Raising the topic of climate change and sharing personal stories allows not only for supporting a social mandate for climate policies, but also creates an opportunity for you to learn something new from a stranger, friend, or relative.
Why do we need to talk about the climate?
Covid-19 has shown that we are able to quickly react when our lives are in danger: We highly value human life. With Covid-19, we can see the immediate global impact. Our current actions have an impact on the Earth’s climate system and our future lives. In some regions of Earth, the consequences are drastic while in others the impacts of climate change are not yet apparent. Although already in a climate crisis, it is hard to imagine what future life will be like if we continue as we do. An ambitious climate policy requires a deeply engaged public that supports initiatives that will have an impact on their own behaviour and their lifestyle. Otherwise, if this social mandate is not given and the current governments implement ambitious climate policies, public unrest could be a result and the next government could easily take measures back. So, the public needs to get more engaged but the question is how we can achieve this?
For decades, there has been scientific consensus and we need climate science to assess the state of the Earth’s climate system and other sciences to assess its impact on us. But we do not need more knowledge to “convince” the public to act. We need to reach everyone and get the support by all sectors and all classes. Not everyone is reached through dry facts and scientific language. One way to reach the people you meet every day is by talking about climate change. Here, it is relevant to make sure you know how to successfully talk about this difficult topic. What I mean by “conversations about the climate” is bringing this topic to a more personal level. With the current crisis on top, we need more action, people need to be reminded that climate change needs at least the same attention and political will as Covid-19.
Role of stories and narratives
When communicating about climate change with friends, family or strangers, stories play a pivotal role. By asking more general, open questions like, “What is your experience with climate change?” your conversation partner gets the chance to use their own narrative. This way, you can begin to understand how your dialogue partner perceives climate change and gives you hints on how you can then reply to them.
Today, finding solutions often requires interdisciplinary approaches. When we talk about climate change, there is no difference. These communication practices do not just build upon communication research, but research in social sciences and psychology. To be a better communicator, it is necessary to understand some findings of psychosocial research. First and foremost, when someone says something wrong, we sometimes tend to correct them; we want to right a wrong. However, by doing so, we may create a conflict, causing the other person to react defensively. It is not a good way to have a conversation.
Climate change is still a contested topic. Is it because of the way people raise the issue or because it is so difficult to grasp? What do you think is the issue?
Let’s start. Have you talked to a friend, relative, colleague or stranger about climate change before? Do they know your opinion? You can raise the issue by sharing your thoughts and your personal story—why you are personally engaged in climate action or effected by climate change. Are you trying to convince local politicians to implement more ambitious climate change policies because you are afraid of your children’s future? Or, do you want to decarbonize your consumption patterns to become a role model and protect the beauty of nature left to us by our forefathers? Many people have an individual story, but these remain unshared unless you speak out.
Discussing climate change can have surprising effects. You might be surprised that your neighbor is aware of the issue but does not know where to start a personal transformation process such as reducing their carbon footprint. You could team up to support each other. On the other hand, you might provoke a completely different result. Your grandfather or sister is close to you, but it turns out they do not want to change anything. What do you do? Instead of pointing fingers and blaming them, you could first listen. What do they have to say? Let them speak and maybe you can still find some common ground. Even if you do not understand or support their opinion, it is important to remain respectful, and listen; do not try to correct them.
More practical tips to start with. If you are interested in leading conversations about climate change, here are some tips for how to spark a friendly conversation. To avoid ambushing anyone, you can simply ask if your friend is willing to talk about climate change. If the answer is positive, consider starting with an open question that makes clear you are interested in your friend’s story. You want to understand your friend, so just listen and make sure not to interrupt. You will probably learn something new about your friend by just listening.
Climate Outreach, is a British non-profit organization researching better ways of communicating climate change. They have released a handbook on how to talk about climate change. The guide is a result of a citizen science project called #TalkingClimate. For one month, seven-hundred participants from all over the world, including myself, led climate change conversations and filled out a survey about their experiences. Have a look for more guidance and become an activist. Let’s start talking about climate change.
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