The climate crisis is in the spotlight more than ever before. And that means it will probably come up at family events over the holidays.
The daily stream of climate news is unavoidable. Scientists are issuing warnings about the dangerous trajectory of rising temperatures. Weather disasters are increasingly being linked to human-caused changes to the climate. And national-level Democrats are making the climate disruption a top campaign issue.
So we consulted five experts about how they navigate climate discussions with relatives and friends who see the world differently. We synthesized their advice below:
1 Maybe don’t
Almost all of our interviewees agreed that Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners may not be the best venues for these talks.
“Value the person and the relationship over political ideology or opinion,” said Sarah Hunt, a conservative clean energy policy specialist who is co-founder of the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy, a “cross-partisan” organization. She said if a person’s climate posture is clearly a product of political tribalism, “it may be best to agree to disagree”.
Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and evangelical Christian, said: “1. Talking is the most important thing we can do and it does make a difference! 2. Not arguing the science with dismissive Uncle Ted, but connecting the dots to why it matters to us and what we and other people are already doing to fix it.” She elaborated on her top tips in a recent webinar.
2 Be curious: listen and ask questions
Assume the other person’s best intentions, and seek to understand rather than persuade. Practice active listening: repeat back what you think someone said to make sure you understand.
Lori Brewer Collins is founder and executive director of Cultivate the Karass, an organization that aims to bring people of different political viewpoints together to elevate dialogue and find solutions to complex problems.
Collins said one Thanksgiving discussion is unlikely to change minds.
“What’s more likely to shift is if I empathically really hear your worldview, what it’s like where you come from, play it back and forth with you … and then maybe ask some questions about your worldview,” Collins said.
3 Avoid contentious language that might shut down the conversation
At the Guardian, we have a policy of using the words “climate crisis” to describe the changes to the planet that are putting human lives at risk. We have concluded this is the most accurate term for communicating what is happening to a broad readership.
But that doesn’t mean our way is the best way to talk to every person in every context. Experts suggest that depending on your audience, you may want to avoid using the words “crisis”, “emergency”, “movement,” and “revolution”.
4 Know your audience: with conservatives, talk about safety and security for the next generation. With progressives, talk about change and opportunity
Susan Joy Hassol, director of the group Climate Communication, said conservatives are more likely to want to maintain the opportunities they have had and to build on them for their children, while progressives are more likely to want broad, systemic change. One area of common ground she recommends is green energy.
Kimberly Lewis, senior vice-president at the US Green Building Council and an Apostolic church minister in Maryland, said she focuses on shared values when talking climate with her family, who is from the southern US and includes mixed-race families.
“We’re always polarized in our views,” Lewis said. “I try to tell them this isn’t a political conversation. This is a responsibility from our values and our foundation as faith leaders to hold people personally and individually accountable that their actions and decisions always affect the neighbor and the community.”
5 Tell stories
People relate to other people more than they relate to facts. Tell the stories of those impacts by the climate crisis. Pull from reporting you’ve read or talk about people you know. If you personally have been affected by climate change – in losing a home to flooding or suffering with more heat waves, for example – tell your own story.
6 Emphasize solutions to climate impacts, instead of climate change itself
Just explaining the risks associated with the climate crisis can overwhelm people.
Hunt suggested some points she thinks most people can agree on. In her words:
An innovative, clean tech economy brings jobs and affordable energy.
Clean air means fewer children with asthma and fewer premature deaths.
Helping our neighbors who are losing their homes to wildfires and flooding is good and right.
7 Don’t make people feel stupid
Don’t spout statistics or cite the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – unless your relatives are Vulcans.
“The social science and the psychological research show that people aren’t really persuaded by facts, logic and reason,” Collins said. “[Most of us] are persuaded by emotion.”
You don’t have to be an expert. Talk about what you do understand, and be open to not being able to answer every question.