Dos and don’ts for talking about climate during the heatwave

I think anyone who is already trying to take action on climate change is probably feeling jumbled right now; the scenes of fire destruction on the news can feel like our worst nightmares coming true. We’re asking ourselves - and each other - will this finally be enough to jolt governments to act? Are things finally bad enough here in the UK to initiate a tipping point in public concern? Or will this crisis be overtaken by the next in a few days and climate will once again disappear from the media - and our conversations - until the next flood, or the next drought, or the next wildfire?

We all have a part to play here in making sure this doesn’t happen. Extreme weather is certainly no cause for celebration but the evidence suggests that it can help motivate climate action. 

Researchers at Yale surveyed Americans about whether they had changed their minds in recent years about climate change. Of those who said yes, they had shifted from not worried to worried, the most common reason given (by 21% of respondents) was extreme weather. This is backed up here in the UK by Cardiff University research which found that 21% of people reported they had become more climate concerned as a result of the serious flooding of winter 2013 – 14; this rose to 42% for people who had been directly and badly affected by the floods. This heatwave is uncomfortable, dangerous, frightening; it is also a time to welcome more people into the movement and to help others feel galvanised, not paralysed, by their fear and worry. 

So today we want to share some positive strategies for linking the heatwave to climate action in your conversations, plus highlight two very tempting ways of speaking about it which may do more harm than good. Let’s start with those…

"I told you so!"

Can you think of a time that you responded well to someone saying ‘I told you so?’ No, me neither. Humans have strong in-built  negative responses to ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ statements (see our previous blog on reactance) and, regardless of whether you’re right or not, letting an ‘I told you so’ slip out is likely to do much more harm than good. Extreme weather leads people to experience a range of emotions – fear, anxiety, guilt; making them feel wrong or foolishing into the bargain is more likely to make them defensive than transform them into a raging climate warrior. 

Copyright: Peter Kulper

What to say instead: “It’s really shaken me seeing such extreme weather this close to home. How are you feeling about it all?” Offer a gentle opportunity for others to acknowledge new feelings they might be experiencing or say the things that could be on their mind. And then start a conversation about solutions… see below. 

It’s the end of the world!!!

It’s tempting to use apocalyptic words and imagery to try and shock and scare others into action, so easy to share a social media post of landscapes engulfed in flames and comment ‘It’s over for humans’ or simply ‘we’re f*****.” But levels of climate anxiety are already running high, and none of us are good at making solid long term plans in a panic. Instead we’re more likely to go “I can’t cope with this right now” and chuck on a bit of Love Island. We all need to be cautious about suggesting that total climate catastrophe is inevitable, or that there’s nothing we can do. There’s LOADS we can do, starting right now. 

What to say instead: “The future isn’t decided – every fraction of a degree matters.” Climate change isn’t an all or nothing thing. We may have committed ourselves to an earth that is harder to live in, but there is everything left to fight for. Reassure the person you’re speaking with that there is still time to act, that climate action does make a difference, and then start a conversation about solutions… see below. 

“I told you so” and “well, we’re doomed” are both very normal human reactions to what we’re seeing around us right now, but there are definitely more effective ways to draw people into the movement. Here are three strategies that really work.

Focus on fairness

Our society may feel very polarised right now, but recent research suggests that we agree on more than we think, and a core value that runs through most segments of British society (even if we express it in different ways) is fairness. While talk of cutting emissions may leave many people unmoved, discussion of unfair policies, ‘one rule for the rich’, and leaving a safe world for our children and future generation tends to unite rather than divide. Reframing topics like energy prices, flooding, and air pollution as issues of fairness and equality can lead to really positive discussions (without the word ‘climate’ ever being uttered) while climate solutions such as insulation, renewables, and good public transport can be presented as a powerful counter to the unfairness of life in Britain today. 


With regards to the heartwave, some really interesting analysis from the BBC demonstrated how the impacts of extreme temperatures are significantly worse for deprived communities, those with health conditions, children and the eldery; exploring this as an issue of fairness in our conversations can help counter the ‘nice weather for the beach though’ line of discussion. 

Share how you’re feeling and what you’re doing

One of the most valuable strategies in our climate conversations tool kit is our own personal perspective. If statistics and scientific predictions were enough to galvanise the changes needed then we’d have this whole thing sorted by now – but as climate comms researcher Ed Maibach tells us “On the issue of climate change, people typically trust most the people they know the best – their family members, friends, and co-workers.” Your personal story of how climate change makes you feel and what you’re doing in response is powerful – much more powerful than most of us realise. 

What does this look like in practice? It could be talking about how news reports of melting runways, raging fires, and birds dropping out the sky make us feel – where there any details that particularly affected you? For me there were a couple of things I read yesterday that really stuck with me – one was a woman affected by the Wellington Fire leading horses along a road to safety after their stable burnt down but with no idea where she was going to take them or how she was going to care for them. Another was an article describing the suffering of unhoused people in the heat. These are stories about people, not emissions, and in sharing them I add my own personal element – reading about the woman with her horses for example I asked myself how I would save all my own pets if my home was caught up in a wildfire. When we tell these kinds of personal responses, people listen and share some of our emotions as well as processing their own. 

Or it could be talking about the impacts you’ve witnessed directly: your baby unable to sleep in the heat, your grandfather in a sweltering nursing home bedroom, your relatives in other parts of the world forced to leave their homes due to fires. Again, these stories hit home. 

Another form of personal story that really works is your journey to taking action. What are you doing as a result of your climate experiences and emotions? Maybe you’re shifting to a plant based diet, going car free, fixing your clothes, avoiding flying, growing a wildlife garden, donating to a campaign group, handcuffing yourself to an oil tanker… whatever you’re doing (and whether you just started yesterday or you’ve been doing it for a decade , talk about it. Talk about how it makes you feel to do it, and what you plan to do next. Your ability to influence change in others is a superpower. 

Talk about solutions

Climate change is at our doorstep. It’s here. We no longer need to try and convince others that it’s happening, or that it’s us causing it, and we don’t need to conjure up some distant future when the planet begins to become unliveable. We can see it, and we don’t have time to waste, so we need a new model for our conversations, one that is grounded in how we fix this mess. 

When it comes to halting, even reversing climate change there is a lot to be both positive and hopeful about: we have the solutions, we just need to implement them. Climate conversations in 2022 need to be loud and proud about practical, realistic actions at every level, from individual, to community, to business, to government. One of the easiest ways to do this is to link the solutions you talk about to your own life or the things you’re passionate about. For example…

I love to travel: chat about the personal benefits of slow travel, the companies offering employees more time off to take the train instead of fly, the countries offering super cheap bus and rail tickets, the benefits to local communities of ethical tourism, the rise of bike commuting in your city…

I love DIY: talk about the simplicity and massive cost/ carbon savings of insulation, the success of other countries that have subsidised heat pumps, the feel good factor of switching to a renewable energy supplier, the joy of buying pre-loved furniture, the wildlife that moved in since you created a pond…

I love to cook: share the interesting new ingredients and recipes you’ve tried since shifting to plant-based food, the energy, cost and time savings of a slow cooker, the hilarious carrot you got in your wonky veg box, the guy at work who persuaded the company to use a plant-based caterer (and how great the food was), the letter you wrote to Tesco about their food waste, the regenerative farm you heard about on the radio…

I’m not saying we should sugar coat it of course. While the changes needed to secure a safe planet almost always bring about other benefits to health, equality, quality of life and so on, most of them bring challenges too, such as the enormous infrastructure building needed or a just transition for those working in polluting industries. But we can’t untangle these challenges unless we start talking about solutions – as Sara Peach, climate comms writers says “Talk is the fertile field in which cultural change begins; in its absence, it’s impossible for a group of people to solve a problem.” 

The last few years have been tough in every sense and it is easy to think that talking about climate can wait, at least until the pandemic is over, the war is over, our political situation settles down – but it can’t. As climate concerned people we have an opportunity to make an impact, today and over the coming months and years, by speaking up and stepping into our roles as changemakers. We may not have chosen these roles but we are uniquely privileged to be alive and able to act in this short window of time that we have to turn things around. So I’ll leave you with one of my favourite bits of climate wisdom from advisor Gina McCarthy: “We all have to step up… we have to act, we have to forget about the things we can’t change and we don’t like, and we have to make it the world we want. That’s it. It’s hard work. Pull up your pants and let’s go.”

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