How to Talk About Climate Change at Thanksgiving: Recipes for Good Conversations
by Guest Blogger
November 25, 2014
My mothers family is politically diverse. And opinionated. As my grandmother tells it, the last time she and my grandfather voted for the same president was Eisenhower. Like a lot of families, our discussions around the holidays can veer into national issues and politics. Sometimes those discussions are enlightening, but they can also devolve into arguments.
Some people love it; others dread it, but make no mistake: Thanksgiving is as American as apple pie and its one of the few chances we have to come together as families. (Norman Rockwells Freedom from Want, via Wikipedia.)
I know many families ban political discussions around the dinner table. While thats not how I grew up, I understand why peoplewant to avoid raised voices andhurt feelings, especiallywhile theyre digging into stuffing. Unfortunately, many people would consider a discussion about climate change political, too. That sentiment can create a spiral of silence, according to George Marshall, who wrote a masterful guide to how wetalk about climate change.
So if you care about climate issues, should you march into Thanksgiving dinner with some graphs, charts, and talking points? I sure hope not. For one thing, those arent edible (except pie charts, which are delicious). But even if youre not trying to talk about climate change, it can and does come up.
Itseasy to have a normal, friendlyconversation about climate issues with most people. But if you have a friend or relative who has very strong opinions about climate science or policy, the discussion can get more heated than the atmosphere. In those cases, you should think a little differently about how youapproach the conversation.
Course one: serve up questions, not arguments
If someone tells you the Earth isnt really warming, its an invitation to argue about temperature data and scientific authority. Further, some folks who dont accept the science can raise asurprisingly large number of misleading points because theres so much misinformation out there from which to draw.
Ever win an argument? Yeah, me neither. Save the arguments for daytime television shouting matches; when it comes to family, its far more effective to have discussions. (Arguing birds, via Wikipedia.)
Instead of having an argument, ask them where they read or heard a given point. Tell them you heard something different somewhere else. Dont be defensive or aggressive about it. This isnt about proving youre right. Its about sharing perspectives. Keep asking questions. Youll probably find that someones skepticism toward climate science stems from a negative attitude about climate policy and politics rather than substantiveobjections to the science.
Similarly, a lot of people who accept the science are depressed about our prospects for dealing with climate change. They might feel like were already doomed, when, in fact, climate science presents us with a range of risks. Its worth looking at what those risks and our climate choices really look like. The National Climate Assessment is therichest and most accessible resource on this topic for the United States.
Course two: served by people who share someones values
In his forthcoming book from Stanford University Press, How Culture Shapes the Climate Debate, the University of Michigans Andrew Hoffman argues that we can easily get caught up in the culture war when we talk about climate change. Certainly, Al Gore and Rush Limbaugh evoke visceral responses from individuals on either side of the political divide while also resonating strongly with those who agree with their ideology, Hoffman writes. But individuals with credibility on both sides of the debate can act as climate brokers.
Hoffman recommends pointing to people who share an audiences values when it comes to climate and energy issues.
Andrew Hoffmans book will be out in March from Stanford University Press. It has a ton of great advice and Im sure Ill be adding it to my recommending reading list for climate communicators.
For instance, some people are uncomfortable with climate change because it feels like its in conflict with their religious views. You can point them to researchers like Katharine Hayhoe and religious leaderslike Richard Cizik.
If someones objections arerooted in conservative politics, its worth learning aboutBob Inglis and the R Street Institute. They have sensible ideas for addressing climate change based on conservative values and they have good-faith criticisms of liberal policies, too.
If you have a friend or relative who thinks addressing climate change will harmthe economy, look to CERES and CDP, two groups that illuminatethebusiness case for responding to climate change. Broad coalitions of businessesaccept climate science, too.
These people and groups are also useful to highlight for people who are despondent about climate change. Efforts to respond to climate risks are bigger and more diverse than most people know; that should give us hope.
Course three: clear the table and bring the solutions
After youve tried the steps above, a discussion might still devolve into an argument. The good news is, you can always talk about solutions.
Indeed, even people who think climate change is a scientific conspiracy are interested in saving money on their electricity bills and visiting the gas station less often. Generally, Americans are in stronger agreement with one another about national and personal energy choices than they are about climate science. Spending more time focusing on what we agree on canbe incredibly productive.
A Chevy Volt drive-train. Climate solutions can be cool. And theyre not theoretical or hard to imagine or tied to our political values. They are right here; right now. (via Wikipedia)
Some people who work inclimate communication are uncomfortable with the idea of skipping over the science, but it can absolutely be the right approachfor some audiences. If you face a choice between having a fifteen minute argument about thepolar vortex or packing a few folks in Uncle Bobs Chevy Volt for a test drive, the choice should be clear.
Persuasion doesnt happen right away. Sometimes the most you can do is encouragesomeone to be a little more open minded. After a conversation,you can follow up with an email or a Facebook message pointing to whatever (or whoever) you talked about earlier. Maybe your friend or relative will be singing a slightly different tune next time you see them.
Regardless, at some point, youll want to stop talking about climate change. National political figures and interest groups have done a lot topolarize these conversations and pushing too hard can polarize someones views even more. More importantly, you dont want a discussion about climate change to distract from your valuable family time, or delicious, delicious pie.
Have you had difficult conversations about climate change with a friend or relative? Did climate change come up at your family dinner? Let us know how it went below.
Posted in: Global Warming, Science and Democracy, Science Communication Tags:Andrew Hoffman, Bob Inglis, CDP, CERES, Chevy Volt, climate-change, family, George Marshall, Global warming, Katharine Hayhoe, Pie, R Street Institute, Richard Cizik,Thanksgiving