Climate Conversations: Here's How to Do It Better
A good conversation is the No. 1 thing you can do to address climate change. A scientist and educator explains why—and how.
Photo Georgina Smith, CIAT (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The following article was adapted from a keynote address given by the author in February 2020 at the American Scientific Affiliation’s Southern California Winter Day Conference in Azusa, CA.
With hurricanes, heat waves, and fire tornadoes adding to an already angst filled year, many of us are once again asking, “What can we do to minimize climate change?” Websites and articles abound listing the ways we can reduce our carbon footprint and minimize greenhouse gas emissions, so when I attended a lecture given by two eminent climate scientists, I expected to hear much of the same information. But their answer surprised me!
Katherine Hayhoe, Ph.D. and Veerabhadran Ramanatha, Ph.D. spoke in January 2020 at a seminar in San Diego titled Climate Mitigation: A Partnership of Faith and Science. Dr. Hayhoe, a Christian climate scientist, was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, Foreign Policy’s 100 Leading Thinkers, and Fortune magazine’s World’s Greatest Leaders. Dr. Ramanathan, another climate scientist and a Hindu, discovered the greenhouse effect of chlorofluorocarbons in 1975, served as Pope Francis’ science advisor to the 2015 Paris climate summit, was named the UN Climate Champion in 2013, and was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Swedish Academy. Suffice it to say that these two scientists are a big deal in the climate change conversation!
Very early in her presentation, Dr. Hayhoe gave the answer that surprised me: The #1 thing we can do to mitigate climate change is to “talk to others”.
What? Really? Talk to others about climate change? That’s the best thing we can do? Somehow that felt unsatisfying.
Both speakers proceeded to tell the audience how they used to answer in the way we had expected: “Reduce fossil fuel use.” But now, they are convinced that the best thing we can do is to get everyone to acknowledge human induced global climate change (GCC). They want all people groups around the world to understand that GCC is a scientific issue and not a political or religious one. And to put their words into action, Ramanathan told us about a recent conversation with his barber followed by Hayhoe’s story explaining GCC to her Uber driver.
As I left the seminar, the two college students who attended with me asked, “But how do I talk about climate change with my friends and family?” They described feeling confused and anxious because they didn’t know what to say or how to talk with others about controversial issues. Prompted by their questions, I summarize here some of the best practices for talking to others about environmental issues like climate change.
How not to talk about environmental issues
In most environmental presentations and articles, we usually hear about all the ways humans are irreparably harming the environment. We increase waterborne and airborne chemicals with our factories, we lower ocean water pH with our pollutants, we raise temperatures by adding copious amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere with our luxurious lifestyles, we increase the rates of extinctions when we pave over our land and mine for resources, and we reduce the health of our native environment when we carelessly introduce invasive species to our landscape. In fact, this current era is now referred to as The Anthropocene: the epoch of environmental decline by humans.
We are told that unmitigated climate change will make these threats even worse as floods, drought, storms and other types of extreme weather threaten to disrupt, and over time shrink, the global food supply. Currently, more than 10% of the world’s population is undernourished, and food shortages are likely to affect poorer parts of the world far more than richer ones. Experts say this will increase the flow of immigration, which is already redefining politics in North America, Europe, and other parts of the world. Moreover, a recent UN report claims that the window to address an imminent worldwide food shortage threat is closing rapidly.
So what can we do? Experts tell us we must re-evaluate land use and agriculture worldwide. We need to increase the productivity of land, waste less food, and persuade people to eat less meat. The cattle industry alone is responsible for 13–18% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions globally. And of course, we have to reduce our use of fossil fuels.
I’d like you to pause for a moment and reflect on how you feel after reading those previous three paragraphs? Do you feel motivated? Energized? Empowered? Not likely. More like depressed, overwhelmed, and discouraged.
In many articles and presentations, the authors’ and speakers’ goals are noble: to inform people about the issues and to motivate them to action. While the issues presented are disturbingly real, and immediate action is needed, studies show that doom and gloom approaches don’t usually achieve their goals. Fear appeals tend to promote a fight-or-flight response leading us to feel overwhelmed. Instead of empowering or motivating us, the most common effect of fear appeals is avoidance. Why? The issues seem too large to tackle. We don’t know how to take action, and even if we did know how, we don’t believe one person can make a difference. So when confronted with the issues in these ways, we unconsciously shut down or ignore them because we feel that there is nothing we can do. Or even worse, some respond by denying the issue outright!
Both social science and psychology research report that if we want to influence people’s actions, we must balance negativity and fear with positivity and hope.
So how can we do better?
An alternative approach
I recently read a National Geographic article that introduced its readers to Golam, a young man who looks no more than 25 years old and lives in Dhaka, the overcrowded urban capital of Bangladesh. Golam moved to Dhaka recently after the previous three homes he and his family lived in were destroyed by cyclones and flooding. In Dhaka, he works at a brick factory fifteen hours a day, seven days a week. And at night, he sleeps on a thin reed mat in a shed that he shares with fifteen roommates. Each has just enough space to lie flat.
Golam didn’t always live like this. He moved to Dhaka to make money for his family because they could no longer live off of their family farm. It was destroyed by flooding. And the same thing happened with the next two homes they moved to.
Bangladesh is the third-highest flood displacement risk in the world because most of the land is just above sea level. And while Bangladesh has always had tropical storms, flooding, and other natural disasters, today, climate change is accelerating the destruction of much of the land.
And farmers are affected the most. Cyclones damage or destroy houses and crops, but they also bring waves of salt water inland, saturating the fields. Rising sea water also causes permanent flooding, further infusing salt into the soil. And if there is salt in the soil, you can’t grow crops.
This year alone, more than 700,000 Bangladeshis are losing their land and migrating to urban areas to find work. That would be like everyone living in Denver or Seattle moving into New York City—each year!
Climate change migrants is a new term used to explain the forced migration of people as a result of the effects of sea level rise and warming. Unfortunately, it’s happening all over the world. And it’s those in developing countries that are affected the most. Sea level rise and an unprecedented frequency of extreme cyclones has changed Golam’s life and millions of others for the worse. Yet the poor and disadvantaged are the people God calls us to care for. So what can we do?
Going car-free was ranked as the number-one most effective action an individual can take. While that is unrealistic for many people in the US, we can intentionally try to drive less, consolidate trips for errands, and walk and bike more. Another simple thing is to reduce the amount of beef we eat. If cattle were their own nation, they would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions after China and the US. Cattle produce a lot of methane gas, primarily through their internal fermentation and the fermentation of their manure. And because so many people eat beef every day, we now have huge factory farms. To grow the feed for the cattle and to run the factory farms, huge amounts of greenhouse gases are emitted. By reducing your consumption of animal protein by half, you can cut your diet’s carbon footprint by more than 40%. And what is really exciting is that just last year, 54% of Americans consumed at least once, a plant-based meat alternative like the Impossible Burger!
These minor changes in our life can help to make a big difference in the lives of climate migrants like Golam.
I’d like you to pause once again and reflect on how you feel after reading about Golam and climate change migrants. How are your emotions different?
I am aware that this second scenario is a bit longer than the first and I covered fewer environmental facts. But according to research, this approach is what works to increase knowledge and feelings of empowerment. Both social science and psychology research report that if we want to influence people’s actions, we must balance negativity and fear with positivity and hope.
I’ve distilled some of this research down into three strategies, or three effective ways to share about environmental issues while also motivating action.
1. Tell a story
Developmental psychologists and other neuroscientists show that our human brains have evolved to think in specific story terms. Before printing, humans relied on storytelling to convey and to archive (in our memory) essential histories, concepts, facts, beliefs, and attitudes. That long-term dependency has hardwired human brains to see recognizable patterns in incoming narrative, and in those patterns we find meaning. Because we use stories to make sense of our world, our environmental messages must appeal to this human predilection.
In my doom and gloom example above, the content didn’t follow a story format. The characters were amorphous and I gave impersonal data and facts. Suggestions for what we can do were broad and didn’t clarify individual actions to instigate change. In my second example I shared a story about climate migrants. The story had characters (including Golam), an antagonist (salt water rising and infusing the soil), a climax (millions of migrants worldwide), and a resolution for the individual. I embedded the information into a story context that put a face to the issue, all the while being cognizant of my audience: science-savvy Christians who might care about loving the least of these.
Restructuring our environmental messages into a story format will help to increase knowledge about the issues we want to share with others.
2. Cultivate hope
As we share environmental stories, we need to be sure to cultivate hope. While the state of our planet seems pretty bleak, it’s important to balance negative facts with positive ones. Unfortunately, evidence shows we haven’t been very effective at providing hope.
Eco-anxiety is a new malady affecting our youth because they’ve grown up inundated by doom and gloom news about the end of the world. The Washington Post recently published an article about children’s fear for nature and how they worry about their future families. A poll cited in the article shows that 57% of American teenagers were scared about climate change and 52% said it made them feel angry, both higher rates than among older adults. Only 29% of teens said they were optimistic. A student’s quote in the article sums it up well: “It’s like, the ice caps are melting and my hypothetical children will never see them, but also I have a calculus test tomorrow.”
These polls tell us that we are not sharing the positive things that really are happening worldwide. We must remember to celebrate the successes. Here are just a few you might add to your tool kit:
- In the past 40 years, the Endangered Species Act prevented extinction for 227 species.
- Globally, countries are expanding the total area of land and marine environments under protection.
- 70% of the world’s population reportedly is either reducing meat consumption or leaving meat off the table altogether.
- The African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative is working to reforest 100 million hectares of land in Africa by 2030.
- And sustainability has become deeply integrated into business and construction with initiatives like LEED and Green Business Certifications.
While we don’t want to be overly optimistic, positive news is key for increasing people’s engagement with conservation. If people feel hopeful, they are more likely to remain engaged and take productive action. And that ties closely into the third way to effectively share about environmental issues.
3. Empower and inspire
One of the most highly cited academics in the world, psychologist Albert Bandura, said that optimism in the absence of a sense of efficacy and concrete ideas for solutions is “little more than wishful thinking.” In other words, we need to view environmental problems as temporary challenges and find ways to build a sense of personal and collective efficacy with those we talk to—whether it’s your barber, Uber driver, or the people in your Bible study.
Unfortunately, I find that most people don’t actually believe that they alone can make a difference. So it’s important to have in your arsenal some examples of regular people who did make a difference.
Wangari Maathai is one person who started planting trees and empowering women in her native Kenya, and eventually was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2004 for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.
Greta Thunberg is the Swedish teenager who began her environmental activism campaign with a climate walkout at her school, and has recently inspired 4 million people to protest for climate action.
And a community of residents in North Carolina started a campaign to conserve the 4,500-acre Needmore Tract earmarked for development. These residents motivated partnerships with government and industry that resulted in the $19 million purchase and conservation of the land.
These are just a few examples to show that one person really can make a difference. And you can too. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but you can start by talking about climate change more effectively, making a difference one conversation at a time.
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At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.
About the author
April Maskiewicz Cordero
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