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How to Talk About Climate Change

From Angie Voyles Askham | 11:18

How can you have a productive conversation about climate change when the issue is so political?


LEDE/ASKHAM: Scientists keep telling us that sea levels are rising, the earth is getting warmer, and so much of what we do and enjoy—driving to work, eating meat, having kids, buying new stuff—is making it all worse. Sometimes it’s hard to feel like there’s anything you do to make a difference. And to top it all off, the issue has become so polarized that you might not even want to talk about it at all, for fear of losing friends or alienating your family.

Joy DeLyria wants to change that. She’s the Science Interpretation Program Supervisor at the Pacific Science Center here in Seattle, and she recently hosted two workshops called “Communicating Climate Change,” all about how to have these scientifically-challenging, politically-fraught conversations in a productive way.

ASKHAM: I spoke with Joy DeLyria a few days before the second night of her Communicating Climate Change workshop. That night was going to be focused on the strategies that are most effective when you want to talk to anyone—even climate change deniers—about these issues. One of the things I wanted to know was if the goal of these conversations is to ultimately change minds, or if she's aiming for something else.

DELYRIA: I think a lot people, when I give a talk about this, or for my workshop, peoples’ goals is to change minds, and I think that is destructive in some ways. Or at least, counterproductive.

If their goal is I want to spread awareness, I want to increase mitigation efforts by getting other people on my side, the best thing they can do is have constructive conversations about it that are open and considerate and mindful of other peoples’ point of view, and meet people on a level where they can respect each other, and talk about values, because just going and aggressively spouting facts hasn’t worked. We’ve been doing that for a while.

So, ultimately, my goal is to empower people with the tools that they need to have those constructive conversations so it feels like something that we can all talk about.

I know that for me, the moment that I started thinking about doing this was when I stopped talking to my dad about anything to do with science or politics because I just felt it was impossible, and I felt like it was just making us fight. And I was like, well, if I just don’t talk about anything to do with this at all, then we can get along okay. And, you know, that worked for a while, but then I realized that I’m not talking to my dad about something that I really care about. And I’m also putting this distance between us where we feel like we can never have a rational discussion about things that we really, deeply believe in. And I love my dad. And I think he’s a really great guy, and he’s also really smart. We should be able to talk about this. I wanted to work on finding a way to do that and help other people find ways to do that too.

ASKHAM: Why is it so difficult to talk about climate change?

DELYRIA: I think for a lot of people, climate change is more than just science. It's somethng that's connected to behaviors and then, in a broaders sense, connected to someone's cultural identiy. And part of the reason I think is because when information about it started coming out, the solution was we have to change some behaviors. And the backlash is like, okay, that behavior is intimately connected to who I am and what I do, for instance, if you work in the oil industry. And then, so as those people continue to put out this narrative about climate change, then not believing in climate change becomes a part of who you are, how you identify personally, politically, even socially. And so because it's connected to identity, it's more than about just facts. And a lot of times people who do accept climate change, because for them, it is about facts, they have this extreme difficulty understanding, "why can't I just tell you this correct informatino and then have you understand?"

ASKHAM: So how do you bridge that gap? 

DELYRIA: Uh, it's really difficult! And part of it is about understanding that the way you understand climate change is also connected to your identity. And so I feel like you have to understand, this is the way I see the world, but it's not the way everyone does, and it doesn't mean that my way is correct. And that's really difficult when you know the facts are correct. So there's that just kind of getting over yourself barrier. And then there's, once you understand that, finding some common ground.

So what really affected me was a long chain of cause and effect, where if you start with one, simple fact, like higher temperatures will evaporate more moisture from the soil, then you’ve got the effect of drought. And then when you have drought and dryness, you have fires, and drought combined with fires, well, then you get fewer crops. If you get fewer crops, you get famine. If you get famine for an extended period of time, you have people needing to leave the country where they live. You have people leaving the country where they live, you have new countries getting huge groups of people they can’t accommodate. And all of a sudden, you have this huge social issue that really has nothing to do with climate change, but that’s kind of what pinged it for me, was that climate is such a part of our life that it eventually will affect all of us in ways that you don’t associate with climate at all. And so for me, because I care about social justice, because I care about people having the resources they need to live, but I also care about myself having the resources I need to live. I care about maintaining certain aspects of life that I enjoy, and that me and my family enjoy, and realizing that all of that could just drastically change, not just for me but for everyone around the world, was kind of the way to make me care about it.

But I feel like it really depends on the person. You don’t want to just whip out “sea level rise!” because that doesn’t affect everybody. You don’t want to whipt out “polar bears!” because that doesn’t affect everybody. You want to tailor it to the person you’re talking to and find out what they care about.

ASKHAM: Is it useful to use certain current events, like the terrible wildfires we’ve had out here, or the awful hurricanes that we’ve seen in the southeast? Is that a useful launching pad for these kinds of conversations?

DELYRIA: It’s a really great question, and a little bit sticky, because you don’t want to use just one individual event. One, because it’s bad science. Wildfires are going to happen anyway, hurricanes are going to happen anyway. What climate change is going to do is increase the frequency and intensity of these events. But you can still have a really intense hurricane without climate change. So, you want to be really careful from a scientific perspective. But also, people get really concerned about a storm like Irma or Maria or Harvey. And it’s in the news and everybody cares, and then two weeks from now, two months from now, two years from now, we’re not going to be talking about those particular storms anymore. So, it’s more the overall patterns that you would want to focus on. You want to increase awareness at those moments, but you don’t want to just use that individual event as your launching off point.

ASKHAM: When you are thinking about all of these storms happening, and especially when you start looking to the research, it’s easy to get depressed and feel kind of hopeless. And so one tactic, to kind of convince people about the importance of focusing on climate change is to look at this worst case scenario and increase the urgency. And then another way is to be a little more optimistic, and say, “yes it’s looking bad, but we can do something.” Do you think one way is more effective than the other?

DELYRIA: I’m a very cynical person, but I’m also rather scientifically minded. And the research shows that you’re not going to get anywhere with doom and gloom. Partly because right now, we’re not going to turn back the clock on climate change. It’s already happening. All we can do now is work to mitigate it. If we don’t work to mitigate it, things will just get worse and worse. So just saying, like, “oh it’s the end of the world,” you’re going to put people in that place where they do feel too depressed to do anything about it. They’re going to feel hopeless. And when you feel hopeless, you don’t begin to work to solve the issue, or if you can’t solve it, mitigate, you shut down and turn away.

You can get someone in crisis mode for like, several hours, or even several days, or, man, if they are really into it, a couple weeks, but you can’t live your life like that. And we have to live our lives with climate change. So, we need to treat it as something that we can do something about, and not treat it as there’s this crisis that once we get over it it’s going to be okay. We need to treat it as a reality.

One really common mindset is--I call it the “big bad ugly”—you think climate change is happening and you think you can’t do anything about it. And so I feel like providing examples of the things people are doing and the things people can participate in—so if you’re focusing on individual solutions like turning off the lights or not driving your car, that makes some people feel really great, but it’s not going to make a big difference in the scheme of things. Focusing on community-level solutions, like whole cities or even countries. Chile is a great example of a country that has really increased its solar power exponentially, like even in the past few years. And I find it very inspiring! You know, here’s this whole country that made this decision, “we’re going to do something different.” And a lot of groups and communities, and even countries—the Paris Climate Agreement—it’s hopeful, and it’s a step in the right direction, and if we keep moving in that direction, then mitigation will keep happening, and if can keep increasing it, no we can’t turn back the clock, but at least it won’t be as bad as it could be.

ASKHAM: Joy DeLyria is the Science Interpretation Program Supervisor at Seattle's Pacific Science Center. She recently hosted two workshops on "Communicating Climate Change." If you're interested in other workshops and lectures at the Pacific Science Center, like the upcoming Halloween talk on the Neuroscience of Zombies, you can visit their website at www.pacificsciencecenter.org/scienceinthecity. Music for this episode was by Chris Zabriskie. I’m Angie Voyles Askham.