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To get people to go green, 'never start with climate change'

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 8 June 2018 10:05 GMT

Yoga enthusiasts hold their hands as they practice a class at the Samalayuca dunes, on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico April 28, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

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In a polarised world, where many people stick firmly to beliefs rooted in their politics, finding common ground is the way to begin

How do you persuade people to tackle climate change? Not talking about it - at least at first - might be the way to go, it turns out.

In an increasingly polarised world, where many people stick firmly to beliefs rooted in their politics, presenting new facts and scientific evidence rarely changes minds, says George Marshall, an expert on the psychology of climate change with Oxford-based Climate Outreach, a think tank that aims to boost public engagement on climate change.

Around the world, more powerful hurricanes, together with worsening droughts, floods and wildfires, are claiming lives and causing hundreds of billions of dollars in losses each year. But those realities are doing little to drive action on a problem that remains far down the worry list for most people, if it makes the list at all.

“The biggest problem is the majority of people do not think or talk about climate change,” Marshall noted at a recent meeting in Oxford, England, on improving communication about climate change, particularly with faith communities.

So how do you get people to think about – and react to – climate threats? Research done with faith groups offers some insights, Marshall said.

Interacting constructively with anyone on climate change has to begin by finding common ground – from concern about their children’s future to a gut feeling that wasting things is wrong.

Religion makes that task easier. “Faith is something we have in common that can bridge political divides,” Marshall said.

Most people of faith – conservative or liberal, right or left-wing – believe in loving and caring for one another, feeling gratitude for what they have, living moderately, avoiding greed and waste, and taking collective responsibility and action, Marshall said – all of which are good starting points for talking about climate change.


Who initiates the conversation is also important. Climate activists hoped Pope Francis’ 2015 Laudato Si’ encyclical on “Care for Our Common Home” might spark a new wave of climate action. But a study by Yale University showed no significant increase in conversations about climate change – at least among those polled – after it was released.

While statements by senior religious leaders can influence their followers, what is more effective is a one-on-one conversation with a like-minded person, Marshall said.

Using the right words also makes a difference. People of faith – as with many on the political right – feel far more comfortable talking about responsibility, respect, duty and restoration than a “low-carbon lifestyle”.

“No one wants to be low – and no one cares about carbon,” Marshall said. 

Advocating “climate justice” for the poor and vulnerable is another big turnoff for many, and ineffective in persuading them to act on the problem, he added.

With political and religious conservatives, it is often better to portray the issue as “enabling people to fulfill their potential and stand on their own two feet”, he said.

When Living the Change, an international effort launched in November to promote “a journey to sustainable living” among faith groups, asks members to pledge to eat less meat and adopt more sustainable energy and transport methods, “the word climate change is not even in there”, said its director Caroline Bader.

A focus on cutting waste – including food – can work well with groups across the political spectrum, many of whom see throwing away resources as poor stewardship, Marshall said.

The best way to get people to act – whether on reducing food waste, or other changes that have big potential to lower emissions, such as flying less or eating less meat – is to help them feel part of a journey others are setting out on – one that may be hard but will bring rewards in the end, he said.

Most people are motivated by shared values and identity, he said. “That’s what we need to tap into. The right starting point for engagement is never climate change,” he emphasised.

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