A whale descends into the icy Antarctic waters, where Dr. James McClintock has been researching climate issues for 20 years.
ANTARCTIC HABITAT - A whale descends into the icy Antarctic waters, where Dr. James McClintock has been researching climate issues for 20 years. ©: Dr. James McClintock

Global Insights | Perspectives

How to Have a Connected Conversation About Climate Change

Dr. James McClintock, University of Alabama at Birmingham

There is a feeling you get when you are confronted with a massive landscape of ice and snow. There is a majesty, and a chill runs through you that is not entirely about the cold temperature—it is utterly awe-inspiring. I’ve been to Antarctica dozens of times, and it never ceases to amaze me. But as global temperatures continue to rise, I’ve seen the impact climate change is having on these landscapes I love—and on the communities in Alabama, where I live.

Alabama is a beautiful state with natural treasures from Ruffner Mountain in Birmingham to the coastal marshes of the Grand Bay Savanna, and our citizens love the outdoors. But just over one in three Alabamans, according the 2018 Yale Climate Opinion Maps, believes that global warming will impact them personally. Barely 51 percent acknowledge that climate change is caused by human activities. Talking about climate change around here, at first glance, seems like a recipe for discord and hard feelings.

If we can’t even talk about climate change, we certainly will never be able to fix it.

Professor of Polar and Marine Biology, Univ. of Alabama at Birmingham

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But it’s imperative that we talk about climate change. Because we really aren’t, especially not in the United States. Even though 7 in 10 Americans believe climate change is happening, and 6 in 10 are at least somewhat concerned about it, two-thirds of Americans rarely, if ever, talk about climate change with the people they care about. The most recent reports on the current and forecasted impacts of climate change are clear—we are running out of time. Silence is no longer an option.

That’s an easy thing for me to say. I’m a scientist and I talk about climate change all the time. Most people find it a little harder, a little scarier. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s my best advice on how to have a conversation about climate that will emphasize connection and not conflict

  1. Meet people where they are. It’s tempting to begin a conversation by blurting out all the things you think about climate change. But that’s not the place to start. You already know what you think. You need to find out what they think. And the best way to get that information is to ask for it. The easiest way to start a conversation about climate change is to say, “Hey, have you thought much about climate change? What do you think about it?”

    Then listen. Do the kind of listening that isn’t just waiting for your turn to jump in. Listen, and then respond to what you actually heard. Take in what they said and respond to it from your heart. Don’t launch into some script of canned facts you memorized.
  2. Facts are good. Connection is better. I’m a scientist, which means I’m curious. I like to know things. Facts are interesting, but feelings are compelling. Scientific research tells us that most of us make decisions as much with our feelings as we do with facts. When the facts we know connect to our values and our feelings about a topic, that’s when we find them most persuasive. So focus on the places where you and your friend share experiences and values, and connect climate change to those experiences and values and how they make you feel. Not only will you be more persuasive, but it will feel better and more fulfilling to connect in this way.
  3. It’s a conversation, not a conquest.  Many of us have this fantasy of the epic conversion moment – we’ll tell our climate skeptic uncle all our amazing facts in a compelling way, and though he might try to debate with us, in the end he will be forced to agree with us about climate change.

    That never happens. People don’t like to be told they are wrong. And if they are forced into a position where they must admit they are wrong, they usually resent the person who put them there. Your conversation about climate change probably won’t reach a resolution, nor does it have to. The point is to actually talk with people about the issue instead of staying silent and separate.  The fact that you’re both talking and sharing on the topic is, a victory, even if you never reach an agreement.
  4. Stay connected. Climate change can feel scary. Even in Alabama, 53 percent of people are worried about climate change, and more than 60 percent believe global warming will harm future generations. With so much at stake, it’s frustrating if the person you’re talking to isn’t agreeing with you. Stay calm, stay focused, and most of all, stay kind. Remember the person you’re talking to is someone you care about. Your goal here is to make a connection on the topic of climate change, and if you lose your temper, you’ve also lost your connection.

A conversation focused on climate solutions can in fact be a positive thing. Many of the solutions that can contain the carbon emissions that causes global warming have amazing ancillary benefits. Who doesn’t want cleaner air to breathe, and more renewable power sources that promise to bring more jobs and better energy choices at lower prices? And better land management practices that capture and store more carbon emissions also create healthier soil for crops, and more green spaces for us to enjoy.

What’s often frustrating, however, is that these systemic solutions rarely offer individuals a way to participate. That’s what I love about encouraging conversation as climate action – everyone can have a conversation. Even if you don’t have access to public transportation, or can’t afford solar panels, or can’t bike to work, you can always have a conversation. And having more honest and open dialogue is a great first step toward bigger policy solutions.

Some that oppose climate action might prefer to see our communities remain separate and silent on this topic. However, if we can’t even talk about climate change, we certainly will never be able to fix it. It’s time to take the first step towards creating the will to act – by connecting with each other in conversation. 

Antarctic researcher, author and explorer, University of Alabama at Birmingham
Dr. James McClintock Antarctic researcher, author and explorer, University of Alabama at Birmingham © Dr. James McClintock

Dr. James McClintock is the Endowed University Professor of Polar and Marine Biology at University of Alabama at Birmingham, and is an award-winning climate communicator. He is a Trustee for The Nature Conservancy of Alabama, and also a spokesperson for The Nature Conservancy’s “Can We Talk Climate” pledge campaign. If you want to be part of the solution by having a connected conversation about climate change, click here to take the pledge and here to learn more about connected conversations. On Twitter: @JiminAntarctica