Can we talk about climate change?
Oyster conservationists Alison Laferriere and TNC Oyster Conservation Coordinator, Amanda Moeser, sit on a dock near the Jackson Estuarine Laboratory in Durham, New Hampshire, and talk about the best way to count the spat on oyster shells. © Jennifer Emerling

Climate Change Stories

Can We Talk Climate?

More than half of Americans rarely—if ever—talk about climate change.

You can help change that. Take a pledge to talk about climate change. Let those close to you know that we have climate solutions that could address global warming, avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and provide economic opportunities.

Why so quiet?

Lots of research has been devoted to uncovering the reasons why people don’t talk more about climate change. Most people’s reasons for why they don’t speak up fall into the four basic categories below.

“I don’t know enough”

Why you might feel this way:

Most people are not scientists, and are afraid that when pressed to discuss the science behind climate change in detail, they won’t know what to say. No one likes starting a conversation about a topic they feel uninformed about.

You DO know enough about climate change to talk about it:

  • Most people are not climate scientists and don’t expect you to be. When 97% of scientists agree that climate change IS happening and is caused by human activity, a deep dive into the raw data is not necessary. One study shows that merely pointing out that the scientific consensus is so high makes people more open to supporting climate action.
  • You don’t have to answer the question “is climate change real?” You can talk about the solutions. Climate solutions are attractive, and offer numerous benefits to the health and well-being of our economy and our communities.
  • Facts and figures don’t change people’s minds. Research from Pew Research Center indicates that up to half of Americans have a low level of trust of information sources generally. Talking about shared values and personal observations are sometimes more persuasive than facts.
  • If you do find that you have to first supply some basic info on how climate change works and why it’s a problem, you can use these resources.

“I don’t want to talk about scary things”

Why you might feel this way:

Humans don’t like change and especially dislike instability. Climate change threatens to disrupt our communities in drastic ways. Sometimes it’s just easier to avoid things that are scary, especially in a social setting. No one likes to be the bearer of bad news.

You CAN talk about climate change without scaring people:

  • Talking about climate change does not have to be infused with fear. We not only have ways of reducing the damage caused by climate change, but we also can reduce current carbon emissions and use nature to draw existing carbon emissions out of our atmosphere.
  • The solutions are available and also highly desirable. They offer the opportunity for more jobs, cleaner air, and better energy choices. These are all highly positive things.
  • Even more important than discussing the problem of climate change is highlighting the need to act now. The potential losses we face from waiting too long are unacceptable. Why risk all the costs of ongoing climate impacts, when we can start reaping the benefits that come with the solutions?

“I don’t think I can make a difference”

Why you might feel this way:

Research shows that when a problem seems too big, and the solutions all seem to require large scale collective action or policy change, we freeze up, feel guilty that we aren't able to solve it under our own steam, and distance ourselves from the problem entirely.

You CAN make a difference, even just by talking about it:

  • The truth is there really are things that you can do to make a dent in your own carbon footprint, and there are actions you can take to support climate-friendly policies.
  • The simple act of talking about climate change with the people you care about actually makes a difference. The more people hear conversations about climate change, the more socially validated these conversations become. Showing that climate change is important enough for you to talk about it makes it easier for others to talk about it as well.

“I don’t want to cause arguments”

Why you might feel this way:

In an age where divisiveness seems to reign, having a different opinion from your family and friends on climate change potentially exposes you to stressful conflict. We like to belong and resist demonstrating that we might not be in step with the people around us. One recent study has shown that “second order beliefs”—what we think OTHERS around us think about a topic—are just as important to forming our beliefs as any other factor.

You CAN talk about climate without causing an argument:

  • There’s a lot more consensus on climate change than many Americans presume. Only 15% of Americans know that there is overwhelming scientific consensus around climate change.*
  • Seven in 10 people think climate change is happening and half believe that it’s caused by human activity. Strong voices are advocating for climate change on both sides of the aisle. Many people don’t know that there’s actually a bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus that actually tripled in size in 2017, and is composed of half Republicans, half Democrats.
  • No matter what your political identity is, there are individuals that are strong advocates for climate action who can show how addressing climate change is consistent with your personal identity and your hopes for a healthy family and prosperous community.

So how do we talk about it?

With all these dynamics working against having a productive conversation, how do you make it work? Below are some time-honored tips that should help you along.

Meet people where THEY are.

This is one of the most important keys to having a successful conversation—none of us is coming to this subject with the same level of knowledge, with the same opinions, or the same stumbling blocks. You have to start the conversation where OTHERS are—not where you are, not where you think they ought to be, not even where they think they are—but where they actually are on the subject.

If they are most concerned with hurricanes, start there. If they are interested in polar ice caps, start there. If they want to talk clean energy, that’s fine too. If they want to talk jobs and family, that's also a good starting point. Nothing is more frustrating than having a conversation with someone who is so wrapped up in their own agenda that they ignore your needs.

How do you find out where they are? Ask them. And listen to the answers with patience and interest. Don’t use their answers as an excuse to launch into a canned speech. Be with them in whatever place they are, and begin your conversation there.

Facts are good. Connection is better.

We believe the truth is important and that science-based solutions matter. Having the right facts is essential to good decision-making. But facts alone do not move hearts. Usually people make their decisions based on facts AND emotion—what they feel is right in addition to what they know is right.

In fact, studies show that people will ignore inconvenient facts in order to accommodate the conclusion that they find more emotionally satisfying. Connect the issue to your conversation partner’s surroundings—point out growing season changes, storms, heat indices. Most experts will tell you that people are most open to acknowledging climate change when they are able to observe its effects in events local to them. This is true even with climate skeptics.

People also find it persuasive when you connect your facts and assertions to the values you share with the person. It is this sense of shared identity, of connection, that makes what you say more impactful. Look for opportunities to find those connections on shared values and experiences, not moments when you can play “gotcha” with your slew of facts.

The goal is CONVERSATION, not conquest.

The moment at which someone reverses a previously held opinion, or makes a commitment to action, rarely happens in a place where someone else can see. Socially, we like to present ourselves as being firm in our convictions, and not admit defeat or failure or being “wrong” about something. It is tempting when engaging with someone on a topic like climate change to want to keep pushing at it until the other person gives in, until you get that all-important “win” for your record books.

But this is not a competition. Be patient with the person you are talking to, and understand that he or she may require more than one conversation to open up to what you’re trying to say. There’s a strong likelihood that the persons you’re talking to won’t change their minds, and even if they do, they might not tell you that they have. The goal is to increase the amount of conversation, not to make conversions or keep score.

Stay focused; stay human.

There is never a need to be rude or unpleasant. Remember that the person you’re talking to is a person with thoughts and feelings and needs just like you. You may not agree with their views, and some of their ideas may be factually incorrect. But calling people names or showing derision never convinced anyone of anything. People are never positively persuaded by corrosive conversation tactics.

When you’re confused as to how they could do something or say something or think something, ask them. The answer might surprise you. In a world where there is already so much combativeness, your commitment to simple humanity, compassion, respect, and kindness will stand out.

More Resources

Here are some of the best resources we know of to learn more about climate change, climate solutions and how to talk to people about them:

Our Resources

Other Resources

*Data from “Climate Change and the American Mind October 2017” from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication