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Dear Sara,

What’s something that, as a climate-conscious individual, I may not already be doing that I should be (or shouldn’t be doing that I am doing)?

— Moe L. via Twitter

Dear Moe,

You’re probably not talking about it much. If my guess is correct — that is, you’re not having many conversations about climate change with friends, family, neighbors, and others in your community — my colleague Jennifer Marlon and I hope you’ll consider speaking up more often in the future.

To help you get started, she and I developed a strategy for talking about climate change in a way that will deepen your relationship with the people you care about.

Why it’s important to talk about climate change

But first, why do we want you to talk about it? We talk about what we care about.

What you choose to discuss with your friends and family helps them understand what is important to your community. “Talk” is the fertile field in which cultural change begins; in its absence, it’s impossible for a group of people to solve a problem.

And your words can have more of an effect than you might think.

A few months ago, I heard Marlon talking about “electrifying everything” — the idea that appliances and vehicles that run on fossil fuels ought to be replaced with their electric-powered counterparts, which have the capacity to run on low-carbon electricity.

Around the same time, a natural-gas-fueled HVAC unit died at my house. I decided to replace it with an all-electric heat pump, even though salesmen from two different HVAC companies tried to talk me out of it.

I’m not an HVAC expert, so it was unnerving to listen to sales reps steering me away from making the climate-friendly choice. But I also knew that a respected person in my professional community, Marlon, wouldn’t think getting a heat pump was weird. That helped me to muster my courage, ignore the salesmen, and insist on the heat pump. In other words, a casual conversation helped me to make a decision that will prevent the release of tens of thousands of pounds of carbon pollution during the next 10 years.

Researchers have documented similar social influences on other consumer choices. When our peers purchase hybrid vehicles or put solar panels on their roofs, we become more likely to follow suit.

So talk is powerful — but when it comes to climate change, a surprising number of people aren’t speaking up.

Obstacles to starting conversations about climate change

More Americans than ever are alarmed about climate change, but those of us who are worrying about the problem tend to do so quietly. In fact, two in three Americans say they “rarely” or “never” discuss global warming with friends and family, according to a nationally representative survey conducted in March 2021.

Why don’t more people talk about it? At least a couple of reasons: Global warming is a huge bummer, so maybe it doesn’t feel right to bring it up at mom’s birthday dinner or your best friend’s baby shower.

Many people are also concerned that bringing up the topic will trigger ridicule or even hostility from a person who denies the reality of climate change. Few people would prefer hearing an explosive, fact-free Thanksgiving Day rant from Uncle Rude when they could just enjoy their turkey and mashed potatoes in peace.

But if those of us who care about this issue aren’t willing to risk raising the subject, how do we expect things to change? The good news is, more Americans than you might think are coming around to the reality of climate change. As the chart below shows, when survey respondents are asked to guess the percentage of Americans who believe global warming is happening, they usually underestimate the true number.

The reality: 76% of American adults (93% of Democrats, 58% of Republicans, and 74% of Independents) believe that global warming is happening. That means you’re likely to find plenty of people in your community who are willing to participate in friendly conversations about the problem.

Tips for starting conversations about climate change

Getting started doesn’t have to be awkward. Think about the people in your life who are most likely to care about the problem. For this exercise, your goal is to identify other people who are concerned about global warming — not to argue with those who deny the reality of climate change. You won’t need to prepare a speech or memorize a bunch of facts about climate science.

Instead, think of the conversations as information-gathering missions, with carefully listening as your most important task. You’ll be asking your friends and family questions, probing them for advice and insights from their own experiences, something most people love talking about.

To prepare for those conversations, spend time thinking about what you would most like to learn about from those around you. Grab a piece of paper and draw lines to divide it into three columns.

In the first column, write down any actions you’ve already taken (or are in the process of taking) to conserve energy and resources, pollute less, or contribute to policy change. The items can be anything big or small: switching to LED lightbulbs, helping your kids connect with nature, contacting an elected representative about climate change, and so on.

In the second column, write down actions you haven’t taken yet but would be willing to do. Maybe you’ve been wanting to eat more plant-based meals or volunteer with an environmental group but haven’t yet changed your shopping habits or found the right group. Here’s a great list of other pro-climate actions you could consider.

Finally, use the third column to write down anything you’re not willing to do. Maybe you travel a lot for work and have no way to avoid it. That’s OK. Sometimes the system has to change before individuals can access sustainable options.

Jennifer Marlon is a consistent voter but she’s not a fan of plant-based cheese substitutes (although they’ve apparently improved quite a bit in recent years).
Sara Peach is in the process of electrifying her home but is still looking for the right affordable electric car.

Now review your columns. Congratulate yourself on any items you’ve listed in column one. Then turn to column two. The items on this list are the fodder for your conversations with your friends and family.

For example, if you’ve been wanting to add more meatless meals to your diet, you can ask your friends who are great cooks for their favorite meat-free dishes. Or if you’re voting in an election, you might ask your friends if they want to go with you and make it a social event.

In this way, you will be building a network of trusted people who you can turn to for support and answers.

As people in your network are offering advice, make sure to listen first. Eventually, you’ll likely have an opportunity to explain why you’re interested in eating less meat, voting more regularly, or the like. When the moment is right, you might find them turning back to you when they find themselves in a similar position. And engaging in these conversations will help set a norm in your social group that it’s worth doing something about the climate.

As you get more comfortable talking about climate change, you can also revisit the list in column three. Do you see anything that you’d consider moving to column two if you had support from someone else? For example, you might feel intimidated by the idea of calling an elected official to express your views on climate change. But what if your politically minded children filled you in on their experiences making those calls and offered you some tips? Would that change anything?

After you’ve taken action, talk about it. You thought your friend’s veggie taco recipe was delicious, so tell her. You and your friends voted for the mayoral candidate who supports public transit — and she actually won. Brag about it. You installed an all-electric heat pump? Show it off to everyone who visits your home. And then keep asking questions — and talking. By itself, talk won’t save the climate. But it’s a good place to start.

 — Sara and Jenn

P.S. Thanks to our colleagues at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication who participated in a brainstorm that informed this column.

Jennifer R. Marlon, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, publisher of this site and one of the organizations that led the surveys cited above.

Tom Toro is a cartoonist and writer who has published over 200 cartoons in The New Yorker since 2010.

Got a question about climate change? Send it to [email protected]. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

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