Written by Nicole Conlan

The easing of COVID restrictions has allowed us to have conversations in person again, which is the perfect opportunity to talk to people about climate change. Some people like to claim that “talk is cheap,” but we’re actually not talking nearly enough when it comes to climate change,. 

Researchers have found that Americans underestimate how many of their fellow citizens think climate change is happening and care about fixing it (more people care than you think!). The same report indicates that climate conversations with friends and family create a positive feedback loop – when people hear more about climate, they’re more willing to act. According to the L.A. Times, “simply increasing the frequency of climate-related discussions shifted people’s perceptions of the scientific consensus around human-caused warming as well as their own attitudes on the matter.”

However, talking to your social circle about climate change can seem daunting. From the combative communication on cable news networks to the misinformation spreading online faster than the facts can catch up, you might feel unqualified to tell people about climate change or nervous that you’ll get overwhelmed or attacked. So as we re-enter society, let’s also review some of the recent recommendations for how to talk to your friends about climate change. The good news is – it’s not as scary as you think.

How Do You Even Bring It Up?

Maybe you want to be a better climate communicator, but the first hurdle is bringing it up. It can feel challenging to figure out how to incorporate statistics about CO2 concentrations and methane emissions into casual conversation. Fortunately, you don’t have to start there. You can start with a small talk staple – the weather. Climate Reality Project recommends bringing up climate change “in a casual conversation about an entirely different topic or by talking about current events, like extreme weather or an upcoming election. This makes it easier to transition into a conversation about a serious topic and gauge your family member’s interest in the topic.”

Alternatively, you could mention some of your own climate-related activities. If someone asks you how your day is going, you could say, “Great! I rode my bike to the store this morning to save some gas. I started doing it for environmental reasons, but now it’s just fun.” Talking about what you did earlier that day or week is an easy way to get into the conversation and also presents the idea of simple actions to your conversation partner.

Which brings us to the next strategy:

Tell Them What You’re Doing

Sometimes climate conversations can screech to a halt if your conversation partner starts to feel hopeless. One way to prevent your conversation partner from shutting down is by talking about any changes you have made to your own life, and how they have made you feel – for example, walking and cycling more, changing your eating habits, or joining an activist group

And this does more than keep them engaged in the conversation, it also encourages action. According to Climate Outreach, “People make decisions about their behaviour partly based on what others they respect and trust are doing. So if you have chosen to get rid of the car and cycle rather than drive, that will matter to the people who know you and feel like they share your values.”

Now… Stop Talking!

If you’re passionate about climate change, you probably have a lot to say on the subject. But your goal in this conversation isn’t to make the other person listen to you – it’s to get them to engage with climate issues. That means encouraging their active participation in the conversation by listening – even if they’re saying things you disagree with. 

By letting the other person talk, you might discover, for example, that they refuse to take any climate action because they don’t believe they can make an impact, or that the person who doesn’t believe in climate change is still interested in solar power. Even if the person you’re talking to is a complete denialist who will never take climate action, listening to and understanding their arguments could help you in a conversation with a more flexible person in the future.

‘Deep listening’ exercises – where you say nothing at all for a few minutes while your conversational partner talks freely, are useful to try as an experiment.

Encourage Them To Keep Going

Getting people engaged in a climate conversation can also mean asking them open-ended questions that let them express how they relate to climate issues. Questions that might encourage conversation include:

  • What would you like to happen instead?
  • How did you come to feel like that?
  • Has the heat/drought/extreme weather changed things for you?

Even if they strongly disagree, you can keep the conversation going using phrases like “I find that really hard as well….”  or “We don’t agree on this but…”. It’s important to remember that you’ll almost never change a true denier’s mind during a conversation, but keeping them engaged could be the first step towards them rethinking things in the long run. Of course, use your best judgment on continuing the conversation – you won’t win any climate converts by forcing them into a conversation they don’t want to have.

Tell Them Your Story… But Keep It Short?

Now the easy part! If you’ve listened to the other person and they’re interested in continuing the conversation, tell them a little about your climate story. This is something you can prepare and practice at home, and it can be short (and should be!). Tell them how you got interested in climate change, what you’re doing now, and importantly – how you feel about it.

Some examples of stories you could tell are:

  • My friend made a video about plastic recycling that convinced me I needed to get rid of plastic in my life. It was really overwhelming at first, until I realized I didn’t need to do everything all at once – I could phase out plastic products and figure out new systems that work for me one at a time. Now I love sharing my favorite plastic-free products with people and trying new ones.
  • I always kind of knew about climate change but those awful fires last year, with all the smoke in the air, really shocked me and made me want to do something. Now I volunteer with 350 Colorado and I’ve learned a lot about protecting the environment. It’s helped me feel like I’m able to help the situation instead of just watching and worrying.
  • I’ve always been concerned about the environment since we went to so many National Parks when I was a kid. I love getting people involved with environmental action because I get to share my happiest childhood memories with a new generation.

This elevator pitch about your personal experience is perfect for those of us who might not feel comfortable talking about science. As Climate Outreach tells us:

Your personal story is also unarguable – it is your experience, and no one else’s. It is a powerful tool of communication, whoever you are talking to – and however much technical information you know. This doesn’t mean being uninformed about climate change. You can weave what you know about climate change into your story. If it makes you feel more comfortable, do a bit of preparation and research. Map out the stages of your story and look up the relevant facts that fit within it. Create a ‘script’ and look up the relevant facts so you know you can back up what you say

Keep Practicing

Look at each conversation as an opportunity to learn and improve your climate communication skills. Remember that you don’t need to be an expert to make an impact and that simply encouraging as many people as possible to talk about climate change is the goal itself. If you don’t do things perfectly the first time, never fear! Every person you talk to is a chance to try again.