportunity to involve your father and that other 28 percent in the solutions. So put down the global warming gun for a second and focus on other environmental ills that could bring your father into the fold. Does he love to go to the beach in the summer? Tell him about how our addiction to bottled water is creating a monstrous patch of garbage in the Pacific Ocean twice the size of Texas. Is he worried about swine flu? Talk about how unsanitary conditions in factory farmscan create breeding grounds for pandemic viruses like H1N1.

By focusing on the environment and pollution, rather than just asking him to check a box that says either "yes" or "no" next to climate change, you'll be empowering your dad to make a difference, and here's our little secret: If your father switches to tap water and reduces his meat consumption for the above reasons, he'll also inadvertently be reducing the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, whether he believes in it or not (bottling water in the US produces more than 2.5 million tons of CO2 a year; livestock farming is responsible for 18 percent of the world's GHG emissions). It may not be as satisfying as getting your father to jump ship, but what do you care about more: being right or actually making a difference?

If we let people categorize themselves as deniers or believers, then the conversation is over. We can't afford to let the destruction of the environment become a politicized, polarized issue. Mankind's survival is at stake, and we need everyone on board.

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at Questions may be edited for length and clarity.