How to Talk About Climate Change So Anyone Will Listen

Photo: Sven-Erik Arndt/Arterra/UIG via Getty Images

Here’s a very 2016 dilemma: On the one hand, as so many of us have learned over this past election cycle (and then re-learned in earnest over Thanksgiving), having political conversations with friends and family can be its own unique kind of painful. But on the other hand, some issues are just too urgent to leave undiscussed.

Climate change is one of those issues: While we’re stalled out in first gear fighting over whether it even exists, the forecasts of impending doom grow worse — and more urgent — every day. Which means that, as painful as it may be, talking about it with your friends and family is vital. “Breaking the social silence around climate change — getting people to really begin identifying with the issue and what it means — is a crucial first step for individuals to effect change,” says Adam Corner, research director for the British nonprofit Climate Outreach and co-author of the new book Talking Climate.

And those conversations, he says, are far more powerful when they emphasize shared values, rather than an outsider trying to convince someone to adopt a new set of beliefs. In recent years, psychologists and social scientists have identified some tricks for communicating climate concerns in a way that doesn’t start fights or alienate people — and maybe even spurs skeptics into action.

The first rule of climate-change communication is: Don’t use the words “climate change.” That’s according to a study out of Penn State, which notes the term, along with “global warming,” can give the conversation a more political tone right out of the starting gate, causing people to double down on their own beliefs rather than engage with new ones.

“The very phrase ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ may serve as a trigger for people and they won’t hear anything else after that,” explained Susanne Moser, a climate-change communication scholar and social-science researcher at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment. “As a conversation opener, those may actually be a dead end. And if you really want to shut down the conversation, you add that it is human caused.”

So, what should you say instead? Attempts to overcome these so-called trigger phrases have mostly fallen flat: “Carbon pollution,” while more specific, isn’t exactly household nomenclature. And Corner, whose research focuses on the psychology of climate-change discussions, says there are no magic words: “It’s naïve to think that simply by tweaking the odd word in a sentence, we can overturn or uproot someone’s strongly held belief.”

But, he adds, “There are definitely better and worse ways of starting a conversation, which have to do with trying to change the meaning of climate change so that people connect with it in a way that makes sense to them and doesn’t threaten their values and sense of identity.” One study, for example, found that swing voters respond best to climate-change messages that are linked to values like leadership, exceptionalism, freedom, independence, and ingenuity.

And if your conversation partner is a politically conservative person who prefers limited government, Moser explains, you wouldn’t want to launch into a defense of strict emission regulations; a better tack might be to try highlighting some clever, uniquely American ways of solving environmental problems. “You start from where people are at, rather than pushing an agenda,” she says

Corner agrees, emphasizing that using the right language is “about starting a productive dialogue, not winning an argument.” One big challenge in getting that dialogue started, though, is that for many of us, comfortably tucked inside climate-controlled homes and offices where water and power flow with abandon, climate change still feels like an abstract concept rather than an immediate, personal threat.

This is where framing comes in. Based on what you know about the person, there are any number of ways you can position the issue of climate change to resonate with them: its impact on public health, air quality, water quality, food, personal finance, travel, security. In a 2015 study spanning 24 countries and 6,196 people, stressing these “co-benefits” of tackling climate change proved an effective motivational tool. Believing that addressing climate change would create more caring communities and promote economic and scientific advancement, the study authors wrote, “motivated people into action just as much as believing climate change is important.” Not caring about climate change itself, in other words, doesn’t mean people can’t be otherwise persuaded into making planet-friendly changes for other reasons (even selfish ones — your friend may not want to hear about the plight of the polar bear, but might be interested to know that bananas, bread, wine, and chocolate may one day no longer exist).

Similarly, focusing on proximity can also play a role in cultivating concern. A case study in Environmental Politics notes that focusing on “local, place-based concerns” gave people “a concrete example of the problem” that they could relate to. The study found that local activism also proved to be an effective gateway to support of broader environmental movements. “Local issues are something people can rally around because they can see them, and because they have direct relevance to people,” Moser said. “They are ‘experiential proof’ that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. That helps.”

Another point of debate is whether to address that problem with positive messaging — emphasizing solutions, cost savings, job creation, healthier people — or to go negative, with doom-filled predictions of increasing temperatures, erratic weather, sinking coastlines, political instability, and ill health. In some cases, a certain amount of fear-based rhetoric can push people into precautionary actions (see: vaccinations, condoms), but too much negativity makes the problem seem depressingly insurmountable. This can lead to defeatist attitudes and inaction (“nothing I can do will make any difference”). On the other hand, overly positive messages may gloss over the harsh realities of inaction.

In Talking Climate, Corner argues for a tone that’s closer to hopeful: Instead of empty warnings of our “last chance to save the world,” he writes, it’s better to offer a “compelling, constructive, and emotive message that connects climate change to the aspects of people’s lives that they care most about” — in other words, to focus on specific, concrete action over sweeping proclamations.

It’s a start. Because of its complex nature and far-reaching implications, researchers have yet to discover any magic words, images, or data that will guarantee a widespread wake-up call. There’s still no one “right” way to talk about climate change so that everyone will hear — but there are ways to up your chances of getting someone to listen.