How to Talk About Climate Breakdown—
When wondering how to talk about climate breakdown, it can be tempting to try to debate with people, to get into bigger arguments, to try to win people over by talking louder, or by gathering bigger lists of data. But that tactic doesn’t change anyone’s mind, nor does it lead to action. Similarly, talking about doom and gloom—while depressingly accurate—isn’t the most useful way to start a conversation, because most people will feel, well, depressed, and like there’s nothing they can do—so why bother?
In the introduction to What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action, psychologist and economist Per Espen Stoknes mentions how climate change has become “a more divisive topic in the United States than abortion, gun control, the death penalty, or genetically modified crops.” But, he cautions, “If you want change to happen, hard confrontation is usually not productive. Coaches and psychotherapists know this. You don’t debate your client in the hope that you—the coach—win and they lose. The more you try to force change onto someone, the tougher the resistance.”
What do you need first for any discussion?
• a common ground
Talk to people who are indifferent to climate breakdown, introducing them to the idea of why they should care; and talk to those who care but haven’t acted, and may not know the details of climate breakdown. Getting embroiled with people who have an extreme antithetical view won’t change their mind, and it will take your energy away from speaking with everyone else.
“Fear and loss don’t sell. Uncertainty kills determination.”
—Chapter 10 of What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming
Don’t talk about climate breakdown through the framework of disaster and uncertainty. (These frameworks appear in a whopping 80% of news articles about climate breakdown!)
only 2% of news stories discuss positive opportunities for what you can do, like possibilities in renewable energy sectors
Instead, talk about climate breakdown (and what can be done about it) in terms of insurance, health, security, preparedness, and, most of all, OPPORTUNITY.
Climate discussions are frequently focused around what we will lose, what solutions will $$$ us, and other unpleasantness. The cost framing drowns out the logic of the solutions! Instead, frame discussions through risk and insurance — for example “we must build a climate defense today so we can avoid the climate declaring war on us in the future.”
Alter the iconography from uninspiring images of violence and brokenness to ones of sustainability, health and opportunity. Climatevisuals.org is a stock photo site collecting creative commons and public domain photographs of climate breakdown that—rather than focus just on disaster—work to provide a more diverse, relatable and compelling visual language for climate change. They have gorgeous photographs under the categories of health, climate solutions, climate impacts, and climate causes. (Note, some of them veer more toward the “uninspiring” images, but there are quite a few on the positive and action-compelling side as well.)
In discussions of climate breakdown, prioritize people, the love of family, hometown, friends, children, and health. Healthy human lives happen in healthy lands.
People care about their health. They care that it’s good for us to bike instead of drive, so we can become more fit; to eat more a vegetable-rich diet to make our hearts healthy and decrease the risk of Alzheimers; to spend time outside in clean air and green spaces to improve our mental and physical wellbeing, and they may find that they care quite a bit about trees too when they learn that trees save us 7 billion dollars a year in human health costs.
Doctors already know quite well how climate breakdown impacts human health in 6 major ways:
1. heat related sickness
2. respirtory health problems
3. infectious disease
4. water-borne disease
5. food insecurity
6. mental health problems
Still, doctors sometimes find it challenging to talk about, as the news article “Has Your Doctor Asked You About Climate Change?” published in partnership with WBUR, NPR, and Kaiser Health News reveals. No medical societies “have guidelines on how providers should talk to patients about [it].” Some doctors are wary of bringing up the topic, not knowing how people will respond to the idea. But climate breakdown’s affects on health is one thing most people care deeply about, because it affects not only the individual but families and loved ones.
When talking about climate breakdown, don’t stress uncertainty. Uncertainty is heard by many as “they don’t know.” Similarly, don’t argue for certainty instead, because it brings the uncertainty argument to top of mind.
DON’T talk about (seemingly passive) adaptation. Instead talk about proactive preparedness—how to get ready for change. This helps people imagine how they can show prudence and commonsense by, for example, slowing down the speed of warming, reducing their personal risk by reducing carbon emissions. By preventing pollution we protect the air we breathe.
Make sure your messaging brings up the idea to TAKE ACTION.
For many people, questions of ethics and values—as opposed to “uncertain” science or other countries’ actions—inspires. Stoknes adds, think about the question: “how far shall we let economic resource consumption grow at the expense of marginalized people, ecologies, and the more-than-human world?” Science can’t resolve value conflicts, that’s not what it’s built for. Value and ethics-based arguments put forward the idea that we should curb emissions not because of dire predictions, or because of what other countries may or may not do, but because changing in the direction of the better and more sustainable option will protect ourselves, our family, and the other lives we share the planet with. These arguments support larger-than-self values and a common cause.
As we begin to envision a future, we envision possibilities for that future.
Change stories of sacrifice and loss to stories of opportunity. If people feel that things are being taken away they become resentful. Get away from the idea of pollution; instead, talk about what people can gain by taking advantage of innovative new ideas. For conservatives interested in market opportunities, and labor advocates interested in job growth, talk about the profitability and competitiveness of sustainable choices, and the scientific and economic promise they offer. Talk about growing the economy in a smarter direction, and turn the economic framework of climate breakdown towards ACTION, with an emphasis on being personally freer in choice of energy consumption. Green energy becomes “Free-Market Energy.” Many people may be inspired to know that clean energy is creating more new jobs than the fossil industry, and they may be galvanized by the opportunities in an expanding field.
TIE IT TO THE BOTTOM LINE: ECONOMY, JOBS, AND HEALTH CARE.
“When communicating climate we should never accept the backfiring frames (doom, uncertainty, cost, sacrifice),” Stoknes, summarizing framing expert George Lakoff, reminds us. “Don’t negate them, or repeat them, or structure your arguments to counter them. That just activates those frames, thereby strengthening them in the audience’s minds. Always go on the offense with your framing, never defense.”
This change of framework needs to happen on all levels, in all media, as well as government.
Tell human stories. Other stories besides “what we do is wrong,” with other images and narratives besides an Apocalyptic one. Tell stories about what we’ve tried to do, and what we’ve succeeded at, and the possibilities for the future. Stories that are about where we can go, not just what we want to stop. And there are so many stories to tell: Ourclimatevoices.org is only one example of an organization that works to bring the human element into the discussion of climate breakdown, through activists’ personal stories.
“If [a better future] cannot be imagined and well told then people will surely not work for it to happen,” Stoknes points out.
“Many things have been tried to resolve the ecological and economic crises. They haven’t really worked. According to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohammed Yunnus, the strongest driving force in human beings is their desire and their imagination. He believes that today we must make films and tell stories that spark the desire to build another world. This is what Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent decided to do by lining up known solutions in all spheres side-by-side to show what our society could look like tomorrow…” (summary of the film on Youtube)
Remember: “The more we tell these stories the more we will begin to live them.” —What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action
After reading all this, you might be wondering why all this is necessary. What’s causing people to take crisis messages and disregard them?
Behavioralscientist.org, in their article Fight Climate Change with Behavior Change points out that guilt and logic just don’t motivate people to lasting change. But there are reasons for this that actually make a lot of sense. For one thing, the present, and our needs right now, is always more real than considerations about the future. Psychologists call this “present bias.”
Furthermore, when people don’t have a sense of community, competition and paranoia can prompt people to compete with each other over a finite resource.
Further, it becomes hard to grasp something as large as “climate breakdown” as a whole concept. Just like you might have trouble conceptualizing 100,000,000,000,000,000. That can’t be a real number, surely. And if it is… how big is it? Unless you know a lot about numbers you probably can’t picture it. And if you can picture it, you’re doing so by comparing it to other things, percentage-wise, not by picturing the entire vastness of that number in your head.
Oftentimes, the effects of climate breakdown show up in places other than right where you are. And someone else’s disaster always feels harder to connect with your own, especially if that connection is an intangible one.
But there’s some good news. People “are more likely to make far-sighted environmental choices when we are first prompted to think about how we want to be remembered.” Americans are motivated by thinking about the country as something old, with history, because funnily enough, thinking about the length of the past (something we can “see”) allows us to imagine a future just as long. And avoiding politicized language always gets you further than using loaded language.
Instead of doom and gloom, and guilt when you don’t do enough? Promote pride if people do the right thing.
And if you want to change behavior, make it easy to take action. People make so many decisions they can quickly become overloaded. If the good decision takes less mental effort, people are more likely to go for it.
The article at Behavioral Science finishes saying, while you might think people’s personal behaviors are negligible, that’s not true. Instead, “individual choices about everything from the food we eat to the cars we drive can have a significant impact on curbing greenhouse-gas emissions. Scaling up these behavioral changes could reduce about one-third of the projected global emissions between 2020 to 2050.” That’s a lot of collective power. And it all starts with us.
While it can be important for people to understand the true state of the world, human behavior specialists recommend the following DOs and DONTs when trying to inspire lasting action. This doesn’t mean ignoring the facts. It’s about framing.
1. don’t focus on doom and gloom
2. don’t talk about climate breakdown through the framework of disaster and uncertainty
3. don’t talk about certainty either! (That makes people think about uncertainty)
4. don’t talk about violence and brokenness
5. don’t focus on what we will lose as climate breakdown continues
6. don’t talk about how much solutions will cost us
7. don’t talk about having to adapt
8. don’t talk about how dealing with the future will involve sacrifice and loss
9. don’t talk about pollution
10. most of all, don’t argue against these frameworks! If you do, you’re lugging all that baggage right along into your new conversation
11. don’t tell stories about everything we do wrong
12. don’t talk about the Apocalypse
13. don’t talk about everything we have to stop
14. don’t use politicized language
15. don’t guilt people
1. do foster curiosity and empathy
2. do find common ground with the people you’re talking to
3. do talk about climate breakdown through the frameworks of security, health, risk & insurance (we’re paying for solutions now to insure us against the future), preparedness (changes now are taking steps to prepare for the future), and opportunity
4. do talk about people, the love of family, hometown, friends, children, and the health of all these
5. do make messages that inspire people to take action
6. do bring up ethics and values as reasons to change our ways
7. do talk about the opportunities that are possible in taking action now
8. do talk about innovative new ideas, profitability and competitiveness
9. do talk about the possibilities for a smarter economy, growing job opportunities and new freedoms in free-market (green) energy
10. do tell human stories about what we’ve tried and how we’ve succeeded, and focus on possibility
11. do talk about where we can go from here
12. do tell stories that imagine a better future
12. do prompt people to think about how they want to be remembered
13. do talk about your country as something with a history, something old, something that will last
14. do promote pride when people make the right choices
Connection & Care
check out the Uceful Model
Read an excerpt from the introduction to What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming by Per Espen Stoknes. Many of the ideas in this article are based on discussions in Chapter 10 of this book, which we highly recommend reading all of!