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Talking about Climate Change

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Some ideas for talking with your unconvinced friends and relatives about climate change

by Thea Ormerod

Climate change has come to be added to the topics one should avoid, along with sex, politics and religion. It's sure to get some people off-side, even if you work the minor miracle of keeping yourself calm! Some social rules, however, are there to be broken. To shrink back from these conversations too often can't be a very ethical option when the stakes are so high.

First, let me say I have a lot of trouble implementing the ideas below myself but, like any religious person, I can espouse noble ideals and fall short of them at the same time.

Second, don't be concerned that you don't have a lot of scientific detail at your fingertips because we now know that it's a myth that information will change attitudes. As human beings, we rarely weigh objectively the value of different decisions and then take the clear self-interested choice. In fact too much scientific detail can generate fear, which is to be used with great caution. Fear can motivate people for only a short time, after which they may be prone to denial, despair or defeatism.1

My tips include:

  1. Have a kind and understanding view of the unconvinced person
  2. Speak from your own experience
  3. Invite your friends and/or relative to trust their own eyes
  4. Make it clear there's a consensus amongst scientists
  5. Link climate change to existing ideas and values
  6. Point people towards solutions

Read on for more details!

1. It helps to have a kind and understanding view of the unconvinced friend or relo

If what is going through your mind is "What a closed-minded ignoramus!" then nothing helpful is going to come out of your mouth. Try to cultivate a compassionate, respectful view of the unconvinced, even if they are denialists. They are likely to be busy people living stressful lives and are finding ways of coping. People only have a limited number of problems in their lives they can worry about. They must keep up their expertise in their own field of endeavor, but all else that is mystifyingly complex in the world is sifted through cultural and emotional filters. The media makes denial and skepticism so much easier by giving the impression that anthropogenic climate change is hotly debated among scientists.

At some point skeptics and deniers may have found the science very threatening and learned to cope by switching off or not believing. Even if people are not hard-core denialists, they can still have an "optimism bias"2 which is a predisposition to thinking that things can't be that bad. It's also not uncommon for people to be confused or ambivalent.

Taking an historical perspective, our understanding of climate change is one of many scientific breakthroughs which have taken decades to gain widespread acceptance, eg, that the earth revolves around the sun.

2. Speak from your own experience

No-one can argue about what you find personally moves you to be concerned about climate change. You used to be skeptical too, but now you've changed your mind (if that's true). I know when I first heard about global warming I was incredulous because it sounded too unimaginably awful to be true. I've only slowly been moving out of denial ever since. Your own feelings might include:

  • You are worried for your children or grandchildren and you want to protect their chances for a happy life if it's true what scientists are saying.
      
  • You don't have a crystal ball either but we generally don't have to be absolutely certain that something bad will happen before we take precautions against it. In fact, we take out insurance against all sorts of eventualities when the risk is really quite minimal!
         
  • You find a more environmentally friendly lifestyle makes more sense in a world with finite resources, and it's quite rewarding. You get to read and relax on public transport while driving is stressful. You feel more healthy since you started cycling to the local shops instead of driving, etc.

3. Invite your friends and relo's to trust their own eyes

They can see the weather is less predictable and there seem to be more droughts, floods, cyclones and every other weather extreme. The intensity of these events has a lot to do with climate change. These kinds of connections helps make climate change more immediate rather than a problem affecting people far away or far into the future.

4. Make it clear there's a consensus among scientists

All the national Academies of Science including the Vatican's Academy of Sciences, the CSIRO, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and around 97% of climate scientists agree climate change is real and humans are the major contributors to it. Scientists have moved on from whether climate change is happening or whether humans are responsible. The questions now are: How bad will it be? and What can we do about it?

Even the Australian Coal Association acknowledges that CO2 in the atmosphere causes global warming: "It will be virtually impossible to limit global temperature increases to two degrees without carbon capture and storage (CSS) technology. CCS is an essential part of a global response to climate change."3

5. Link climate change action with existing values and aspirations

In the Climate of the Nation 2012 report4, those studied were much more inclined to make lifestyle changes if these also appealed to other values they held. Reducing emissions can also be about living a healthy lifestyle, reducing costs, personal enjoyment, a more beautiful environment and a sense of achievement.

High value is also placed on health so people are more likely to will be swayed that renewable energy will help with avoiding damaging pollution from coal-fired power stations. Support for clean energy among the Australian population is widespread. People usually see the point in living sustainably even if they have doubts about climate change. Taking care of the planet is like living within your means – humans will have to find a way of living within the earth's ecological limits. It is now mainstream opinion that the planet has finite resources which have to be taken care of for future generations. There's a general abhorrence of waste and pollution.

Ask your friends and relo's what they are already doing to be environmentally friendly. They may already be recycling, keeping their use of air conditioning to a minimum or switching off lights and appliances when they're not being used. Acknowledge these.

6. Point people to solutions

Offer suggestions which sound attractive as much as possible. Solar hot water is now cheaper than ever, and pays for itself in four years or so, after which you no longer pay the 25-30% of your electricity bill which has been used for heating water. Eating less meat and organically grown food is better for your health as well as for the environment. Cycling is fun, cheap and great exercise – and parking is never a problem! Having holidays in Australia supports the local tourism industry. Switching to 100% GreenPower can easily be organised with your existing electricity company while being incredibly effective in reducing your carbon footprint. It's now less costly because of the Clean Energy Future legislation.

These kinds of actions would join with the extensive action happening around the world. Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported that more money was invested in renewable energy in 2011 than fossil fuel power sources, like coal and gas5. Car use is declining globally and metros are being built in 82 cities in China 42 cities in India. China's government is pursuing energy security through clean energy, and the cities of Dezou and Boading are now wholly clean energy cities6. The price of exports of solar panels from China has come down so rapidly in recent years that new coal-fired power stations are becoming an unattractive option.

Conclusion

It's probably realistic to keep your chances of changing minds low when talking to your unconvinced friends and relatives. Nonetheless people's views can change and do, so it's worth a try. Hopefully with a positive approach, you will have a better chance of winning them over.

Further reading

  • Marshall, George, Carbon Detox: Your step-by-step guide to getting real about climate change, Gaia, London, 2007.
  • http://www.psychology.org.au/publications/inpsych/2012/december/acc/
  • http://blog.nwf.org/2011/12/tips-for-talking-climate-change-at-the-holiday-party/
  • http://www.psychology.org.au/inpsych/2012/june/climate_change/

References

1 Futerra, The Rules of the Game: Principles of climate change communications, London, 2005 www.futerra.co.uk

2 Skeptical Science http://www.skepticalscience.com/

3 At the time of writing the reference was www.australiancoal.com.au/climate-change-a-technology.html However, this appears to have been removed.

4 Climate of the Nation 2012, The Climate Institute

5 Will McGoldrick, “Nearing the Doha end game”, TCI, 7/12/12

6 Address by Peter Newman, Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University, at the 2012 Climate Summit