Welcome to our Powerful and Positive climate conversations series. This is the first in a six part series exploring what works – and what doesn’t – when it comes to communicating with the people in your life about the climate and nature emergency, and helping to build a movement for change.
“I always find the next moment of that day difficult to describe. In a flash, everything I understood about the impacts of global warming [...] all of it came home to roost at once. [...] I felt utterly disrupted. Everything had stopped and I struggled to get a purchase on my familiar roles, all of which had been stripped away in a naked moment.”
Tom Bowman is a writer and speaker who supports people to take ownership of the climate emergency and build it into their decision making. In the extract above, from his (very good) book ‘What if solving the climate crisis is simple?’, he describes how a single conversation with a climate scientist became ‘the beginning of a new journey’ as the reality of the climate crisis truly sunk in.
Professor Rebecca Willis calls this the ‘penny drop moment’ or PMD – a term borrowed from crossword fans. “I’ve seen it happen”, she writes. “At the end of a long question-and-answer session between new MPs and a climate scientist, something clicks. […] There’s a tangible change of mood as this reality sinks in.”
Perhaps you’ve experienced a PMD? Or maybe for you it’s been a slower process, the gradual accretion of news stories and data and weather that isn’t where it’s supposed to be. However you come to it, this new journey usually starts with a question: I need to do something about this… but what?
Most of us understandably zero in on our own lifestyles, and begin to tweak or perhaps radically alter what we eat, how we travel, or what we buy. These changes, as large or small our personal circumstances allow, are important, they’re necessary – but they’re not sufficient alone to avert climate breakdown. Knowing this can be intensely frustrating, but there’s a hugely impactful action available to every single one of us that we consistently overlook or underestimate: conversation.
Whose job is it to talk about climate change?
Scientists have been talking about climate change for over 150 years. The first World Climate Conference was held 42 years ago. NGOs and activists have been campaigning for action on climate since the 1980s. Why do we, unqualified as we are in climate science or policy making, need to join the conversation?
As astronomer Phil Plait says, ”Facts don’t speak for themselves; they need advocates. And these advocates need to be passionate. You can put the facts up on a blackboard and lecture at folks, but that will be almost totally ineffective. That’s what many scientists have been doing for years and, well, here we are.“
It might feel that, if scientists and professional communicators are struggling to get the message across, then there’s not much more we, as individuals, could add, but in fact the opposite is true. Every single one of us is a uniquely qualified climate communicator in our own lives.
In the next part of this series we’re going to talk about something called the Bystander Effect, and discover how speaking up about climate action can break through the confusion and apathy that prevents many of us taking action. This is where your voice can be more impactful than any scientific paper, or news report about flooding. But today, let’s look at three things that make you an amazing climate communicator (without you even realising it) and some suggestions of how to build on this opportunity.
One: You are a trusted messenger.
“On the issue of climate change”, says social psychologist Ed Maibach, “people typically trust most the people they know the best – their family members, friends, and coworkers.”
Who do you consider to be the trusted messengers in your life?
Make yourself a quick mental list, thinking about people who:
- You look to for information or advice
- Have an impact on how you act or think
- Have your best interests at heart
Think about friends, family, colleagues, neighbours, people in our communities, teachers, instructors, mentors.
You’re someone’s trusted messenger too, and that’s a big deal. That means that when you talk about the climate and ecological emergency, people in your life listen and respond in a very different way than they would if they were hearing the same message from a climate scientist, a stranger at a protest, or David Attenborough. Yep, I am saying you are literally a souped up David Attenborough, with lasers and probably a built-in cup holder.
How can we make the most of our potential as trusted messengers?
- Communicate in a way that’s natural for you. We trust people we perceive to be authentic so to be a great climate advocate you don’t need to speak ‘like a scientist’, or ‘like an activist’, you just need to speak like you. For me that’s swears and puns, a classic combo.
- Keep it simple. I often see blogs and articles that are presented as climate conversation ‘primers’, equipping you with a big grab-bag of facts and stats you can dip into during conversations. But do people really talk to each other like this? I prefer Ed Maibach’s ten word climate conversation cheat sheet:
- It’s real
- It’s us
- Experts agree
- It’s bad
- There’s hope
- Plant seeds. Remember that no conversation is too small or insignificant to make a difference – a quick mention of climate dropped into a chat about the hot weather with a neighbour while you’re putting the bins out is a climate conversation. Briefly mentioning to a friend that you’re taking a train holiday to reduce emissions is a climate conversation. You won’t know – and will probably never find out – if and how those seeds grow but by planting them you’re creating the conditions for real change.
Two: You are connected to others by your shared interests and values.
What are your passions? What’s central to your identity? The things we love – sports, gaming, sewing, our religion, our pets, our favourite music, whatever it is – gives us instant common ground with others who share those priorities, interests, beliefs or obsessions.
As we’ve seen, climate information is more trusted and more impactful when it comes from someone we feel connected to. Finding common ground not only builds that trust and connection but it can also make climate causes and impacts tangible by linking them to things we’re familiar with.
What are you passionate about?
Think of two or three things you love to do then see if you can draw a link from each to the climate emergency. Are they connected to the causes of climate change? Or will they be affected by climate impacts such as extreme weather?
Really effective climate campaigns often bring together communities to build a movement based around the things they already have in common. Here are a few examples of the kind of things I mean:
“What music is best at is breaking down boundaries, bringing people together – that intangible feeling. And it’s about setting what the aspirations are in terms of role models and who people look up to, who we care about. It is a huge force shaping all our cultural awareness and what we value and what we think is important.”
“The outdoor community knows the importance of ultra-thin margins. The seemingly small efforts made at just the right moments carry enough weight to tip the scale from failure to success. Well, environmental and political history are also made at the margins. To solve the climate crisis, the world needs our community.”
“Parents need to be able to tell their children they did everything they could. We have brought the generation into the world who will bear the brunt of the climate crisis. We come from all walks of life and are international but united by a common interest. Parents can draw on their networks to spread the message of change.”
“We need your help to show the UK Government and media that a diverse community is concerned about the climate crisis and want faster, greater action to be taken to tackle it. Come join us and combine your care for the world with your passion for handicraft and together we can help tackle the climate crisis before it’s too late.”
“We’re just like you – we love our oceans! We were borne out of people’s visceral connection with the sea and their response to the pollution ruining our coastlines. Of course it’s not just surfers who care passionately about our coastlines — our members are swimmers, dog walkers, paddleboarders, beach cleaners, kite surfers, sandcastle builders, ice cream eaters and sun bathers too. We protect it because we love it and that’s where we feel most at home.”
“Dayenu is a movement of American Jews confronting the climate crisis with spiritual audacity and bold political action. We believe that together, drawing from our Jewish tradition, experience, and faith, we have the power to create real and lasting change.”
We can use the same approach in our own lives, seeking out the stories that unite us to welcome more and more people into the climate movement.
Psychologist Dan Rubin has boiled this idea down to a simple formula: What you do + Climate Change = Activism.
He says: “You are probably already an expert at something. You are good at music, fixing cars, making friends, writing code, running a business, being a parent, and more. You are passionate about food, hiking, board games, math, painting, building, reading, and so on. You already do this a lot and you already know a lot, and this is exactly what you have to offer. All you have to do is link what you do with climate change, and then you are an activist.”
How can we make the most of our communities built around shared interests?
- Ask the question – whether you’re involved in physical meetups, online forums, facebook groups or a whatsapp group, tap into your network and start a conversation about how your community might be affected by climate change, or how you might use your skills and resources to create change: an awareness raising campaign, fundraising, or a group low carbon living challenge for example.
- Do some research into how your particular interest impacts, and is impacted by, climate change and share what you learn. For example, a knitter might spread the word about sustainable fibres, yarn recycling, or craftivism campaigns. A gamer might share info on the relative energy consumption of physical discs vs digital downloads. Start a conversation on a forum, or offer to write a blog or give a talk. Make a video, write an article – whatever works for you.
What about people I have nothing in common with?
There are of course many occasions when we talk with people who don’t share our hobbies or interests – how do we find the common ground that builds trust and connection with them? Turns out it’s easier than we think.
Research shows that we have more in common than the noisy, divided nature of our society would suggest. The Britain’s Choice study categorised the UK population into seven segments based on our core beliefs and psychology and demonstrated that, although the different segments disagree on many things, there are a surprising number of things that unite us: our admiration of the NHS, our love of the countryside, the value we place on volunteering and pride in advances in gender equality.
We also share concerns and aspirations including reducing inequality, a fairer distribution of power, tackling child poverty, and climate change. In fact research from CAST shows that 82% of people believe that climate change needs to be addressed with a moderate to high level of urgency.
While the excellent Britain Talks Climate toolkit from Climate Outreach suggests effective climate messaging for each segment of the population, simply knowing that we have more in common with those around is a helpful starting point for climate conversations. To maximise the potential of appealing to our shared values, the Common Cause Foundation suggests steering away from ‘self-interest’ values when talking about climate, and focussing instead on shared ‘compassionate values.’
In practice this means framing climate discussions in terms of equality, social justice, a connection with nature, altruism, curiosity, and wellbeing, and avoiding appeals to wealth, status, power or national security. Happily, this kind of approach is second nature in personal conversations – we’re much more likely to say “I joined the tree planting programme because I love spending time in nature, and it’s good for my mental health to volunteer alongside other people’ than “I joined the tree planting programme because it makes me look good and I’m excited about the economic contribution of timber…”
There’s another simple way to build connection with others, and again it’s something you’re already doing. Let’s look at the third way in which you’re already a brilliant climate communicator.
Three: You're a storyteller.
From around the age of two, kids start telling their own stories. Many of us grow out of the idea that we’re storytellers but in truth we never stop – how else are we going to let our loved ones know about the weird thing that happened on the bus, or time you woke up with the spider on your face, or how that guy at work has loads of framed pictures of Angela Merkel on his desk?
There are two key ways in which our built in storytelling powers make us great advocates for climate action – well three really, but we’ll save the third one for part three of this series.
Firstly, stories make climate change personal. Going back to the penny drop moment we talked about earlier – what emotions do we experience when climate news hits hard?
Take a moment to identify the key emotions you feel when thinking about climate change.
Next, link those emotions to the things you value most. For example, many people experience fear, but may be frightened for different reasons: fear for their children’s future, fear of losing their home or livelihood, fear for others living in parts of the world experiencing climate breakdown right now. What do you feel, and how does it connect to the things you value?
Neuroscientist Dan Eagleman describes humans as having a ‘story-shaped hole’ in our brains. “Story not only sticks,” he says, “it mesmerizes.” Telling your own story – your uniquely personal journey and the emotions you’ve experiences along the way – offers a completely different way into thinking about climate change and climate action.
Secondly, stories let us harness the power of seeing other people changing in real-time. Psychologists Gregg Sparkman and Gregory Walton discovered that statements of how other people’s behaviour or habits are changing – what they call dynamic descriptive norms – are highly effective in encouraging low carbon choices, even when those choices go against existing social norms. For example, take a look at the two statements:
- 14% of people in the UK are following a meat-free diet
- In the last 5 years, 14% of people in the UK have started following a meat free diet.
The first statement emphasises the current status, or ‘the way things are’ – this feels really static, as we tend to think that the way things are right now is the way they’ll always be. The second statement emphasises a change in the norm, or ‘the way things are heading.”
Opportunities to tell stories move us away from static statements (I’m vegan, I commute by bike, I’m a climate activist) to dynamic ones:
- I started eating less meat after watching a documentary, it really shook me and made me feel like I needed to make some changes. Me and my family are now beginning to have more vegan meals.
- Things really changed for me when I read some statistics about air pollution in my local area and thought it might be time to get my bike out of the shed and try cycling to work. At first I just cycled one day a week but now I’m starting to really enjoy it so I’m planning to cycle most days.
- I’d never been to a protest before but when I think about my nephews, and the world they will grow up in, it felt like time for me to act. I feel like activism can make a difference, and it helps me feel more hopeful, so now I’m starting to get more involved.
So how does this actually work? Sparkman and Walton explain that dynamic norms help people imagine alternative futures, show that change is possible and not too difficult, and demonstrate that new choices don’t need to be incompatible with our existing identity. They demonstrated that stories of change in progress are an incredibly impactful way to create wider change.
How can we be effective storytellers?
There’s no right way to tell your own story, but these points can help you think about what it is you want to say.
- Explain how your climate action journey began – was it something you read or heard? A conversation? A news report?
- Describe how you felt. Did your feelings change or intensify over time?
- Share what you’re doing, or what you’re planning to do. For example, are you finding out more about climate solutions? Making changes in your life? Protesting or campaigning?
- Explain whether taking action has changed any of your feelings.
- Discuss what you’re planning to do next.
If you feel comfortable doing so, share some of the difficult emotions you’ve experienced, and some of the challenges you might have encountered while trying to take climate action – this is something we’ll talk about further in part three.
Finally – ask lots of questions and be ready to listen, and acknowledge you’ve heard. Tap into those shared values we talked about above and find common ground.
Woof – we’ve covered a lot of stuff! I hope you’ll agree that you already have a lot of the qualities of a superstar climate communicator:
- You’re a trusted and authentic messenger
- You have expertise and connections
- You’re a natural storyteller
Time is not on our side with the climate emergency, but every single one of us can help create the changes needed through powerful and positive climate conversations. As philosopher Marshall McLuhan wrote:
“There are no passengers on spaceship Earth. We are all crew.”
And in the climate fight – you’ve just joined the comms team. Welcome aboard.
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