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Climate primer: How to talk about climate change 

by Laurie Goering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 25 September 2020 14:38 GMT

FILE PHOTO: Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe speaks during a discussion on the importance of protecting the planet at the South by South Lawn event at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo

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Want to have a productive conversation about climate risk? Be respectful, look for common ground and always offer solutions, says climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe

By Laurie Goering

LONDON, Sept 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Climate change-related threats - from record wildfires to worsening heatwaves, floods and storms - are affecting more and more people around the world. So why aren't we acting on the increasingly evident changes around us?

One reason is too many people still see climate change as a faraway threat - one their children or grandchildren, people in distant countries or polar bears will face, but not one that will hit them personally, or that needs attention now.

Others are simply too busy to give the issue much attention - or they understand the deadly risks but don't know how to act effectively to reduce them. Depressed and frightened, they switch off engaging.

"For most of us, scaring the pants off us doesn't move us forward. It causes us to freeze. That's how our brains are hard-wired," says Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and climate communication expert at Texas Tech University.

So how do we get more people to understand and engage with climate risks in a productive way, so the threats can be reduced?

Hayhoe says it's as simple as talking to others - not about climate change but about the things they care about, whether it's less snow on the ski slopes, saving money on fuel bills or keeping asthmatic kids safe when forest fire smoke spreads.

"Talking about it is so powerful," she said. "Our voice is a massively underestimated agent of change. We all have a voice we can use in some way."

Hayhoe should know: As the wife of an evangelical Christian pastor, a resident of hugely conservative Lubbock, Texas, and someone who regularly engages with climate change doubters on social media, she has the conversations every day.

Here are her top tips for having a productive conversation about climate change, from a Reuters online event with her this week:

Start with your own communities

Whether you're a football fan or a parent, a diving enthusiast or a knitter, talking to people you know, spend time with and share interests with is likely where you'll have the best conversations.

If you're an atheist, trying to engage church-goers about obligations in scripture to protect the earth isn't likely to get you very far, Hayhoe notes.

Search for common ground

Maybe you're both gardeners battling new pests and diseases in your roses, or parents of teenagers wanting to ditch school on Fridays to attend climate protests. People are more inclined to listen to others they see as like themselves.

"You have to get to know them, what makes them tick, what incentivises them, what they get really excited about," she said. "Then connect the dots to climate change."

Talk about their concerns - not just climate change

Don't start off with a lecture. Listen and look for opportunities to talk about how global warming may be affecting their concerns.

Perhaps you're both worried that heatwaves are making it harder for you to run the marathons you love, or that the lengthening allergy season means your children need to take more medicine.

"Don't hit people with facts," Hayhoe said. "Show why it matters to them in the places where they live - and what people are already doing to fix this problem."

Start with mutual respect - don't judge what they say or do

You may be a devoted cyclist concerned by their passion for SUVs, but keeping an open mind, listening and maintaining genuine respect is crucial to helping the other person do the same and consider what you have to say.

Don't "wave a bony finger of judgment at someone," Hayhoe warns.

Always offer solutions and action

Helping someone understand the scale of the climate crisis - and then leaving them with nothing to do about it - is debilitating and unhelpful, Hayhoe says.

If the person you're speaking with runs a clubhouse or other facility, talk about how installing solar panels could save operating cash.

Chat about good, high-earning alternatives to investing pension funds in fossil fuels, or offer to accompany drivers to try out safe bicycle routes.

Encourage them to contact elected representatives about their concerns, or join a community effort to protect forests or cut food waste.

"Action is the antidote to anxiety and despair," she said. "If we present the risks without what we can do about it, we’re doing people a disservice."

 Accept that some people simply won't listen

Surveys of U.S. attitudes toward climate change by the Yale Program on Climate Communications show nearly 60% of people are either "alarmed" or "concerned" about the problem.

But at the other end of the spectrum are the 10% of Americans "dismissive" of climate risks.

"We all have an uncle or a cousin or an old college roommate or a neighbour" who falls into that category - someone whose identity is bound up with rejecting that climate change is real or a worry, Hayhoe said.

In those cases, "if an angel from God appeared in front of them with brand new tablets of stone saying global warming is real… they would dismiss them too," she said.

How to engage with such people on climate issues? It's best not to bother, she says. The other 90% of people are out there, and may be more ready to listen and engage than you think.

Related stories:

'Not seeing the urgency': Communications failure blamed for climate inaction

Climate primer: Why is everyone talking about 'net zero'?

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(Reporting by Laurie Goering, @lauriegoering; editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)