How to talk to people about the climate emergency

By Yasmin Kidd.

Now more than ever is the time to be striking up conversations about the climate emergency. In August, the world’s scientists published the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report on the state of the climate crisis in 2021, warning us of the dangerous trajectory we are on. The 2021 United Nations climate change conference - the COP26 - is coming up in November.

It’s an alarming time, but there is hope. There is a growing worldwide movement tackling climate change, but we need everyone on board for the best chance at a just and sustainable world. To do so, we need to get comfortable talking about climate change. Having those conversations can be daunting, especially when talking with someone who has a very different opinion from you, but that’s what makes them so important. 

Here are some tips to help clear the air. 

Steer clear of unproductive conversations

I'm sure you’ve experienced a heated argument with someone about a topic you both share different viewpoints on; you believe you are right, and so does the other person. Both of you shut each other out, voices raised, and don’t listen to each other. You leave the conversation frustrated, without feeling heard. This is an unproductive conversation, and it is exactly what we’re trying to avoid when we’re talking about the climate. It’s a sure-fire way to discourage the climate action we all need. 

Instead, we need to talk about the climate in a way that makes everyone feel heard and validated. It’s not about being right or wrong or forcing everyone into an agreement; it’s about each having the opportunity to have our say. If done right, it can be one of the most potent forms of climate advocacy. 

It helps to start by setting a goal for the conversation before you begin. Remember that change takes time, so be sure to formulate an achievable goal. Raising awareness is always a good goal to start with. When you sense a conversation heading into unproductive territory, it can help to take a breath and remind yourself of your goal for the conversation. 

See every conversation as an opportunity 

These conversations are opportunities! It's how we spread awareness, how we learn and grow as a society, and how we innovate solutions. If we have these conversations sensitively and consciously, they can be a productive way to change the attitudes of our friends, family, and even climate deniers. 

Even if that isn’t the case, regularly talking about climate change means it is out in the open. The more we can expose it, the better chance we have of a wider section of society accepting the reality of the climate emergency we’re living in and (hopefully) doing something about it.

Know it’s triggering 

These conversations can be tricky, even with your closest friends and family. It’s something I’ve learned from experience. One of my closest friends doesn't want to have any conversations about climate change. And when I ask why, it's always a similar answer. Fear. A lot of people don't want to know, as "ignorance is bliss."

In our everyday lives, we are bombarded with challenges. We are stressed about work, relationships, all these little things that build up, and then we read the news. Very rarely is it ever optimistic. I understand why people don't want to talk about climate change, but silencing these crucial conversations won’t make it disappear. 

To create a better future, we have to get comfortable discussing the uncomfortable. We need to recognise when someone is open to having a sensitive conversation and when they are not, as no one wants to have a difficult conversation when overwhelmed by anxiety and fear. We need to remember to practice patience and empathy and, when the time comes to speak up, do our best to sway these conversations away from fear towards hope, action, and community.

Find common ground 

We’re all human, and we all have things in common. Finding those shared values, beliefs, hopes, and experiences goes a long way when discussing the climate. 

It may help to start with your friends and family, who understand your love and good intentions better than anyone. You already know their dreams, their fears, their beliefs, and the values you share. This should make finding common ground and framing your discussion a little easier. 

Once you understand your shared motivations, it’s much easier to put the climate emergency in terms they’ll appreciate. For example, suppose you share a love for animals. In that case, you could talk about how our changing climate is causing mass extinction and why you’re taking climate action to prevent further species from becoming extinct - like the cute koalas who died in the Australian bush fires. 

If you don’t know your common ground, start the conversation by listening and asking questions. It will help you understand the other person's beliefs and opinions, allowing you to frame your discussion in a way that will be meaningful to them. It makes the conversation personal, and sharing your perspective in a way that is sensitive to their beliefs, may make it easier for your key points to be understood.

Facts may not always help 

Climate change has become an issue of society rather than science with a  narrative shaped by political and corporate agendas,  social media click-bait, and other dubiously non-scientific motivations. It can be controversial, and although climate deniers are diminishing in number, cherry-picking facts and throwing them into the ring is not always helpful.  

Anyone can find some spurious fact on the internet to support an argument. Instead, we need to be thinking about how we can challenge each other’s beliefs through productive conversations.  

Listening is key

Regardless of who you are talking to, you must show respect and the will to listen. You want to feel heard, and so does everyone else. That’s why it is crucial to make sure everyone gets the opportunity to be heard when we’re having what can be uncomfortable conversations. It means asking open-ended questions, actively listening, trying to understand each response, not talking over each other, creating space in a conversation with pauses, and giving each other the time to think.

Always be respectful

It's essential to appreciate that everyone is entitled to their own opinions even if they differ from yours. This means treating everyone as intelligent, putting away your pride, and always being respectful. It helps to make your good intentions behind the conversation clear: that you’re not aiming to shame or guilt. Instead, you are acting out of a place of care for people and the planet.

Be empathetic and understanding

Understanding one another is a powerful way to change the narrative we each tell ourselves about the world we live in. We need to be thinking about how we can redirect the conversation away from fear and facts towards thoughts and feelings. 

To do so, we need to be aware of the fears everyone faces to talk about the climate emergency in a way that won’t shut someone out. They could be harbouring a fear of judgment, a fear of change, or a fear of guilt.  

Being able to frame the conversation in a way that can address fears can be hugely motivational. For example, if someone is fearful and avoids taking action out of guilt, it can help to show them how corporations are largely to blame and talk about easy steps they can take to hold those corporations accountable. 

Have realistic expectations

Opinions aren't changed overnight, nor is it a given that opinions will change. We can’t expect to solve all the world’s ills after one conversation (although wouldn’t that be nice!). 

Instead, be prepared to have the same conversations on repeat. It’ll help you refine your arguments, learn what is convincing, and understand the motivations of who you are speaking with. It should also be far less daunting after the first time around. 

It is also crucial to know when to concede if a conversation is a lost cause. If the conversation is no longer productive, save your breath. You’re better off putting your efforts into someone else.  

Talking about the climate emergency we’re all in is one of the most important climate actions we can take. That’s why we’re inviting you to join Co-Benefits in getting vocal. We know it can be daunting, so we hope these tips help those conversations go down a little smoother. Let us know if you have any others to add!

About the author

Written for Co-Benefits by Yasmin Kidd. Yasmin is a student at the University of Auckland studying Urban Planning and is involved in the Young Sustainability Leaders Programme with the Sustainable Futures Collective. She is passionate about climate change and is trying new things to get involved with climate action.

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