Doctor's advice: Forget the climate change deniers, focus on the 'passive allies'

A teen holds a sign with a crowd of protestors on the steps of the Capitol
A couple thousand protesters, largely made up of teens and young adults, take part in the Minnesota Youth Climate Strike on Sept. 20, 2019 at the State Capitol in St. Paul. Protests took place in more than a dozen cities across the state in coordination with the global strike.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres upped the urgency for reducing global emissions this week. He told attendees at the COP25 climate meeting in Madrid that stalled progress means countries now need to be even more ambitious than what’s outlined in the Paris climate agreement.

So, how can climate advocates get that message out to climate change deniers? Dr. Laalitha Surapaneni says, “Don’t.”

Dr. Laalitha Surapaneni
Laalitha Surapaneni, doctor and professor at the University of Minnesota.
Courtesy of University of Minnesota

She’s a doctor and professor at the University of Minnesota and a member of Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate. She recently wrote on the nonprofit climate news website Ensia about motivating “passive allies” instead.

“I am an internist and so the ‘why’ of any action is central to my practice,” she told MPR chief meteorologist and Climate Cast host Paul Huttner.

“So, I started thinking about why we would want to convince someone [that climate change is human-made]. And if the answer is because we want them to take action, then we need a different strategy.”

Surapaneni argues climate advocates should instead focus on the people who don’t need convincing that their actions play a role in climate change. She likened the problem to a doctor helping someone quit smoking.

”Even when we start in a shared reality that smoking is bad for our health, it takes a long time for someone to go from what we call the precontemplative stage, where people are not even thinking about quitting smoking, to the action phase,” she said. “So, when we translate this to climate, first we have to convince people it's real, then we have to convince them it's man-made, then we have to convince them to take action, which basically requires them to overhaul their lifestyle.”

Surapaneni said it’s a better use of advocates’ time to skip past the precontemplative stage and identify those who know there’s a problem but have yet to act. A Yale study estimates that represents some 47 percent of Americans.

Surapaneni suggested focusing conversations with these “passive allies” on the concrete, immediate steps they can take.

To hear more of Surapaneni’s conversation with Huttner, hit play on the audio player above.

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