Climate Change Conversations: How To Have A Positive One

December 2021

What do the experts think...

If you’re someone that’s passionate about responding to climate change, you’ve probably found yourself - intentionally or unintentionally - in a not-so-nice conversation with someone who doesn’t see things from your perspective.

Perhaps they agree climate change is happening, but they just don’t have the same level of concern or urgency as you. Maybe they don’t feel the same sense of personal responsibility to act. Or perhaps they’re actually so concerned about climate change that they’ve found themselves in a state of defeat and no longer see the point in taking action.

Regardless of how uncomfortable it might be at times, continuing to have conversations about the climate is very important, because while there are many of us who are concerned about it, very few actually talk about it, leaving many feeling like they’re in the minority when they’re not! 

Let’s make climate activism a little less taboo by having conversations that are positive and productive.

1. Start a conversation with those closest to you

The hardest conversations in life usually happen at dining room tables and around kitchen benches in the comfort of our own homes. And this is where grassroots conversations about the world’s most important issues happen too. For every board meeting or meeting of government officials talking about the changing climate, there’s the potential for hundreds more conversations to be happening between family and friends that go beyond recounting the news headlines to talking about what it means to us; our identities and our way of life. 

Climate change may have its proof in science and data, but its realities affect us all on a deeply emotional, sometimes irrational level. This is why we’re often confronted with emotional reactions of all kinds when the topic is raised - fear, anger, frustration, helplessness manifest themselves in ways that sometimes make productive conversation near impossible.

Climate conversations with those closest to us, where there is an existing foundation of respect and trust in place, are arguably the most important and powerful because they have the ability to cut through surface-level emotions to what really matters and tie the science (which the vast majority of us don’t fully understand), to something that we can relate to, and in turn, be motivated by.

2. Understand your motivations & biases

Before trying to convince anyone to see things from your perspective, it’s important to reflect on what your own motivations are for sparking a conversation with someone. Your motivation likely runs deeper than simply wanting someone else to think the same way you do. 

There are so many different biases that might be driving both what you want to say, as well as why. Here are a few examples and some questions you can ask yourself to “check” if they apply to you:

  • Confirmation bias

The tendency to seek out information that supports what you already believe.

Ask yourself: “Am I telling someone what I ‘know’ only to gain extra confidence that I’m right? Is my confidence in what I believe dependent on other people believing I’m right?”.

  • The Dunning Kruger effect 

When you believe a concept to be simplistic because your knowledge is limited/ lacking - i.e. the less you know about something the less complex it appears.

Ask yourself: “Am I oversimplifying this because I know deep-down I lack the facts to provide a more detailed explanation? Do I really know what I don’t know?”.

  • Cultural bias 

When you perceive other cultures (and their practices/ beliefs) to be abnormal, simply because it is different to your own. 

Ask yourself: “What could I learn from the perspective of someone from a different cultural background to me that would expand my view of this topic?”.

  • In-group bias

The tendency to believe or support the beliefs of someone within your cultural/ social group more than an ‘outsider’. i.e. You’re much more likely to trust and be trusted by someone in your familial or friendship group compared to a relative stranger.

Ask yourself: “Am I relying on information from objectively trustworthy sources, or just those I trust because I know them personally?”, or “Am I disregarding someone else’s opinion simply because I don’t know them?”.

  • Optimism or pessimism bias

Some people are simply ‘wired’ to see things in a more optimistic (positive) or pessimistic (negative) light, or someone’s feelings about a topic could be swayed by their mood at the time.

Ask yourself: “How does my disposition affect my opinion on this topic? Could I be more easily swayed if I was feeling happier?”.

3. Meet people where they are

Once you’ve reflected on your own motivations and biases, you can essentially flip this to consider the same things from the perspective of anyone you’re talking to.

Put yourself in their shoes and by actively listening to them, try to ‘fill in the gaps’ around where your beliefs and opinions align and differ. Understand what life experiences have led someone to where they are in their thinking and how their feelings about climate change link to what matters to them most in life. 

Once you have identified where your personal experiences and motivations align, you can convey what you “know” or what you “think” in a way that’s not patronising or authoritative but rather, personal, authentic and trustworthy.

4. Focus on rational hope

It is difficult to avoid talking about the inevitability of some negative outcomes of climate change. However, it is always possible to talk about what is being done or could be achieved in the future to make positive change, at the same time. This is what ‘rational hope’ looks like - it’s knowing the facts and being realistic about them, whilst not losing your optimistic perspective on what is still possible. Try to always ‘sandwich’ the negative, with rational hope to avoid stifling action with helplessness and fear.

5. Demonstrate the possibilities of positive individual action

While talking about climate change at all is a great place to start, having conversations that focus on tangible action is even better. Climate change can often feel like a huge, untouchable issue that’s impossible for any single person to have a real impact on, but that’s not the case. And while talking about the big picture is useful for perspective and objectivity, bringing it back down to what we can do as individuals to take action leads to personal agency and in turn optimism for the future. Often the best way to encourage others to take individual action is to lead by example - show what’s possible by giving others guidance based on your own experience.

6. Avoid these common mistakes

  • Guilting someone into action or shaming them for their behaviour. Avoid phrases like, “You should really..” and “Did you know that doing X is bad because…” or comparing your own ‘good’ behaviours to the other person’s less ideal behaviour.
  • Making it all about you. While tying what you believe to personal experience can be persuasive, be careful to watch how many times you refer to yourself, and your opinions and make sure they’re balanced with how much you’re listening and asking questions of the other person.
  • Listening less than you ‘lecture’. It can be hard to listen to someone whose opinions you disagree with, but without actively listening to their point of view, you will never be able to truly ‘meet them where they are’. 
  • Discrediting someone’s emotions.  Just thinking about climate change let alone talking about it can bring up all sorts of emotions. As new concepts like ‘eco-anxiety’ are emerging and becoming better understood, it’s important to recognise that we’re all still navigating a somewhat uncertain, sometimes frightening future together, so we should remain open-minded and empathetic of all types of emotional responses when it comes to tackling the climate crisis.

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