How To Talk To Your Friends About Climate Change

Essential guide to living sustainably: how to talk about climate change

In late 2019, when bushfire ash invaded our skies and tinged our clothing with the smell of woodsmoke, climate change was all we could talk about.

It was the topic of conversation at every dinner party, the leading headline of every current affairs article, and (despite the approaching pandemic) the dominant focus of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting. A few months later, Covid-19 stole the spotlight, but the climate change problem still persists.

And as the name suggests, global warming is a global problem, and requires collective action, not just from activists or climate warriors but by the general public. So now the impact of the climate crisis is less blindingly apparent, how do we raise the topic in a way that’s productive? 

With the emotive nature of the issue in mind, we’ve put together a guide to talking about climate change in a way that doesn’t alienate, but educates and encourages action.

Step 1: Remember it’s a conversation, not an argument

Although the facts are undeniable, opinions and approaches vary, and because of the politicisation of climate change that has taken place over the past few decades (a report found that articles about climate change now mention politicians more frequently than they mention scientists), it can be a touchy subject to address.

The first step in any productive discussion is empathy: take a moment to understand where the person you’re talking to is coming from, and gauge your approach accordingly. While you might be informed of the facts, unless you’ve been specifically asked to educate someone, a conversation should be a two way dialogue, so be careful to ask questions and encourage the person you’re talking with to share their perspective. 

While it’s important to highlight the severity of the issue, it’s also wise to avoid taking alarmist approach. Dramatic, armageddon-style headlines have inevitably spread a culture of fear, and while they are sadly undergirded by a degree of truth, existentialism isn’t necessarily helpful.

Step 2: Make it constructive

In terms of the conversational structure itself, opening the discussion with a question may be a good place to start. Consider asking your friend or colleague how they feel about the climate change (it’s a deep question!), or if they see the conversation surrounding climate change as an important one. Encouraging them to share their perspective will make them more receptive to yours.

Evidence about the impacts of climate change already points to global warming as the main contributor of sea-level rise, ocean acidification, reduced air quality, rain pattern shifts, and loss of biodiversity. Predictions also point to a compromised global food supply, which has the potential to threaten the wellbeing of at least 3.2 billion people around the world by 2050. Therefore a discussion of possible solutions is unquestionably more productive than outlining the catastrophic threat.

While being alarmed can motivate action to an extent, it’s important to balance this with solutions that make a person feel empowered.

Step 3: Stick to the facts, but focus on solutions

Validate the position of the person you’re speaking with by commenting on what they seem passionate about. In his bestselling book Never Split The Difference, former international hostage negotiator Christopher Voss encourages conversationalists to share something they’ve learned from the other person, engendering a sense of mutual respect.

Once you’ve actively listened and then empathetically presented a couple of well researched (preferably fear-monger-free) facts about the climate crisis, present possible actions in a way that isn’t incriminating or self-righteous. The best way to talk about these is by explaining how other people are implementing them into their lives, rather than discussing what you’re doing well or what the person you’re speaking with should do better.

For example, explain how your partner has decided to switch to a bank which refuses to support the fossil fuel industry, or mention a friend whom you admire who’s given up meat for environmental reasons. The everyday steps we can take to help reduce our impact on the climate range from switching energy providers to buying a bicycle, and presenting options as admirable and accessible is a sensible place to start.

Step 4: Start a movement

Then, once you’ve mentioned the range of possible actions, voice your intentions to act in a way that will engender a sense of a shared mission. And crucially, once you’ve aired your good intentions – “I’m going to switch to an ethical super fund” or “I’ll carpool into work tomorrow” – actually act.

Your friend might say something like “There’s little you can do to make a difference”, or “the problem is too big for any single individual to solve”. But if there’s anything we can learn from How to Start A Movement by Derek Sivers, it’s that momentum occurs when individuals have the courage to lead, and in turn show others how to follow.

Every small action compounds over time, across the planet, and has a compounding effect that helps to reduce our environmental impact.

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