Talking About Climate Change

It’s Sunday afternoon, and you’re sitting around the dining room table with your kids, their grandparents, a cousin and an opinionated great aunt. It’s unseasonably warm for this time of year, and as you get up to turn down the thermostat, your nine-year-old asks whether it’s because of climate change. Before you can begin to formulate a response to this complicated question, your aunt has jumped fervently into the conversation, your cousin’s brow is furrowed and the kids’ grandparents are unusually focused on their mashed potatoes.  

Why is it that talking about our changing climate can lead to such discomfort among ourselves and our loved ones?

Young women make hemp bracelets

“The debate over climate change in the United States (and elsewhere) is not about carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas models; it is about opposing cultural values and worldviews through which that science is seen,” writes Andrew J. Hoffman, University of Michigan professor and author of How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate.

“Those cultural values create a pattern of shared basic assumptions that tell us the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to problems and situations we face. […] As a result, when different groups view the same science through opposing cultural lenses, they see something very different.”

Even the most dedicated advocates may feel uncomfortable disagreeing with a close relative or friend who doesn’t share their worldviews on climate change. This might be because of a desire to preserve a relationship or it may be due to something else, like concerns about creating awkwardness, spurring an argument, sounding “too smart” or sounding not smart enough.

So what do you really need to say or do to have an effective conversation about climate change? Are there times when you should (or even shouldn’t) provoke or join in the conversation?

Below, we take you through some simple ways to approach a conversation about climate change with people in your life.

Little Kids

Whether you’re talking with your own kids, your relatives, your students or your friends, you have the opportunity to guide small children as they explore the amazing nature of our planet. Through photographs, nature walks, museum and zoo visits, vacations or special programming, help them understand different types of ecosystems. Talk about the many different types of animals and how these animals depend upon their habitats for food, water, shelter and space. If you think the kids are ready, you can pose questions about what they think would happen if the animals lost their habitats.

It’s important to gauge what kids are ready to hear and to bring their facts to their level, asking them what they know and helping address any fears. Be honest about what’s happening, but also help kids understand how individuals and organizations are working to address climate change. You can even help them focus on how they can make a difference, such as recycling, consuming less, reusing items and sharing their knowledge with others. Instilling good habits at a young age is vital for helping kids become lifelong advocates for the planet.

Elementary school-age children can benefit from hearing age-appropriate facts about the greenhouse effect as a metaphor for global warming. National Geographic offers a basic video that explains this concept in simple, kid-friendly terms. On this site and many others, you can find age-appropriate experiments to help kids learn about climate change. Books are also great openers for creating conversation about our natural world and the changes it is undergoing.

Older Kids

High schoolers may have heard about climate change in the news, through school or from their friends, but don’t assume that these older kids have mastered the basics, says the Academy’s Kimberly Godfrey. As manager of the Academy’s Women In Natural Sciences program, a free after-school and summer science enrichment program that has introduced hundreds of high school women to future careers in science and other professions, Godfrey talks about climate change with her students often. She notes the importance of dispelling common misconceptions about climate change for students who haven’t had much exposure to these concepts early in life.

“Much of what’s taught or shown to students about climate change is so far from home that there is a bit of disconnect to the issue,” she says. “‘Why should I care if it doesn’t impact me?’ No one ever really says that, but not knowing how or why it impacts them here in Philadelphia puts climate change low on students’ lists of priorities. Many inner-city students have to tackle daily obstacles that those of privilege rarely have to face.”

Godfrey guides her students through an activity focusing on some of the main outcomes of climate change, such as sea level rise and changes in climate patterns. She then asks her students to think about what would happen if these climate events happened in their communities, asking them to consider whether their own communities would have the resources to mitigate these issues and what the City of Philadelphia would do to support them.

In addition, the WINS students receive a talk about climate change and environmental justice in Philadelphia from WINS alumna Zakia Elliot of Philadelphia Climate Works. Elliot leads a discussion of how climate change will exacerbate insecurities with food, energy, air quality, water quality and housing, which disproportionately affect minority and low-income communities. She works to help all communities recognize that climate change is not just an environmental concern, but also a human-rights concern. Students are prompted to examine how different areas in Philadelphia are already impacted — for example, through heat islands in North Philadelphia and air quality issues affecting South Philly residents.

After you know they have grasped the basics on the real impacts of climate change, you can encourage older kids to learn additional ways to take action from advocates such as Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Villasenor, Haven Coleman, Isra Hirsi and others who have created movements for young people to speak out about climate change. In addition to informing them about taking part in rallies or protests, you can suggest that students write letters, send emails or make calls to their representatives. You can also demonstrate the value of taking simple actions in their everyday lives, such as recycling, limited single-use plastics, taking public transit and more.

Adults

Climate change is one of the more complex topics you may cover in your conversations with family and friends, and it’s also one of the most important. Often you might not be prepared to “deliver the facts” that you feel are necessary to participating in an adult conversation on this topic. However, it’s not always about directly communicating the science.

Whether you live with a partner, roommates or extended family, you can make your household conversations purposeful and action-oriented. Modeling small actions such as recycling, composting, avoiding waste, adjusting the thermostat, using sustainable household goods and voting for the environment can speak volumes to your housemates. If you feel comfortable discussing news articles with a partner or roommate, do so, and consider directing your conversations toward actionable steps you can take to create change locally. 

botanists examine herbarium specimen

But sometimes, when it comes to those who don’t share your beliefs, these conversations take on a new level of complication. Hoffman notes that even our word choices – for example, using “climate change” instead of “global warming” (a term more people believe in), “sustainability” or “green” could trigger certain types of reactions in conversation. Rather, he notes we should focus on sharing relatable information and searching for solutions that align with common values and promote a positive, shared future.  

“We have to build the trust of those we are trying to influence, create a vision for the direction we might go, and most important, understand how to overcome people’s fears and convince them to follow,” Hoffman writes.  

When approaching these conversations, think first about the timing. Are you celebrating a special occasion with your close friends or grandparents, for example? Maybe today’s not the best day for the conversation.

Even when the timing is right, don’t attack with facts. Instead, try to identify common values or find out what your friend or relative cares about, and then ask questions. For example, are they are nature lover? During their last hike, camping excursion, fishing trip or hunting expedition, what were the conditions like? Were any animals they normally see not there? Was the water colder or warmer than usual? Were the flows higher than usual due to excess rain? Even if you don’t directly address the issue or say the words “climate change,” you’re likely to prompt closer examination of the subject and perhaps even spark a discussion about solutions. ~Mary Alice Hartsock/ANS

Finding the Right Words

Even if you’re focused on identifying closely with friends or relatives based on values rather than peppering them with climate change facts, having resources in your back pocket can help you approach conversations more confidently. Here are a few basics:

scientists in stream
  • Carbon dioxide is a “greenhouse” gas. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere block heat from escaping the earth. Carbon dioxide can be released by natural processes, such as respiration and volcano eruptions, and through human activity such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation.
  • Atmospheric carbon dioxide is at its highest concentration in millennia. For 800,000 years, Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide fluctuated relatively predictably between about 170 and 300 parts per million (ppm); for hundreds of thousands of years, it was never above 300 ppm. However, since the mid-20th century, it has been steadily increasing, and is currently around 400 ppm.
  • Human activity has increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In the last 150 years, since the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 400 ppm.
  • The earth is warmer. The global average temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century. Most of the warming occurred in the past 35 years, with the five warmest years on record taking place since 2010.
  • Oceans are acidifying. Oceans absorb carbon dioxide, which increases acidity. The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean’s upper layers is increasing by about 2 billion tons per year. Since the Industrial Revolution, as the levels of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere by humans began to increase, the acidity of ocean surface waters has increased by about 30% (or about 0.1 pH unit).
  • Oceans are warming. The top 700m (approx. 2,300ft) of ocean have warmed more than 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969.
  • Polar ice sheets are shrinking. The Greenland ice sheet has lost an average of 286 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2016. During that same time period, Antarctica has lost about 127 billion tons of ice per year, a rate that has tripled in the last decade. Additionally, the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice has declined rapidly over the last several decades.
  • Snow cover is decreasing. Satellite observations show that the amount of spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has decreased over the last five decades, and snow is melting earlier.
  • Seas are rising. Global sea level has risen about 8 inches in the last century. However, over the last two decades, the rate of increase has nearly doubled that of the previous century, and it is accelerating every year.
  • Extreme weather events are more frequent. Since 1950, the number of record high temperature events in the U.S. has been increasing, while the number of record low temperature events has been decreasing. The U.S. has also experienced increasing numbers of extreme rainfall events.
  • Source: climate.nasa.gov
  • List compiled by Kathryn Christopher/ANS

2 comments

  1. If “Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere block heat from escaping the earth”,
    Then “greenhouse” gasses are acting as a thermal insulator.

    If GHG are insulators,
    Then GHG can not warm the earth surface, they can only slow the transfer of heat between the surface and space.

    If GHG don’t warm the surface,
    Then the Earths surface temperature is solely determined by insolation.

    According to greenhouse theory, the sun’s radiation can only manage to warm the earths surface to -18C.

    If the earth surface is only warmed to -18C via the sun and GHG can only slow the heat transfer from surface to space,
    Then GHG can not and do not warm the surface regardless the concentration.

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