Updated: Feb 5, 2022
The other day I texted Mattie, my youngest stepdaughter, on an environmental issue. Immediately after I pressed send, I held my breath—no way was this going to end well. I had jumped in with criticism, and I'm pretty sure that goes against all advice on how to maintain family harmony.
Me: Those plastic straws you bought will hurt the ocean.
A few moments later...
Mattie: We're not going to put them in the trash. We'll recycle them.
Me: They're not recyclable.
Mattie: Oooh! You're right. Should've gotten paper. I'll return them.
Phew! That went better than expected, but Mattie tends to be easy-going. It's time for me to learn how to start having these conversations outside the circle of my own family.
Respected institutions, such as NASA, paint a vivid picture of what we're up against:
The current warming trend is of particular significance because it is unequivocally the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented over millennia. It is undeniable that human activities have warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land and that widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, and biosphere have occurred.
So if the science is irrefutable, why do so many of us have trouble talking about it? Maybe it's just hard to know where to begin. After all, no one wants to be told how to live. But increasingly climate scientists and thought leaders urge us to have these conversations. Apparently one of the most important things we can do is just to talk about it! We are social creatures, and when we share what's on our minds and how we may have changed our habits, it vibrates beyond our own networks.
How can we do better?
According to Katherine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and a Christian, we may be going about it the wrong way. In her 2018 TED Talk, she discusses the need to find common ground. According to Hayhoe, if someone has "built their identity on rejecting a certain set of facts, then arguing over those facts is a personal attack. It causes them to dig in deeper...it digs a trench, rather than building a bridge." Instead, we should start the conversation around the things we can all agree are worth protecting. Is that person a parent? Do they enjoy fishing? Listen for where the love is; that's the place to begin.
As Brian Kahn, climate journalist for Earther, writes, "It might be easier to have conversations that lead to climate change rather than leading with climate change."
I'd like to mention one other strategy, which I call the model conversation. I came upon it while attending a gathering at a friend's house. The host and I spoke about climate science while others listened in. I knew we held similar views, so we spoke freely even though I suspected that not everyone in the room felt the same. I was pleasantly surprised to see people begin to nod in agreement. It felt like a breakthrough.
In the end, even if the topic is difficult, we will get better results by keeping it positive. Hayhoe, and others, recommend talking about solutions. We may all find it easier to change if our conversations revolve around solutions that leave us with a sense of hope.
So, I guess I should thank Mattie for letting me try out my climate-conversation training wheels. I'll do better next time. What strategies help you discuss climate change?