Although a majority of Americans say they are concerned about climate change, it appears many aren’t really talking to their close friends and family about it.
That’s not ideal, some experts say.
“The first step to action on climate change is to talk about it, that’s the number one thing we can do,” said Lucky Tran, a science communicator at Columbia University who focuses in part on climate justice. “We can’t solve any problems, especially at the global scale, if we don’t talk about the problem and the best way to address it.”
And when it comes to the climate, he added, “How we talk about climate change really shapes what solutions we have for climate change.”
Here’s what Tran and other experts say you need to know about broaching climate-related issues.
Shift the focus
Climate change communication has historically focused on trying to convince people that global warming is real, happening and caused by humans. But public opinion polling shows that there are already “huge majorities in the country” who understand those things to be true, said Jon Krosnick, a social psychologist and professor at Stanford University.
Krosnick, who has researched American public opinion on global warming, argued that continued efforts that largely focus on persuading people about the realities of climate change “is going to be wasted money, wasted effort, wasted air.”
Instead, discussions about just how “green” the American public is, as well as general insights from polling that reflect people’s views on climate change, may do more to impact how government officials act, he said.
“The American public doesn’t realize how green it is, and even elected representatives don’t realize how green the American public is,” he said. “You don’t have to change anybody’s opinion. You just have to make the unanimities or near unanimities more salient for people.”
How climate change is discussed could also impact approaches to solutions, other experts said.
“It’s important for climate communication today to really focus on how to include different perspectives, different ideologies that can give viable hope — because there is hope — in terms of how to address climate change differently than what’s been proposed in the past,” said Hanna Morris, an assistant professor at the School of the Environment at the University of Toronto, who researches climate change media and communication.
It sometimes seems as though climate change conversations can be divided into two narratives: People are either overly optimistic about solutions — or claim it’s “too late” to act.
In reality, Tran said, most people talking about climate change fall somewhere between those two extremes.
He cautioned against spreading messages that are too focused on fear or optimism, because both can lead to inaction.
“Why would you take action to solve something if you don’t think it’ll make a difference?” he said. “At the same time, if we think the problem is solved, why would we take any action to solve it?”
Tran noted the more pessimistic narratives can be traced to the fossil fuel industry or other special interest groups invested in maintaining the status quo. The drumbeat of negative scientific findings that continue to emerge can also reinforce this gloomy outlook.
What’s more, “doomism” views on climate change and the future aren’t grounded in reality, some experts say.
“It’s definitely not too late for each and every one of us to have a real meaningful impact on ... climate action,” said Kimberly Nicholas, a sustainability and climate scientist at Lund University. “There, fatalism really worries me because it’s not a scientific question of the technical details, ‘Are they possible?’ It’s a question of, ‘Will enough human beings actually undertake any of the necessary actions?’ ”
Fearmongering could also be dangerous, Tran said. “If we have no hope of having a better world, then it becomes a more divided world.”
“A lot of people in the climate conversation are younger or new, which is great,” Foley said. “But not surprisingly, people who are suddenly paying attention to this are saying, ‘Oh my God, this is horrible.’ ”
“It’s kind of like finding out you have a serious illness,” he added. “It’s really a shock, and grief is part of the stages we go through when we hear bad news.”
The key, Nicholas said, is not to get stuck in the “doom” stage — and to use those feelings as a source of motivation to take action.
Focus on solutions
Climate change is a complex problem and proposing “simplistic, all-encompassing grand solutions” is not the answer, Morris said.
These types of fixes, she said, tend to oversimplify issues and could fuel the idea that there is a right and wrong way to address the climate crisis.
While experts said it’s critical not to entirely dismiss individual actions, they underline that certain actions matter more.
There are downsides, for instance, to the “every little bit helps” idea, Nicholas said. You should turn off the faucet every time you brush your teeth so you don’t waste water — but “that’s not a high impact action” when it comes to the climate, she said.
“Basically, the only things I talk about are flying, driving and eating meat, I actually think it’s not really worth spending much time on much else,” she said. “We have to focus on where most emissions are and focus on reducing that as quickly as possible.”
While it’s improbable that any one person is capable of single-handedly creating major change, actions can have “ripple effects,” Nicholas said.
She compared it to how cathedrals were built by hand — a process that involved hundreds, if not thousands, of people over years.
“History doesn’t really know their names, and many of them probably didn’t live to see it completed, and they didn’t know where all the pieces were coming from or where everything was going,” she said. “But they laid their stone or they made their window or they put the wood together. They did the one little piece that they were capable of doing and it did add up to this amazing thing that has really stood the test of time.”
But individual action should be seen as “part of an ecosystem of change that requires systemic level changes,” Tran said.
Messaging about solutions shouldn’t be limited to reducing emissions, he added. Social solutions that address inequities and environmental justice issues “need to go hand-in-hand” with discussions about physical or economic solutions to climate change, he said.
Think about equity
A key component of talking about climate issues revolves around making climate solutions equitable, said Beverly Wright, founder and executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.
“The people who have been most impacted by climate are people of color in general and poor people,” Wright said. “If we just addressed the question from the standpoint of, ‘Climate change is here, we have to reduce greenhouse gases,’ but don’t talk about how we do that, then you end up with communities being presented with what we call false solutions or our legislature being presented with false solutions.”
There should also be communication that gets those most impacted involved in the solutions, experts said. For one, Tran encouraged more trusted messengers to participate in the climate conversation.
“You need people who look like the people in the communities who are dealing with a problem to be able to motivate them to take action,” he said. “They understand what’s at stake. They understand how people are being harmed. They understand what solutions are needed to be put in place.”
“We need everyone to be a climate communicator and not just rely on one or two people or not just scientists,” he said. “Every person needs to talk about climate change.”