'How do I talk about climate change at social gatherings?'
A guide to bringing up the topic without turning into Debbie Downer.
Raging Grannies Eugene
Edvard Munch’s iconic ‘The Scream’ captures how some might feel upon hearing about climate change risks. (Image credit: Wikimedia – cropped)
The problem with ignoring people's
emotions about climate change
Many people feel helplessness, hopelessness, anger,
and fear when they hear about the topic..
By Sara Peach
Monday, April 1, 2019
By Jeffrey T. Kiehl, PhD
Thursday, April 4, 2019
About 20 years ago, while presenting the science of climate change to a large public group, I stopped in the middle of my talk. Up until this time, my presentations had been filled with 50 minutes of scientific information. However, during my graduate work in psychology, I had become more attuned to the importance of affect in how we engage with our environment. By psychological “affect,” I’m talking here about how we as humans respond – how our feelings and emotions respond – to various stimuli, in this case learning about the risks we face in a warming climate.
So I decided to change how I was presenting the material. I asked the audience how they were feeling after listening to what I had just said. What followed dramatically changed the way I’ve since worked with communicating climate change. There was complete silence in the very large auditorium, and then a woman way in the back of the room slowly raised her hand and said, “I feel completely helpless!”
After she had stated her feelings, a large number of hands shot up in the air with people stating, “I feel hopeless,” “I feel angry,” “I feel guilty,” “I completely spaced out,” and “I feel motivated!”
I waited quietly for people to express how they were feeling in the moment. If people said just what they were “thinking,” I would encourage them to speak also about what they were feeling. We did not analyze their feelings, nor did we try to work with their feelings; I simply encouraged everyone to just sit with what was arising in the moment. It is also important to note that I invited people into a conversation, rather than lecturing them on the facts of climate change. The invitation to a conversation provides an opening for connection that pure lecturing does not.
We listened to one another for 20 minutes, and then I concluded with comments on ways to wean ourselves off fossil fuels.
‘Textbook indicators of trauma’
I still use this approach in making public talks on climate change. Over the years, I have received overwhelmingly positive responses. People come up after presentations and say that they had never publicly shared their feelings about climate change. They are thankful for the opportunity. They say that although they haven’t solved the problem, they feel more motivated to do something about it.
Psychologically, asking people to share their feeling responses to climate change information allows them to more comprehensively work with very disturbing information. It is not just about the facts of climate change, but also how we feel about those facts. Make no mistake, climate change is a very disturbing reality for people to take in and hold. Not surprisingly, many of the feeling responses are textbook indicators of trauma. Physical and/or emotional trauma evokes feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, anger, fear, and dissociation, as in “I completely spaced out when you were talking about what is happening.”
These reactions are normal
Based on the trauma dimension of climate change, I now add one more piece to my presentations. After the sharing of feelings, I explain how normal their responses are, having just been presented very traumatic information. This normalizing process makes people aware they are not “odd,” which also helps them face climate change, rather than run away from it.
So how does this tie in to the question of working with polarization? Remember that those who are identified more with the “individualists” group are more concerned with safety and protecting those closest to them. So, they are more likely to be activated by the traumatic news of climate change, and their first response may well be to deny its existence.
When speaking to “individualists,” we need to account for this inherent tendency. The information we provide needs to account for their potential reactions. All of this involves how the message is “framed,” but I am by no means claiming that framing alone will solve all climate communication issues. But framing does need to be a part of our communication toolkit. We can modulate the affect response through messaging, so why not include it in our methods of communication?
Re-examine your preconceptions
Several years ago. I was contacted by a leader of a very large conservative lobby group. This individual wanted to speak to me about climate change, and we agreed to meet.
I wasn’t sure what our discussion would involve, and I was predisposed to think we would have little in common. What could I say, given the group as a whole didn’t believe in climate change?
A few weeks later, the group leader visited and immediately opened our conversation by stating she completely accepted the science of climate change. What she wanted to talk about was how she could get her constituency more involved with the issue of climate change. I sat with her quietly for a while and then spontaneously said, “Tell me, what is it that your constituents value the most?” She immediately answered, “Oh, we are all about family values!” What unfolded throughout the rest of the discussion was an exploration of climate change as a family values issue.
I want to first point out that my preconception of this visitor was completely wrong concerning her position on climate change. So, the first lesson is to look at your preconceptions about others before engaging with them. For example, if someone isn’t a part of your particular sub-group, for instance “egalitarians,” your preconceptions may get in the way of connecting with that person or group. So it is essential that we work with our preconceived notions or imaginings about others, and it’s really important that people spend time doing this before actually engaging with the “other.” There are practical, clinically based, ways to do this with individuals and groups, and those can be researched.
A second lesson I learned from this experience is how important it is to understand what people value in life. The point here involves not just abstract value systems, but what a person actually values in every-day life. Knowing this helps tremendously in working to counter polarization.
These lessons are best practiced with people who are curious enough to listen just a little bit to the “other.” Some people or groups can be so locked in to their belief system that they will be very difficult to reach. The good news from recent public opinion surveys is that a significant and increasing percentage of the population is interested enough to engage in a meaningful conversation around climate change.
Filed under: Jeffrey T. Kiehl
I feel an urge to talk about climate change bubbling up within me at social gatherings if people talk about trivial things like food or sports for too long. But it is always such a downer and I know people need a certain amount of time to feel safe and ordinary and relaxed.
Any advice on how to handle this and break through the “tyranny of politeness” that makes talking about climate – and many other serious issues – so awkward?
– Matt in Toronto.
Debbie Downer, the Saturday Night Live character played by comedian Rachel Dratch, can ruin anyone’s fun with just a few facts.
In a skit set at Disney World, for example, she announces to her family that she’s given up eating steak. “Ever since they found mad cow disease in the U.S., I’m not taking any chances,” she says. “It can live in your body for years before it ravages your brain.”
Then, she further fouls the mood by reminding everyone that “if this greenhouse effect keeps up, we’ll all be living underwater.”
Debbie’s not wrong for wanting to talk about climate change with loved ones, but the way she brings it up is utterly demoralizing. For guidance on what you can do differently, look to Peterson Toscano, a Pennsylvania-based performance artist who leads workshops on climate communication.
Comedy can help
Toscano said in a recent interview that comedy can be an effective strategy for engaging people in difficult topics. Toscano, who is gay, spent nearly two decades undergoing conversion therapy, the discredited practice of attempting to alter a person’s sexual orientation. After abandoning the therapy and coming out, he struggled to talk about the harm he had experienced.
“I needed to tell that story, but telling it directly was too overwhelming for me and my audience,” he said. “It was too heavy, and it was bringing in hot-topic issues of faith and sexuality that provoked people. I realized I needed a different way.”
He tried comedy, eventually writing and starring in a 90-minute satirical play called “Doin’ Time In The Homo No Mo’ Halfway House: How I Survived the Ex-Gay Movement!”
Toscano said sharing his experiences in this way made the topic more approachable.
“The problem is, when people are tense, particularly when they’re afraid or ashamed or angry, they don’t think as clearly,” he said. “So comedy helps, because it can address a lot of those things. It relaxes the audience physically and mentally so they can hear what you’re saying.”
What if you’re not a trained comedian?
Even if you’ve never taken an improv class, you can still look to comedy for lessons on speaking up about difficult topics.
The first step is to learn from Debbie Downer’s most crucial mistake: She doesn’t listen. Other people’s interests aren’t meaningful in their own right, only as cues for spouting dismal facts.
Instead, consider Toscano’s approach to chatting with others during his regular visits to the YMCA: “It’s me and about 35 incredibly conservative senior citizens paddling about the pool,” he said. “This is not a crowd that really probably wants to hear anything about climate change, particularly from a gay activist.”
So rather than launching into a one-sided rant about climate change, Toscano listens carefully to his fellow aquatics enthusiasts, often asking them questions about beloved pets.
Once Toscano is familiar with people’s interests, he begins seeding his conversations with small comments designed to make them curious. He might mention in passing, for instance, that he’s concerned that climate change could harm pets.
Then – crucially – he waits.
If no one takes the bait, the conversation moves on. But often, someone will bite.
“I don’t tell them until they ask, because they need to want that information,” Toscano said. “Then we have a much deeper conversation, and then they own that information.”
DEBBIE DOWNER: Feline AIDS is the No. 1 killer of domestic cats.
YOU: That’s not actually true. But I do worry about the impact of climate change on cats.
DEBBIE DOWNER: Wait, what does climate change have to do with cats?
YOU: Most emergency shelters don’t accept pets. So as weather disasters become more frequent, more people might be forced to abandon their pets when they flee to safety.
DEBBIE DOWNER: Are you … are you my soul mate?
Tackle the topic from a surprising direction
Once you’re engaged in a conversation about climate change, avoid another of Debbie Downer’s flaws: She is boring. Take her to a wedding, and she’ll bring up divorce rates. At Thanksgiving, she’ll point out that cooking the stuffing inside a turkey creates a breeding ground for bacteria. These dangers are familiar, and her comments are predictable.
Conversations about climate change can fall into the same trap. Most people, Toscano points out, think of climate change as an environmental, scientific, or political issue, which limits the ways they talk about it.
To break out of that pattern, Toscano encourages people to consider why they care about climate change, beyond typical concerns about the environment and future generations. Ask yourself, how does climate change affect something that you feel personally passionate about?
What you can learn from comedy about speaking up about difficult topics Click To Tweet
No matter your interests – sports, movies, or even true crime – it’s likely linked in some way to climate change.
Once you have a topic in mind, try mentioning it when acquaintances ask you about climate change. As Toscano put it, you might say, “It’s strange, you know, I’m concerned about climate change but not for all the traditional reasons. I’m also concerned about it because I’m a runner, or because I have a child with autism.” Talking about the topic in an unexpected, relatable way will help you hold more fruitful conversations.
The bottom line? Listen more than you talk, don’t be afraid to mention climate change from time to time, and be ready to say something true and interesting when people ask you questions. Happy chatting.
Wondering how climate change could affect you or your loved ones? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.
Explore the “Ask Sara” archive.
Filed under: Sara Peach