The Skywriter

How to talk climate with friends and neighbors


How to talk climate with friends and neighbors


If you have ever tried to talk to a family member, friend, or plane seat-neighbor about climate change, you know the unique challenges that this offers. As someone who works in the climate movement informing people what is going on and what they can do, I'm right there with you. Recently I came across a great, accessible paper from the Climate Leadership Initiative (CLI) on just this issue that can help us both.

Right away, I must say that this is a very abbreviated, and incomplete, explanation of the report. The full paper, Climate Communications and Behavior Change (.pdf), can be downloaded on the CLI's website. It is not a difficult read and well worth spending your laundry cycle to go through.

The first part of the paper, which I will go over here, deals with "the role of tension, efficacy, and benefits in the global warming conversation."


Creating tension isn't about making people feel bad. The challenge of creating tension is to overcome the fact that many of us in the U.S. haven't been hit in the face with the realities of climate change yet.* While we are already seeing more extreme precipitation and other signs, we aren't getting the heavy impacts already seen in the developing world.

The first two approaches suggested involve clarifying misunderstandings. These are to illustrate what it means for the climate to change and to emphasize the idea of "too much carbon." To illustrate what "climate change" means, we can explain how it isn't only about an increase in temperature. Winter will still be cold and summer still hot. The warming's greater effect is to disrupt major weather patterns, including precipitation, that then have health, economic, and national security impacts. Emphasizing "too much carbon" gets at the confusion around a gas we exhale being bad. Obviously carbon dioxide isn't inherently harmful, but it's the amount of carbon that's been pumped into the atmosphere that is harmful.

The next point is to convey the link between energy and climate change. Our electricity doesn't come out of nowhere. Most of our light bulbs (even the CFLs) are turned on with dirty coal. Understanding that our energy use is tied to our impact on the climate is crucial. To describe good energy, avoid terms like "green" or "sustainable energy" and instead be more specific: "carbon-free" is good, as well as specifically "wind" and "solar."

Finally, emphasize that we're at a crossroads. There's no more kicking this problem down the proverbial road. Working for a clean energy future doesn't mean we wait for the future to get going. We already have robot maids! The future is now. We have to make changes now or else the negative effects will be much worse and seeing the benefits will be much more difficult.

Building efficacy

I had to run for a dictionary for this one. All "efficacy" means is the feeling that we can make a difference. One of the greatest challenges in climate change communication is getting people to understand this. Climate change is so big and we are just small people. Right? Wrong. We all use energy and we all have elected officials in our towns, states, and in the federal government.

First, connect climate change to other issues. Everyone cares about some issue, whether their kids, air quality, financial success, or helping the less fortunate. Let others know that fighting climate change helps improve all of these and more. Tailor your message to the person for greatest success. Do your research and be as specific as possible.

Also, focus on solutions to the problem. Dwelling on the problem makes it seem insurmountable. This is one reason we at 1Sky are focused on promoting clean, carbon-free energy like wind and solar as well as energy efficiency in general. To that point, give people a clear role in the solutions. Everyone can call their members of Congress, but we can also all use less energy in our daily lives. Reducing our own carbon footprint every day and calling on leaders to make a change are two ways any person can initiate change. Both are very doable and contribute to greater progress.

Convey the benefits of addressing climate change

The kind of fundamental change we need doesn't happen overnight, won't be easy, and isn't just for "environmentalists." That said, looking ahead, widespread carbon-free energy and a stable global climate will have HUGE benefits. Communicate that industries including solar power, wind power, and home efficiency retrofitting will boom, creating jobs and long-term economic benefits. Tell them how a more ecologically stable world means less wars over resources and soldiers home with their families.

Talk to people about those issues you brought up when building efficacy. Are they concerned about their kids? Discuss how they will be giving their kids a better, cleaner, safer world to live in. Money? Talk about the potential to invest in clean energy and efficiency industries now to see great returns as they grow.

One idea that runs through all parts of establishing tension, building efficacy, and conveying the benefits of action is knowing who you're talking to. Talking to someone who lives hundreds of miles from the ocean about sea level rise may not be the best strategy. The CLI paper goes more into this idea in the latter parts, so I strongly encourage you to download the paper and check it out yourself.

Finally, remember that we at 1Sky are here to help you to organize for climate action in your community. Email and let us know how we can help you make a difference.

* For each section, the CLI report outlines some key challenges in each of these areas. I would encourage you to check them out as you may already be encountering them.

Share |