It’s happened to everyone. Whether it's at a holiday family dinner, on a reply thread to a facebook post, or even just in casual conversation, you come across people with vastly different views from you. There are two options to choose from when you are faced with this situation. Option A: engage in conversation, or option B: run. If you are brave enough and have enough energy to choose option A, then the next question you may ask yourself is: how do I even begin to make my own viewpoints understood by somebody so dramatically opposed to them?
In terms of climate change, this question may seem very daunting. The facts and the science is there. We know that climate change is happening and we know that it is caused by humans. But now you are faced with someone who just quite literally is ignoring data. How do you even converse with that? How do you convince someone they should believe in something that is just plain true? The truth is, you don’t. It would be like trying to talk a person into realizing that grass is green-at some point you just have to ask yourself, why am I even doing this? If they don’t want to believe what is right in front of their eyes, then that’s their problem. However, with a problem like climate change, it then becomes everyone’s problem. So, what do you do now? The following tips are ways to enhance your communication abilities in regard to climate change. These may not be universal to all situations or conversation, but should, for the most part, help guide you when trying to get someone to change their ways.
Shift the Conversation
First, you have to shift the dialogue of the conversation. Whether they want to believe the facts and data from scientists is not important, what is important are the actions they take. Even if they do not want to believe that climate change is happening, they can still engage in acts that are beneficial to the environment. So now, after shifting the goal of the conversation, you are persuading someone to do beneficial things rather than believing something that is already proven to be true.
Localize Your Arguments
Okay, so you’re trying to convince someone to engage in environmentally friendly acts. To you, it is obvious why they should want to do this, but keep in mind the other person’s stance and point of view. Let’s use the example of reducing the consumption of single-use plastics by bringing a reusable bag to grocery stores. To an environmentally conscious person, the obvious reason for doing this is because it reduces the consumption of single-use plastics, which are overwhelmingly polluting our ocean and harming wildlife. While you may be able to envision the garbage island floating in the ocean, the other person may not. And even if they can, that island is so far from them that it becomes disconnected from their lives. It is something that exists only in the news, not in their real lives. So localize the argument. A study done in 2019 found a large amount of microplastics on the coast of Monterey, indicating that they are likely to be found on the coast of SLO as well (Schuman, 2019). Microplastics harm marine wildlife and disrupt the ecosystem, leaving coastal regions looking different than before. This is especially relevant to a SLO local who enjoys the scenic views of Morro Bay or Avila, and would like to keep them that way.
How Can it Benefit Them?
Then, make it even more specific. Instead of just saying that reducing single-use plastic consumption is good for the environment, think about how reducing single-use plastic consumption is good for that person. In SLO, we already have the ten cent incentive to try and encourage people to bring their own bags to grocery stores, but for many that ten cents isn’t compelling enough. Depending on who you’re talking to, a good enough reason to get a reusable bag is simply because they’re cute! Online shops like Etsy have tons of customizable prints for low prices, and buying these bags can support small artists. This is just a simplified version of this concept, but the general idea is to separate the action from being connected to the environment, which the person may not care about, and angle it towards something that they are interested in and would benefit them.
Things to Avoid
Oftentimes, our first instincts when debating climate change with others can be our biggest pitfalls. First, we want to present the facts and the data. We want to communicate all of the studies and research that scientists did that showed us that climate change is happening. However, like stated before, this is not helpful. We shouldn’t be debating about whether or not it is happening, because it is, and climate change will continue to happen regardless of who believes it is or not. Additionally, most people just aren’t scientists, so the facts and data won’t make sense to them. It’s not the language most people speak or understand, so we shouldn’t try and press it on them.
Our next instinct is to shock people into being scared. We share apocalyptic messages about fires, floods, and the world ending. The result of these fear appeals is that it just shuts down the person you’re arguing with. If the world is going to end, what more can they do about it? The most likely response to appeals like this are apathy. These big scale apocalyptic events sound fictional and far away, they are not connected to a person’s real life. How is someone who’s never seen the ocean supposed to care that the sea levels are rising?
Lastly, we approach conversations like these as if they are high stakes debates. High stake they may be, but debates they are not. These are open conversations that should invite non judgemental dialogue. If people sense they are being judged, they are more likely to either provoke further or just shut off. Neither of these are ideal when trying to get someone to change their behaviors to benefit the environment. The best way to talk to someone about climate change is to genuinely be interested in hearing where they are coming from, and then talking with them based on that. If you try and be understanding with them, they will be more likely to understand what you are saying.
*Information from this post was pulled from Cal Poly lectures. Citations can be found below.
Kolodziejski, L. (2020). Communicating about Climate Change. Personal Collection of Dr. Kolodziejski, California Polytechnic State university, San Luis Obispo, CA.
Kolodziejski, L. (2020). Manufactured Controversy. Personal Collection of Dr. Kolodziejski, California Polytechnic State university, San Luis Obispo, CA.