How To Have A Better Conversation About Climate Change
We need to get beyond the facts and the despair, and start having solutions-oriented conversations about climate change
If you regularly browse the environment sections of news outlets, it’s easy to get trapped in a pit of despair thinking about climate change. And there’s good reason for that. But I think it’s important that we get beyond just talking about how dire things are, and will be, when it comes to climate change. You can find out why I think this in a previous post entitled: ‘Why we need to change the way we talk about climate change’.
Instead of simply talking about the facts of climate change, I think we need to start having better, more productive, more hopeful conversations about climate change, which leave us feeling educated and informed, as well as solution-focused. We need to get excited to actually go and do something about climate change. Otherwise, we’ll have a population in a collective anxious mess on our hands, and then there’s absolutely no way we’ll manage to tackle climate change…
Besides, academic research tells us that simply knowing those facts, and having environmental knowledge, isn’t enough for people to change their behaviour to become more sustainable.
Having environmental knowledge isn’t enough
When we talk to other people about climate change, it can be tempting to start cracking out all the latest statistics you’ve learnt. This is especially true if you’re speaking to someone who isn’t particularly engaged with climate change as an issue, and you feel like you need to educate and persuade them to do more. Unfortunately, this is actually a really unproductive way to talk about climate change. It isn’t as simple as just telling someone what they need to do, and them going away and doing so.
“Most researchers agree that only a small fraction of pro-environmental behavior can be directly linked to environmental knowledge and environmental awareness.”
— Anja Kollmuss, climate researcher
Researcher Anja Kollmuss explores this notion in her PhD thesis, titled: ‘Mind the Gap: why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behaviour?’ She looks at several different reasons that explain why simply having the knowledge and the facts about climate change aren’t enough to cause change.
Some of these reasons are:
- Knowing that climate change is a problem isn’t the same as knowing how to tackle it — we need to educate people with solutions as well.
- Modern marketing and advertising constantly bombard us with reasons to act in a way that is negative for the environment, such as buying more cars, travelling regularly on planes, and shopping for clothes as a hobby.
- The level of social responsibility that we feel varies from person to person, and this will affect how much we feel we should act sustainably as an individual person.
- We also have varying levels of a ‘locus of control’ which dictates if we feel we can do something about a problem. People with a high ‘locus of control’ will feel able to find solutions to climate change, whereas people with a lower ‘locus of control’ will feel helpless and therefore less likely to act.
- Social norms and dominant cultures. If the people who surround us act in a non-sustainable manner, we’re unlikely to do any different.
- Recent events. People are more likely to act environmentally if there has been a recent environmental disaster, and so the issue is at the forefront of their minds.
- Similarly, we are also more likely to act environmentally if we personally experience the impacts of climate change. Simply learning about the facts, or about an environmental disaster outside of our local vicinity, doesn’t have the same effect.
Simply put, if your conversations about climate change revolve around you telling someone that climate change is a problem, and spouting facts at them, then it probably isn’t the most productive thing you could be doing.
Let’s focus on solutions instead of problems
The alternative is to focus on the solutions instead of the problems. This will empower others to make change, without overwhelming them with scientific evidence and expecting knowledge to do the trick.
A good starting question in a conversation about climate change is: what can we do about climate change? Immediately, this takes the conversation beyond despair and desperation, and into an optimistic, action-focused and solutions-focused realm. The conversation might then turn to individual changes we can all make (swapping to a renewable energy provider, eating less meat and dairy, choosing to cycle or walk instead of drive) or to how we can use our voices to influence policy-makers and business owners to make change from above. Regardless of your path, it’s a much more useful and hopeful conversation to be having.
A second tip is to have your favourite climate resources close to hand. How can they meet like-minded, environmentally conscious people in the local area? Where can they go to learn and explore more if they want to? Some of my personal favourites are 350.org, The Climate Reality Project, and journalist George Monbiot’s Twitter profile.