How to talk about climate change

Why your climate conversations go wrong, and how to make them better.


When's the last time you had a conversation about climate change?

Not just a passing mention: a real conversation – a rich, lively exchange of stories and ideas, hopes and fears, convictions, predictions and interpretations?

If the answer is never, you’re not alone. But if you've ever tried talking about climate change with anyone who isn't already immersed in it, chances are it didn't go that well.

You might find that people tend to shut down, lash out, or take the opportunity to grill you on some technical detail that's been bothering them.

These responses are all totally understandable, but they don't make for good conversations. Let's take a closer look at them:

The invisible force field

In his book 'Don't even think about it', George Marshall describes trying to drop climate change into a conversation.

It's easy to see how this comes about. We tend to avoid thinking about things that make us feel anxious or guilty (hello climate change!), which means lots of people have never given climate change enough brain-space to come up with anything interesting to say about it. So the conversation just ... dies.

The blame game

Sometimes it's good to make climate change personal. But when people feel individually blamed or attacked for something they feel is outside their control (hello climate change!), they tend to lash out. From here, it's only a few small steps to a full-blown row.

The rabbit hole

If you're seen as the designated Climate Person in your social group, you might find yourself acting as a lightning rod for people's grievances about a particular climate-related project or technology. These conversations can easily turn into an adversarial back-and-forth about some technical detail. You might even start to feel like the whole idea of doing something about climate change hangs on your ability to defend, say, energy efficiency labelling from every possible critique. Which is no fun. 

Want to be more persuasive? Stop trying to persuade people

If you're worried about climate change and impatient for action, it's natural to want to persuade everyone around you to think the same way.  But more often than not, it's this impulse that sends the conversations off the rails. So how do we do this better?

The trick is to change how you think about your role in the conversation. Rather than playing the advocate working to 'get people on board', be the moderator: the one who gives people a chance to explore the issue in their own way, without feeling judged or pressured. It'll take a bit of getting used to, but keep these three rules in mind and you can't go far wrong.

1. Pick your moment, and avoid putting people on the spot

Before you jump into a climate conversation, ask yourself whether this is a good moment, both for you, and for the other person.

Generally we have our best conversations when we're feeling happy and confident, and have the time and energy to do the topic justice. So if you're feeling tired, angry, rushed or anxious, save it for another day.

The same applies for the other person, of course, but it's also worth considering whether they're in a position to be thoughtful and open-minded. Question someone in certain situations or in front of certain groups of people and they'll feel they have to quickly argue you down or change the subject so they don't lose face.

2. Listen, and show you've heard

If someone's being critical, resist the temptation to correct them or argue back. Take your time to absorb what they're saying and look for the wider idea or feeling underlying this person's point. Then rather than smothering it with a rebuttal, give it space to breathe. Sometimes it's even worth paraphrasing the person's idea back to them. 

For example, if someone's complaining about a proposed bike lane causing traffic jams, it might reflect the fact that they already find getting around town slow and frustrating. So say that! By showing that you understand where they're coming from, you'll bring a bit of goodwill into the conversation, and make the other person much more receptive to whatever you want to say (or ask!) next.

3. Bring questions, not answers

The other problem with playing the Climate Person role is that you reinforce the idea that climate change is your responsibility – something for you to suggest and for everyone else to resist. So now's the time to start asking questions and give people space to step out of naysayer mode and think about what they do want.

Asking things like 'how could we change that?' or 'what would you like to happen instead?' breaks the pattern of attack and defence, and turns responsibility for the solutions into something that's shared. And you never know, you might learn something.

One final thing: remember you don't have to pack everything into one conversation. It's better to have an interesting, respectful exchange that leaves the door open for next time, than to rush towards some kind of conclusion. So take your time!

Over to you

We'd love to hear your stories of climate conversations (good and bad), and what you've learned along the way. Tweet your tips and stories to @1010, or join the conversation on Facebook.

This guide borrows heavily from the fantastic Carbon Conversations Handbook, by Ro Randall. Ro also gave me some great advice when I started drafting this article – thanks Ro!

Photo: Creative Commons