Addressing Climate Change One Conversation at a Time

Addressing Climate Change One Conversation at a Time

One the main challenges we hear about from Climate Access members is that in many communities across the US, it is extremely difficult to even mention the term climate change, let alone move into a discussion on how to plan for and reduce its impacts.

To some, the response is “so what?” Talk about water conservation or reducing risks associated with extreme weather if that is what people care about; don’t worry about bringing climate change into the conversation. Others believe it’s fine to start with what people care most about (i.e. health, economy, security), but eventually bridge to climate concerns so that gaps in understanding about causes and solutions can be filled.  Finally, some leaders feel it is critical to emphasize climate disruption from the outset because if you don’t talk about it, the space to do so will continue to shrink and a sense of urgency lost.

All three approaches are valid and necessary depending on the objectives related with an outreach effort, audience preferences, and the assets that organizations bring to the table, such as their reputations and communication capacity. At the same time, new evidence is showing that a more concerted effort to open up the conversation space on climate issues in everyday life may be exactly what is lacking in engagement efforts.

According to research released last week by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, only one in three Americans discusses global warming, even occasionally, with friends and family and this number has declined since 2008. Additionally, even fewer Americans (8%) are willing to discuss global warming publicly. Although the Alarmed is the segment of the Six Americas most willing to be vocal on the issue, only 18% of them shared information about global warming on Twitter, 18% posted a comment online in response to a news story/blog, and 12% asked someone to sign a petition. Moreover, the Doubtful are the next mostly likely to talk publically about the issue and while they may not be as active online as the Alarmed, they are actually more likely to give a speech about global warming. Presumably the Doubtful are arguing against global warming, making the public conversation polarized and often unpleasant.

Given the polluted public discourse and the lack of personal conversations about climate change, we are missing a huge opportunity to build awareness and engagement as Yale and George Mason’s research also clearly shows that the majority of the Alarmed, the Concerned and, in some cases, the Cautious would be willing to take actions such as writing to a government official or contact the media about climate change if they were asked by a person they like and respect.

Creating space for community and personal dialogues around climate change is  critical because of the ways that people understand, assess, and respond to risks. Values, ideologies, and peer groups influence risk perceptions and attitudes more than facts do. When it comes to climate change in particular, friends and family are the most important influencers. (Interestingly, Americans say they are about twice as likely to be convinced by their sons/daughters than they are their moms/dads—for all segments except for the Dismissives, sons/daughters rank right behind significant others in terms of influence).  As a result, people need opportunities to co-explore the risks they face with trusted messengers and peers, and work together to develop ideas for responding to them. 

Increasingly, Climate Access members and other practitioners are exploring the use of dialogue-based approaches with a range of stakeholder groups such as the Deliberative Dialogue Model or Carbon Conversations.

While there is much to learn from these efforts, there is perhaps more that can be gleaned from conversation projects focused in other issue areas. Take for example, the peer-based conversation model that was used by Minnesotans United for All Families to help defeat a constitutional amendment to limit gay and lesbians’ right to marry by organizing one million conversations about the issue across the state. To accomplish this, campaign leaders trained grassroots volunteers with skills in relational conversations and developed an impressive tracking system to help manage the network of relationships being created.

Organizers say the approach was successful in part because it gave people the space to talk about a personal issue that had become deeply politicized. It worked because it fundamentally changed the way people see LGBT rights and their relationship to the issues.

Many people want to talk about climate change but don’t know where to have a safe conversation about it with people they trust. They want information that allows them to understand the impact of the issue on their homes, businesses, communities, and family wellbeing and what might need to change.  Orchestrating millions of conversations about climate change could help meet this need and fundamentally change how people see themselves as part of the challenge and solution.

To learn from what others are doing, I invite you to check out the recording of the Climate Access/Climate Nexus roundtable: Readying the Ground for Starting Climate Conversations in Difficult Places” and the follow-up tip sheet we created featuring insights and recommendations from the discussion.