Why you should talk about climate change – even if you disagree

Disagreement on climate change can often stifle conversation. Must the discussion stop when we start butting heads?

Karen Norris/Staff

The majority of Americans accept human-caused climate change as reality. National surveys report 70% of the country thinks this way. The catch: Only 3 in 10 Americans actually talk about climate change. 

This “climate silence,” observers say, is hampering our ability to take the steps needed to keep global warming in check at a time when calls from scientists are becoming increasingly urgent. The latest United Nations Emissions Gap Report recommends drastic global action: Cut greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6% every year for the next decade.

This global challenge requires creative thinking and collaboration from as many people as possible, climate experts say. Across the country, academics, climate advocates, and community leaders are finding ways to keep conversations afloat by harnessing hope, trust, and shared values.

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Conspiring to convince skeptical friends and family about climate change isn’t the right attitude, says Ed Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication.

“I don’t try to change their opinion,” he says. Instead, he shares his own concerns about what climate change will mean for communities and the planet.

“A way of approaching these conversations is simply to share what we know and what we feel and why we care,” he says. 

Intending to sway minds through these discussions can cause people to become defensive or disengage, says Tina Johnson, former policy director at U.S. Climate Action Network.

“It has to be a two-way conversation,” she says. “If we can’t hear from each other, we’re never going to trust each other enough to believe what [the other is] saying.”

Starting on common ground

One way to establish trust is to explore shared values. 

Climate change initially gained traction with environmentalists because it was framed as an environmental challenge. Reframing the discussion in terms of human health and well-being can open the door for people who aren’t inherently interested in the plight of “plants, penguins, and polar bears,” says Dr. Maibach, who partners with Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication.

Karin Kirk, a geologist who writes for Yale Climate Connections, inserts another value into climate conversations: patriotism. “There’s a lot of common ground to talk about American innovation, and I think that’s a really easy point to be proud of,” she says, citing a new “hydro battery” energy storage system planned for her home state of Montana.

The conservative American Conservation Coalition also prizes innovation, favoring market-based solutions to the environment and climate change with limited government. While Democrats are most known for supporting climate change action, the organization seeks to engage young conservatives – a group that increasingly supports climate action. Pew Research found young conservatives more prone than older party members to say the government isn’t doing enough to protect the climate – 52% of millennials or younger, compared with 31% of boomers and older. 

Quill Robinson, government affairs director for the American Conservation Coalition, works to unearth values that are hard to disagree with. 

“Everybody can agree that they want clean air and clean water,” says Mr. Robinson. For years, Republicans thought environmentalists had to sport “Birkenstocks, a tie-dye shirt, and patchouli,” he says, but that image is eroding.

“Some of our biggest allies in Congress are the younger members who represent coastal districts, who are already feeling the impact of climate change,” he says.

“Among young people, it’s less a debate over if climate change is a thing. It’s more and more what do we do about it,” says Mr. Robinson, a millennial himself. “We’ve grown up with the science.”

A range of perspectives 

Climate communicators take inspiration from an old marketing adage: Know your audience.

Public opinion on climate change doesn’t split neatly between “believers” and “deniers.” Such stark labels can be divisive by forcing people into artificial categories. 

Researchers from Yale and George Mason instead break down the spectrum of U.S. perspectives on humanity’s role in climate change into “Six Americas” – ranging from dismissive (9%) to alarmed (29%, an all-time high). The largest share of the public – 3 out of 10 – are concerned. They see climate change as a serious but distant threat, unlikely to affect them. 

 

Fostering constructive dialogue across perspectives can be difficult if the two parties don’t already share an established sense of trust. That’s why people who discuss global warming with friends and family – trusted sources – are more prone to learn key facts, like the scientific consensus on climate change, according to Dr. Maibach’s research.

The Rev. Dr. Ambrose Carroll, pastor at The Church by the Side of the Road in Berkeley, California, sees faith leaders as prime facilitators for such discussions since they can be trusted influencers in their communities. The Baptist minister founded the Green The Church movement in 2010 to reclaim environmental justice and sustainability as projects of African American churches. 

“We have not seen ourselves as a part of the environmental movement,” he says, “because the history of the movement says that the fauna and the flora ... to some degree, has seemed more important than the lives of African people and people of color.”

His network engages communities of color while recognizing they face other challenges beyond just a changing climate. Through efforts like energy audits and recycling, the campaign links “green theology” with sustainable practices and advocates for political and economic empowerment. 

Hope over fear

As observed changes and scientific projections for rising seas and soaring temperatures grow more dire, a sense of empowerment can feel elusive. As a policy consultant, Ms. Johnson has learned that “we have to show where progress is being made, and why it’s being made.”

If you’re talking about renewable technologies like solar panels or wind farms, she says, these ideas must be relatable to your audience.

“Does it save us money? Does it lower our bills? How are we communicating the benefits of this to communities ... so they can start thinking, ‘Oh, I want to be a part of that’?” she says. When Dr. Carroll’s church began recycling, it shaved $4,000 off its yearly refuse bill.

Conversation is also seen as a path toward political action. Dr. Maibach says the most important thing for concerned citizens to do is urge politicians to become climate hawks if they want votes.

“The more that voters make that clear to elected officials,” he says, “the better our chances are of actually making a difference on this problem.” 

While Ms. Johnson urges action, she sees hope in difficult discussions: “Being comfortable – and being uncomfortable – in those conversations I think will get us a lot further than just throwing up our hands.”

And being civil doesn’t hurt.

“No angry words,” says Ms. Kirk. “We’ve got 150 years of amazing science on our side.”