The art of climate change conversations

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Environment / Myths / Psychology

With recent reports of the hottest day ever recorded in Antarctica and Australia’s summer of extreme bushfires, it’s hard not to feel anxious and overwhelmed by the climate crisis.  If you’re anything like me, you’re wondering what personal action you can take that will actually make a difference. There are many things we can all do, and research shows simply having conversations about climate change is one of them.

Are conversations part of the solution? Photo by Callum Shaw on Unsplash.

How we feel about climate change

Climate change is rapidly taking centre stage as the issue of most concern to many of us. In the US, 56% of adults say climate change is the most important issue facing society today. In Australia, 64% believe we should have a national target for net-zero emissions by 2050. Sixty percent of Australians believe ‘climate change has been established as a serious problem and immediate action is necessary.’

At the same time, many of us feel anger and dismay about the lack of action our governments are taking and the business-as-usual approach we see all around us.

Of course, collective and governmental action is essential if we hope to achieve the targets set by the Paris agreement: limiting global warming to well below 2°C and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. But individual action is also going to be a crucial part of meeting this target.

There are many straightforward and relatively simple actions each of us can take to reduce our impact on the planet. Eating less red meat, flying less, walking and cycling more, reducing food waste and embracing slow fashion are all genuinely useful things you can do. But it turns out talking about climate change is also a meaningful contribution to change.

Talking the talk

Given the huge impacts of climate change today and into the future, you would expect us all to be talking about it. Surprisingly, that’s not the case. Surveys show very few of us engage in conversations about climate change, for a variety of reasons. Most commonly, people say ‘it never comes up’, ‘we already agree’ or ‘I don’t know enough about the science’. This lack of conversation has been termed the Spiral of silence. In the US, only one-third of people say they talk about climate change at least occasionally.

But it turns out having a deep understanding of the science of climate change is not a requirement for effective conversations. And who should we be talking to? Surveys show friends and family are one of our most trusted sources for climate change information so that is a great place to start. We trust our peers, friends and family more than experts!

Research published last year found that talking with friends and family about climate change led people to learn new influential information, such as the fact scientists agree human-caused climate change is real. The more people were aware of this scientific consensus, the more they were likely to believe in the fact that climate change is real and human-caused. In turn, the more they were likely to see climate change as a cause for concern and something we need to take action on.

The researchers also identified a positive feedback loop: the more people were aware of the overwhelming scientific agreement that climate change is real and caused by us, the more people wanted to talk about it.

Talking with sceptics

Having a chat with often like-minded friends and family doesn’t sound too difficult, but what if your goal is to help shift the views of a climate change denier? Or if you unexpectedly find yourself speaking with a sceptic and you want to encourage them to be more open to the evidence?

We know that these conversations can be incredibly difficult because on the one hand, deniers doubt the evidence. On the other hand, those of us who accept that human-driven climate is real can’t fathom the inability of others to accept the scientific consensus.

There’s a strong general understanding that the facts of climate change don’t speak for themselves, at least not to everyone. Confirmation bias – where we take on board information that supports the views we already hold, but disregard other information – is extremely common. But research out last year suggests a useful approach: reinforcing someone’s belief in science more generally can be a powerful way to begin a conversation about climate change.

Researchers gave study participants a brief survey to explore their belief in science. For half of the participants, the survey included only questions about climate change. But for the other half, the survey first asked other questions to explore their belief in science, for example: ‘How credible is the medical data that germs are a primary cause of disease?’ and ‘How certain are you that physicists’ theory of gravity accurately explains why objects fall when dropped?’

Those who answered these general questions first were more likely to report a greater belief in climate science in response to the later questions. If we can get people to focus on the science they find credible, it becomes harder for them to deny the facts of climate science.

The art of conversation

Extensive research into climate change communication means we know a lot about how to have more effective conversations about climate change.

We know it’s important to find common ground and shared values and to listen carefully to others’ points of view. When having a conversation, focus on the other person’s experiences, hopes and fears and ask lots of questions. Emphasise the ways climate change is affecting us all now: it’s no longer a distant threat.

You don’t need to be able to explain all the science: the crucial information to share is that scientists agree climate change is real, caused by us and is a serious threat. And try to focus on the benefits of taking action, rather than all the possible negatives you could talk about.

If you’d like to practice your conversation skills and get feedback on your approaches to talking about climate change, visit the Suzuki Foundation’s chatbot CliMate. And if you’d like to make your own promise for a more sustainable future, visit I Promise to Act.


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