You live in a bubble. I do, too. The bubble is called my apartment, where I cook vegetarian locavore farm share food and turn off the lights when I leave the room. Here in our little rented castle, it’s very easy to be an energy warrior. My wife and cats are in total agreement with me over climate change. Everything’s perfect…as long as I stay inside.
Once I go outside and start to talk to people about this issue, I run into some serious uphill. If you’re anything like me, you, too, went through a phase where you tried to play Cassandra to the Troy of our fuel-guzzling society. Maybe you’re in the midst of that phase right now. How’s the prophet life treating you?
Ecologists, who I am beginning to think are just right about everything, have been complaining for years about how hard it is to have an actual conversation about climate change. Personally, I’ve noticed that people tend to fall into one of about five categories when I talk climate to them. Full disclosure: I don’t usually get them out of those categories and onto my side. But if I successfully start an ongoing conversation, I do see movement in their point of view. It’s slow, but so is a rock when you start rolling it toward a downward slope.
Notice that qualifying word: ongoing. It turns out that people only care about your concerns if you care about theirs first. Have a climate convo, but build a relationship, too. Figure them out and lead by example. Otherwise, you’re just another rando screaming about Judgment Day.
These tips are what I’ve gotten out of personal interactions and research. Am I a professional negotiator? Nope! And I fudge plenty of climate conversations. But in my experience, yelling doom at people does nothing but entrench them and convince them that you’re nuts.
Here are the five people I meet when I talk about the climate.
1. The Accuser
This person demands to know if you drive, eat bananas, or wear clothes made of cotton. When you admit that you do own a non-hybrid vehicle, the reaction of the accuser is triumphant. What right do you have to promote climate action? What right? WHAT RIGHT? They have unmasked a hypocrite and will accept nothing less than your tears of humiliation and pleas for mercy.
This position grows from a place of deep shame. The climate Cassandra’s actions, however introductory, remind the accuser that they themselves are doing nothing to stop our slippery-slope slide toward the yawning mouth of destruction. They may be fighting you to your face, but inside, they’re a jangling ball of climate anxiety. They’re striking out at you because you happen to be the lucky winner that poked the ball with your words.
Respond to the accuser by pointing out that change doesn’t happen overnight. Your personal drawdown has to be gradual or it won’t stick. Seriously. Ask a psychiatrist. You’ll tire yourself out trying to be the Marie Kondo of fossil fuels.
You’re not perfect. The accuser doesn’t have to be perfect, either. You’re both stuck in the same fossil fuel-reliant system together. Understand the accuser to disarm them. That means listen, ask questions, and let them talk. You won’t get anywhere by ramming your opinion down their throat, but you might make a friend by letting them vent for a while. A friend can observe your drawdown and take heart because they’ve learned to trust you.
2. The Faithful
The faithful believe in the ability of technology and science to get us out of this mess. I’ve met faithful excited about algae, carbon filters, and plastics made from airborne pollution, but by far the greatest number belong to the Church of Elon.
The tricky thing about the faithful is that they’re not necessarily wrong, but they may ignore achievable or individual-level action in favor of a concept. Pairing a Tesla with a solar roof, for example, is a fantastic idea that is wholly out of financial reach for most Americans. You will be tempted to argue about this.
Technology may save us. It could happen! Ten years ago, smartphones were toys for rich technophiles. Now they’re a solution for cheap Internet. That’s a hell of a turnaround and almost nobody saw it coming. You don’t know that tech won’t be the key to solving climate change, just as the faithful don’t know that it will be. Don’t argue about what hasn’t happened yet because there is no way to win.
Instead, engage with the faithful. Send them articles about air filters and bicycle shares while making it clear that you’re not waiting around for Elon to come through. Remember that the faithful are outside of your ability to convince because they’ve got Musk in their eyes. They may join your crunchy climate change collective activism when they become disillusioned. They may maintain their blind trust in technology forever. Either way, your ability to argue with them probably won’t have much bearing on the outcome.
3. The Bright Side Seer
This person tends to be older. They remember a time when rivers were flammable, smog suffocated London, and the ozone featured oozing wounds. They’ll tell you horror stories about lead in gasoline and paint, eventually coming around to the conclusion that history is arcing in the right direction. Finally, they’ll say that the U.S. is cleaner than China. As far as they are concerned, this will end the argument.
The difference between you and the bright sider is that you want to help the Earth, and the bright sider wants to help you. If a bright sider corners you with descriptions of how much better things are, it’s usually not because they believe that things are now perfect. It’s because you’ve been coming on too strong. They are worried about you because you seem anxious and depressed. They aren’t trying to shut you down – they are trying to talk you down.
Alternately, a bright sider may be trying to justify their own inaction a la the accuser, using their experience to shut you up rather than aggressive verbal attacks. This is pretty subtle emotional jiu jitsu, though. My experience suggests that bright siders are often just concerned for your mental health. If you’re the type to pop a blood vessel thinking about deforestation – twinsies! – then you’ll encounter a lot of bright siders in your family and friend groups. They believe in the problem. They just don’t want you to have a medical event over it.
You can make a big impression on these folks by staying calm. Take action in your life and talk about that. When you notice your word rate speeding up, your face getting hot, and your thoughts spilling over themselves on their way to your mouth, stop and take a breath. Your ability to express your feelings about climate change is not going to make or break the future of the world, much less the sentiments of the person standing in front of you. If talking hypes you up, stick to action. Arrive at family dinner on a bicycle or by train.
4. The Passive Sigh-er
This person believes. Your heart will leap upon meeting them. They actually believe! You’re off to the races…and then you realize that they’re looking woozy. They try to change the subject. They sure do believe, and they’re desperate to talk about anything else. They don’t think there’s anything they can do to stop doom from descending upon us all.
Humans are funny. We can ignore the fact that we’re not solving a problem if we recognize that the problem exists and should be solved, especially if it’s not immediately threatening us. That’s what the passive sigh-er is doing. They acknowledge that climate change is real, but balk at action because it’s just too much. If everyone doesn’t give up their commute, we’re still in trouble, so why bother with personal action? At worst, they think that we’re already headed for that brick wall too fast and that nothing will stop the human species from going extinct. Why not just enjoy life meanwhile?
I haven’t determined whether it’s possible to reach sigh-ers or not. Some seem open to rallying cries – It’s not over ’till it’s over! We yet live! Go down swinging! We shot the moon and we can shoot this too! Others react to the entire conversation with passive aggression. I spoke to a woman recently who went from “Oh, the climate is in terrible shape” to “It’s OK, I’ll kill myself if it gets that bad” in sixty seconds. YIKES. You’d better believe that redirected the conversation!
I’m a huge advocate of attraction rather than promotion. If you live the change, that can be a powerful statement. Better yet, it is, if you’ll pardon the phrase, energy-efficient. You’ll expend a ton of effort trying to get a single passive sigh-er to move their ass, and you may well end up with nothing to show for it.
Groups can help, too. Passive sigh-ers may get swept up in collective sentiment if they’re exposed to it for long enough, and they may be susceptible to fads and trends. If you can get together with an enviro group – or even start one of your own – draw them into something fun, like a bake-off or film festival. A lot of people resist activating because they’re afraid they’ll lose their normal, unpolarized, moderate social life. Try getting them into a new friend group to show them that there’s life on the other side.
5. The Political Line-Holder
Now we come to the deniers. I’m grouping them all into line-holders because the social demarcations of disbelievers seem to fall closely along political lines, at least, in the States. That’s not statistically likely unless a large chunk of those deniers are denying because of the group they’re in rather than what they actually believe.
That’s why bludgeoning deniers with the science generally doesn’t work. Their denial isn’t about information, logic, or fact. It’s about social cohesion. For these folks, climate change is just a liberal talking point. The reasons that liberals want to talk about climate change are nebulous – I’ve heard Fox pundits say that climate change is a foreign plot, a tax plot, a grant funding plot, and a re-election plot – but there doesn’t need to be a reason. Climate change is liberal. That’s that the line-holder really cares about. Liberals believe in climate change, not conservatives like them.
In this case, it can help to have a few conservative names handy. Bob Inglis comes to mind immediately, although keep in mind that his belief in climate change cost him his South Carolina seat in the House of Representatives. The U.S. military believes in climate change very, very much. Conservatives in other countries don’t have the same weird hang-ups about this phenomenon that Americans do.
Then ask questions. Why do we trust the science behind GPS, but not the science behind climate change? What’s inherently liberal about climate change action? Don’t debate at first. Just keep asking and listening. Then, gradually, and without rancor, panic, or aggression, suggest that maybe we’re looking at climate the wrong way. Wouldn’t it be better for your town to make its own energy rather than being dependent on Saudi Arabia? Wind turbines and solar panels require a ton of permanent maintenance jobs that can’t be outsourced. Better yet, those jobs require factory-adjacent skills – why wouldn’t that make America great?
Don’t hammer on climate change like you’re ringing a bell. The line-holder knows that bell too well. Instead, touch lightly upon the many points around climate change and try to introduce something new to the conversation. Don’t push and don’t make it an unpleasant experience for them. Expect to leave the dialogue having not convinced the line-holder of your position. Have more conversations in the future, and as always, follow up your words with action.
Today’s Climate Change Bat Signal: Start a climate convo and remain calm, cool, collected, and un-evangelical throughout. Be the environmentalist you thought was cool in high school. Attraction, not promotion.