There is an old adage which directs us to avoid discussing contentious topics such as religion and politics. A newer corollary to this suggests that rather than avoiding these topics, we should have been taught how to have difficult conversations.
“Even though 7 in 10 Americans believe climate change is happening, and 6 in 10 are at least somewhat concerned about it, two-thirds of Americans rarely, if ever, talk about climate change with the people they care about.” (from the Nature Conservancy)
Talking about climate change is made even more difficult due to a whole host of external factors: a climate change denial machine fueled by oil and gas companies, newly emerging connections between climate change denial and misogyny (even sustainability is seen as unmanly). Combined with a long-entrenched political divide around climate change, and it’s no wonder we haven’t been talking about climate change.
We no longer have the luxury of avoiding the discussion if we want to avoid “untold human suffering“, ecological collapse, increasing numbers of climate refugees, and the myriad other threats associated with climate crisis. The entire world needs a quick and decisive move towards zero-carbon economies and massive work to adapt to the already locked-in effects of climate change. This will never happen if we are afraid to talk about it.
Since humor can engage the public on climate change, let’s pause for a 2-minute video:
Hah that was funny! But I’m still nervous and not sure how to start.
New things feel weird and scary when we do them, its normal. And you know what? Turns out a lot of other people worry about climate change: roughly 75% of Americans, according to recent polls! You may be surprised how many people agree with you.
Here are a few things to help you towards these conversations.
- Just start talking; odds are the person you talk to will already agree with you! A word of caution: don’t start the conversation with someone who is likely to disagree. Work up to that conversation after you practice with others!
- Focus your conversation on a shared interest. Think about what you have in common with the person- shared hobbies, like hunting or skiing, or connections through faith or a PTO- and start there.
- The goal is conversation, not conquest. Be interested, open, courteous and kind. This is an exercise in exchange, not debate or one-upmanship. Don’t worry about memorizing a bunch of facts. Rather, ask them about their experience with or understanding about climate change.
What if someone I talk to turns out to be a denier?
This is really what we fear, right? The last thing we want is to raise this topic with someone and have them aggressively assert that we are wrong, or belittle us for believing in climate change and/or its effects.
It is helpful to remember that “denial is not a label, it is a process” (from Making Sense of Climate Science Denial, a free online course). This is a position that someone reaches by making a decision based on the available information. Be kind but don’t engage in the debate if you don’t want to.
That being said, here is Skeptical Science’s list of almost 200 climate denial arguments, with rebuttals.
Significant work is being done to help us better communicate about climate change.
Increasing understanding of how to talk about climate change. Emerging work in the social sciences helps us understand why talking about climate change is so difficult. Recently, I saw Katharine Hayhoe speak and found her perspective and ideas on communicating about climate change very helpful. Here is her TedTalk:
News media coverage is increasing. The media has long avoided reporting on climate change, creating a gaping hole in our national discourse around the issue. ABC, for example, spent more time reporting on the birth of a royal baby in one week than it did on climate crisis in all of 2018. In 2019, the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation launched the Covering Climate Now project, which aims to increase media coverage of climate change. Edward R Murrow challenged journalists to cover the climate crisis like they covered the beginning of WWII.
UPDATE- During the week of the September 23rd 2019 UN Climate Summit, 323 Covering Climate Now news outlets from around the world published 3,640 stories about climate change, reaching over 1 billion people. Going forward, Covering Climate Now plans to continue to push for greater coverage. More details can be found here.
Are you still nervous about talking about climate change? Or are you ready to make a commitment to tackling it? Here are a couple tips to help you begin your conversations.
Educate yourself. There is nothing like knowledge to give us confidence. You still don't need to be an expert to have these conversations, but it doesn't hurt to educate yourself a little. I have a short list of resources I have found useful in better understanding the issues and science. I really recommend the online course "Climate Change: The Science". It was very accessible and helped me understand the basic concepts.
Make a pledge to talk about climate change. Take The Nature Conservancy's pledge (you get a brief guide for talking about climate change) or pledge to #BeInconvenient. Then share this on social media or in your conversations about climate change!