How to Talk Climate Change in the Face of Adversity

The Human Impacts Institute and German Consulate General New York co-hosted a “Creating Climate Community through Chaos” event to discuss how people from different sectors are taking climate action and dealing with conservative forces in the government and media. I have captured some of my main takeaways on how to tackle climate change in the face of adversity in three ways.

It was so great to hear the following panelists share their perspectives and insights on a range of topics in a salon-style discussion: 

1. Climate in the Era of Fake News: Defense vs. Offense

It is up to us to correct fake news head-on and be direct (defense); journalists and reporters have have a duty to call out false statements in headlines or titles of articles. The media is also responsible for reporting the latest on climate change and demonstrating the urgency to address this issue (offense) by reporting what is happening in our world. 

When scientists first discovered the existence of climate change, it was also said that “fake news” also made its debut. Heavy lobbying from fossil fuel companies have created a narrative around climate change being false in efforts to protect their interests and businesses, and they have taken and run with this ever since.

Today, the evidence is clear that our predictions were off, and that even if the global temperature rose to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we would see enormous detrimental impacts in many regions around the world. (See the IPCC Report and the fourth National Climate Assessment). 

However, even with data and evidence, conservative forces in the US government and media are denying the existence of climate change and pushing out false information.

Danielle, Courtney, and Meredith in the first panel discuss climate in the era of fake news

Our job is to combat the misinformation about climate change and ensure that the facts continue to be shared. In fact, the Natural Museum of Natural History is doing a great job through its recently reopened climate change exhibit where visitors of all ages can visualize the effects of climate change on an interactive panel.

2. Relate climate to other issues

While climate is not as tangible, everyday items that we take for granted are, and they are a great way to relate climate to something that other parties can grasp.

To many, climate is intangible. You can not see climate directly in front of you the way you can with an object. So how can you get through to people who can not picture what it is like to experience climate change?

Think about what they like. At the HII event, we talked about coffee and beer. Seems random to bring up, but it brought forth some conversation about the possibility of these two beverages disappearing from our local shops and bars in the future. Why?

Because coffee bean plantations and barley crops are feeling the effects of climate change. With reduced yields, drought, rising temperatures, etc., we can soon see that these beverages will be priced up exorbitantly, making them luxury drinks and severely impacting these industries.

What if your friend or family member does not drink either of them? Maybe they like chocolate. Cacao production may also face some of the harsh effects of climate change if we don’t act soon. 

3. Get past judging others who don’t seem to care or believe in climate change

If people do not care about climate change, what do they care about? Health. Health is a good conversation starter if you want to breach the subject of climate change in a way that matters to everyone.

When it comes to people denying climate change, our first instinct is to hit ’em with the facts and drill our point home that it’s real and here already. When they don’t hear us, we usually get frustrated and are in complete disbelief how someone can be completely apathetic to something we are constantly worried about (at least, that is the case for me).

But the problem here is not a knowledge deficit among this group. It is a combination of a motivation deficit and a preference to check out when one does not want to hear something. As human beings, we only have a finite capacity of worry, and usually that capacity is reserved for what is immediate, such as being able to keep the lights on at home and making sure there is food on the table for the family.

One suggestion shared during the panel discussion was to figure out how to connect with these individuals based on the issues that resonate with them. Is it a matter of socioeconomic conditions? Perhaps a community is impacted by a power plant that is emitting smoke that is contributing to air pollution and giving family members asthma, or cities have a tainted water supply so children are essentially drinking lead in their water.

Good health is one of the top priorities in a family, and a great way to reach parties who you originally thought did not care about or believe in climate change. Maybe they do not believe in it, but you can talk about something that matters to them instead.

In the second panel, Steph, Cindy, and Peter share their experiences on how to avoid climate change burnout, get involved, and invest in causes bigger than ourselves.

While the topic of climate change can be pretty daunting and may ruffle some feathers for people who do not want to talk about something so serious or distant into the future, it is important that the conversations continue to happen. Whether it is correcting the false narratives, relating climate to issues that resonate to individuals, or talking about an immediate concern that does have a connection to climate change, there are innumerable ways to bring the attention back to climate change.

How are you discussing climate with your peers? What are some effective ways you have made an impact on difficult-to-reach individuals on this topic?