Talking Climate Change

Talking Climate Change

Most of us who are concerned about climate change wish there were more people who share our concern and will try to do something about it.  Each of us can influence other individuals to join us by using some simple techniques that will help you to:

  • Get more people to acknowledge that climate change is happening and that it’s related to human behavior
  • Increase your influence and persuasiveness
  • Motivate people who are philosophically on your side
  • Move fence-sitters to action
  • Recognize and take advantage of unexpected opportunities for political influence related to climate issues
  • Avoid alienating those who are not yet ready to change
  • Save time by avoiding arguments with people who are not likely to change

These recommendations are based on proven techniques in social psychology. I have taught these techniques to social and political activists for nearly a decade through experiential workshops. Tomorrow’s Climate Access/Climate Nexus roundtable on “Readying the Ground: Starting Climate Conversations in Difficult Places” spurred me to share the techniques for talking about climate change that I use in workshops, primarily with individuals, in ways that will move them toward action.

Don’t start with climate change

It may surprise you, but in conversation, it’s often best not to lead with climate change, per se, unless the topic has already come up.  Instead, lead with exploratory comments or questions.  Eventually, you’ll be able to find out where the individual is in terms of their readiness to accept climate change as a man-made reality and DO something about it, by either changing their own behavior in some way and/or becoming an activist. But at the outset, and all along the way, how you interact with the “target” person should be customized to where that individual is in terms of their readiness to change.  

Behavior may precede attitudes when it comes to climate—that’s OK

The latest, April 2013, round of the Six Americas research has shown that surprisingly high numbers of people in almost all of the six groups express some readiness to change their own behavior in ways that would help our climate situation.  Getting a person to take action—some action—can be even more important than trying to get them to agree explicitly that climate change is real and is man-made.  Once one’s behavior has changed in some relevant way (for example, using CFLs, buying an energy-efficient car, or telling one’s legislator that our government should stop giving tax breaks to oil companies), that person is potentially more receptive to thinking about how their action also happens to be positive with regard to climate change.  

From a psychological standpoint, this process reflects a reduction of cognitive dissonance. “If I’m the kind of person who buys an energy-efficient car, I must be the kind of person who cares about not wasting energy, which means I care about using less fossil fuels, which means cutting down greenhouse gas emissions  Maybe I AM the kind of person who is doing something about climate change.”  You may not be able to lead them down this whole thought path immediately, but you can get them started on the first step or two.

What will it take for a person to become involved with climate issues?

  1. In order to make up his or her mind to change, a person has to become really ambivalent, uncomfortable with their old ways, and ready to consider that another option might be better. If you find a person who seems less than rock-solid in their position, the steps they’ll have to go through are:
  2. Becoming uncomfortable with their current positions, actions, or beliefs;
  3. Considering and learning about alternatives, and starting to get more information about climate change and what can be done about it;
  4. Planning what new steps they might take and making practice efforts, like signing a petition or starting to look at political candidates’ positions on climate issues;
  5. Taking action, such as joining a team activity of a group, starting to attend climate rallies, and speaking more openly about their climate concerns;
  6. Gradually becoming more comfortable with their new identity, making new friends and changing sources of information, and becoming less likely to backslide in their actions and views;
  7. Recognizing their stance and actions on climate as an established part of their identity.

Change is a process – it takes time

People go through similar predictable stages as their political views change or as they move toward becoming climate activists. How you interact with the person should be tailored to where they are in this change process.  If what you do or say is out-of-sync with what’s going on inside of them, you’ll not only be ineffective but may even cause them to back away from the desired change. 

It generally takes at least two years for a person to go through the whole transition, if it’s to happen. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, it makes sense not to waste time on outright deniers.  With other people who are more reasonable prospects, however, your understanding of the stages of change can greatly improve your chances of bringing them over to your point of view.  

Backsliding occasionally happens, but that’s to be expected—the person who used to be concerned about climate change but now is dubious may be able to progress past that phase to positive conviction the next time they try.

To read the rest of the tips and techniques, download the full report here (member login required)

Dr. Katherine Forrest, a public health physician, has extensive experience as a trainer and as a trainer of trainers, based on her work at Harvard School of Public Health, Yale University, University of Connecticut, Planned Parenthood, and the Commonweal Institute. 

Photo via (cc) Flickr user snre