Global warming, climate change, whatever you name it…our inability to talk about it has brought us to a breaking point.
We’ve procrastinated on climate change for the past 40 years. Now we only have twelve more to get our act together. Meanwhile, children around the world are skipping school to demand aggressive action. While we’ve been procrastinating on our future, they can’t vote on their present.
So, why has it gotten so bad?
The truth is, climate change suffers from really, really terrible PR. Despite the overwhelming consensus from the scientific community, our media and politicians continue to talk about climate change like it is a belief. Denialists have turned science into a partisan issue — so much so that we’re afraid of having a connected, honest conversation with family members across the aisle. And while denialists are not representative of the majority of Americans, the issue is still thrown on the back burner.
I don’t blame you. It’s a tough conversation to have. That’s why we’re starting with the basics.
Why don’t we talk about climate change?
The reality of climate change, as someone once told me, “stresses [them] the hell out.” This reaction is common, valid, and necessary because it means you are taking step one: facing it. (If this is you, know that you are not alone.)
Humans are creatures of habit — we don’t like disruption to our lives. And climate change is the big, bumbling elephant in the room. Our reactions fall along the same lines of fear, avoidance, and denial…
I feel overwhelmed. I don’t think I can make a difference. I’m afraid of being judged. I don’t know enough. I want to avoid an argument.
For transparency: I feel the same. Sometimes I avoid the topic because it’s too much emotional labor for me that day; however, I would like to recognize that this isn’t a healthy habit. While these reactions are natural, they are more of the same rhetoric that has fueled our past procrastination.
So, how do we talk about it?
Talking about climate change isn’t about winning; it’s about educating. An aggressive environmentalist who turns a conversation into a debate will alienate the participant. No one wants to be wrong, and forcing someone into a corner will make them resent you instead of appreciate your insight.
Alternatively, focus on the positive. Step one is recognizing the problem; step two is feeling some degree of concern or connection, and step three is desiring some sort of change. Support every little victory. Communicate that we can make a difference (yes, my pessimistic readers, we can). And most of all, aim to talk with the person, not at them.
Listen First, Speak Second.
By listen, I mean actively listen — not wait until it’s your chance to talk. Meet them where they are. They will most likely feel differently about climate change than you because of their livelihood, their peers, and/or the media they watch. Starting the conversation with, “how do you feel about climate change?” will give them the freedom to express their thoughts without trying to meet your expectation or dispute your claim.
And when they do respond, take their words to heart. This person is being vulnerable with you, so don’t bring them down. After all, if you don’t listen to them, why should they listen to you? Even if you don’t reach an agreement, the point is that you talked about it and heard what they had to say.
Most Importantly, Connect.
Humans aren’t numbers and facts don’t change lives. But when we marry those facts with compelling stories, we are far more persuasive. Aim to connect the person’s life to the effects of climate change. Bringing the issue home will leave a lasting impression.
For example, many people don’t connect to the broad issue of climate change itself, but many do connect to health issues. How will Business As Usual affect the health of their families, their communities, their livelihoods? Not everyone cares for renewable technology, but most everyone cares for clean air and clean water.
Conversation IS Action
You don’t have to spend oodles of money on new solar gadgets, go zero waste, or live off-grid to be a climate activist. While these are great tactics, they are not accessible to everyone. (Pretending they are — and undervaluing small actions — is counterproductive.)
However, conversation is accessible to nearly everyone. And while a conversation with a climate skeptic may not change their mind, it can plant a seed that may be sowed by others. The goal is not to win, but to establish connection — that is success.
Conversation IS action. We won’t get policy changes if we’re not talking about it — climate action must be something the people actively demand. And the open, honest dialogue of millions of voices is how we can get there.
Inspired by your responses to my Instagram poll from April 1 & 2, 2019, and the Nature Conservancy’s Climate Talks Pledge.