By Lydia Messling
The festive season is coming, and so is that awkward
conversation. We all have that one person who we can’t talk to about climate
change. But let’s not be too hard on them. Climate change is not an easy
subject to talk about. There’s lots of social science research into why it’s a
concept that can be tricky to come to terms with. In this article, we’ll
briefly outline the main reasons why that is, and some quick top tips to get
you #talkingclimate and keeping peace on earth and goodwill to all.
- Start with just one thing that matters.
- Tell stories, not facts.
- Frame communications in a way that resonate with
- Be reasonable in the ‘ask’.
- Share hope.
Start with just one thing that matters.
Sometimes, it’s hard to know where to start. Climate change can feel like such a massive
problem related to so many issues. But then there are also a million other
issues vying for people’s attention too, such as healthcare, education, and
finances. Climate change can simultaneously feel overwhelming, and irrelevant
to other, more immediate concerns. In reality, climate change is probably
related to those issues in some shape or form – either causing them, exacerbating
them, or putting them at risk. And even if you’ve managed to perfectly recite
all the possible ways that climate change impacts the global system, the
science has probably moved on and discovered something else.
So the first top tip is to: just start on one thing that
matters. The joy of having a conversation with someone is that it
(hopefully) continues. You don’t need to squeeze everything about climate
change in to one long wheezing paragraph. You can even come back to it next
week, or at Easter. This also takes the pressure off – you don’t need to enter
into an argument about ‘what issue matters more’, just to acknowledge that
Tell stories, not facts.
Climate change can be pretty difficult to get your head around. And there’s a reason why that is. Phsychological distancing is a phenomenon that climate change suffers from – it is perceived as being ‘far off’ in many dimensions. Climate change is not something that is easily touched, or seen (or tasted, or smelled, or heard). It’s perceived as only happening in places far away, and with most of the effects taking place in the future. This distance in time, place, and matter might explain why the phrase ‘belief in climate change’ has been so often used, almost like having a faith.
Spewing more scientific facts about the future, and about
invisible tonnes of CO2 rarely help in bringing climate change
closer in to view. Whilst the evidence about climate change impacts happening
now and closer to home is growing, it can still be difficult to understand how
it will impact our daily lives. And have a long-lasting impact, not just a
To overcome this, we need to make climate change relevant, and show how it is something that exists within a context we’re familiar with. Here, stories are invaluable. By talking about climate change’s impacts that are happening now and affecting real people, climate change comes a little closer. But to bring it even closer still, tell stories that include local impacts, put people (not scientific facts) at the centre, and think about the other stories and experiences the person you are talking to has already. Stories chime best when the audience are able to share something in common with it. For example, sensitively talking to flooded communities, and other communities that are near them about how climate change will affect flooding events.
Frame communications in a way that resonate with people’s values.
For others, climate change is a big political red flag. In fact, in the US, researchers found that people’s views about climate change were a more reliable way of predicting political party affiliation than view on gun control or abortion. It might seem odd to have what is seemingly a scientific issue be so politically polarising, but attacks on science are often rooted in disagreements about what should be done in response to the science. Therefore, to stall a knee-jerk dismissal, try and understand the audience’s values. What makes them tick? What do they care about? What do they fear? What are they working towards achieving? How do they see their role in society?
Learning how people engage with the world and understand their place in it (their world view and identity) we can have a better understanding of how they see climate change. Even better, find out what you share in common with them, and talk about how that shared value might mean you both share a concern for climate change. For example, evangelical Christians in the USA tend to be more resistant to the reality of human-caused climate change. Professor Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and evangelical Christian, uses both of these ‘credentials’ as a way of engaging evangelical Christians in climate change. A recent study found that the way she does this – ‘framing’ climate change in line with evangelical values, and speaking as a ‘trusted’ messenger – successfully convinces doubtful evangelicals about climate change.
‘Framing messages’ is finding narratives that work in harmony with people’s values, rather than jarring with them. For example, some people of faith may find it hard to engage in action on climate change, if it feels like the messaging is saying their god is not powerful enough to stop it, or that it is going against the will of the deity. Research has found that there are five key narratives that work across the five major faiths in encouraging people to engage with climate change that refrain from making judgement about a deity’s power. Narratives that emphasise earth care, climate change as a moral challenge, climate change as disrupting the natural balance, how we live our faith through our actions, and take a personal pledge to act, are more likely to resonate with people of faith.
Be reasonable in the ‘ask’.
When discussing responses to climate change, be aware that
some actions are likely to seem more acceptable than others. Some actions might
seem like a really unfair ask. For example, for a single parent that already
struggles to put food on the table for their children, having someone tell them
they’re ruining the planet for not buying (the often more expensive and hard to
find) organic, locally produced food, may be misdirected. It’s easy to see here
how this particular action might sound judgemental and unsupportive to that
Being aware of people’s capacity and limitations is important, particularly for talking about first responses to climate change – different people experience different adaptation costs and risks associated with mitigation actions. Telling a crop farmer that they are going to have to relocate in order to adapt to climate change because it’s no longer viable to pay for the sea level defences, and move to another part of the country where it’s not as good to their crop, is a huge ask. It also threatens their identity and livelihood as a crop farmer. What we do and how we do it often forms a big part of our identity. In pushing for certain behavioural changes, we’re not just asking for people to change their ways, but sometimes we’re asking people to change a bit of their identities. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t challenge some identity-defining actions, but be aware of the impact of such an ask. By understanding more about that person’s situation, their capacity for change, and the things they value (as mentioned above) the following questions can help you identify suitable ‘first-step’ actions that may help pave the way to adopting other changes:
- Is the action accessible? Who are you
excluding or not making feel welcome? Is it really expensive to do? Or far
away, or time consuming, or inflexible?
- Is the action sustainable? Does it
require ongoing investment? Is it too burdensome?
- Is the action visible? Is it easy to see progress?
Can individual and collective action be identified?
- Is it attractive? Do people experience a
(co-)benefit from doing it? Is it fun? Do people want to keep doing it? Does it
go against their identity?
- Is the action collaborative? Does it help
bring communities together? (This can help with encouragement, making it
attractive, and making it sustainable).
And finally, we need to think about how we react to this. We
are all emotional beings – some are more ready to admit that than others – and
having an emotional reaction to climate change is natural and to be expected.
One of the reasons why people shy away from having conversations about climate
change is that it can leave you wallowing in a pit of despair. Or a glut of
guilt. Or a furnace of frustration.
Climate grief is something that has begun to get more traction in recent years. There may also be anger at injustice, confusion, guilt, horror, gut wrenching empathy, conviction, ambivalence, and many more. It’s important to acknowledge these and give them space. But research has found that trying to engage people with climate change using ‘fear’ narratives does not work. Indeed, ‘hope’ narratives are successful in creating broad support for actions, and are much needed, particularly when communicating with young people. So find some hope, and share it.
By focusing on one thing to start off with, demonstrating
how climate change links to other issues that people care about, telling
a story in a way that relates to people’s values, and being
sensitive to how actions are perceived, and people’s emotional response,
we can open up a space to have a conversation about climate change.