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How to fight climate change in your close relationships » Yale Climate Connections

One of the most important things you can do to fight climate change is to talk about it. Your editors sat down with Laura Thomas-Walters, research specialist and deputy director of experimental research at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, to get her expertise on how best to have these essential conversations.

This roundtable discussion has been edited and condensed.

Sam: I thought it might be funny to start by sharing a memorable conversation we’ve each had about climate change.

Laura: I have one. I work from home, and I had to have a plumber round to fix something in the bathroom down the hall. And it was a big dude with a female apprentice. I could hear him talking about how climate change is a hoax and how there’s no real evidence that it exists. And I was just like, “This is happening in my house.” So from the sofa, I just said to him, “I don’t mean to interrupt you or anything, but I’m a climate scientist and I promise you that it is real. There is lots of evidence.” He just went deathly silent, and then his female apprentice just started laughing and saying, “She told you.”

Sam: It can be hard to have the bravery to be like actually, “I need to stop this line of reasoning in its tracks.”

Laura: It was in my house! I can’t let this go unchallenged in my own home! Then I left it there, but I could hear the female apprentice arguing with him or trying to persuade him when she hadn’t before. So I think I gave her permission to speak up, which is great and left me out of it.

Sara: That’s so awesome, because oftentimes, if it’s somebody who believes wholeheartedly that it’s a hoax, I’m not really interested in talking with that person. I’m interested in the bystanders. And so the apprentice was the bystander in that situation.

Laura: Completely agree.

Pearl: Do any of you ever have that awkward two-second pause right after you tell someone what you do for a living where you are gauging how they will respond?

Laura: Mmm, yeah.

Sam: Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever had someone react they’re like a denier. But definitely, some people feel like they need to apologize to me or like, they’re like, “Oh, that must be really hard.” So that’s sometimes awkward.

Laura: I usually get good responses. People are usually quite interested. Or they might then just be like, “Oh, well, you know, what’s the point of doing anything here when it’s the Chinese that are doing everything bad,” and then you have to get into that sort of thing. But people don’t usually argue about climate change itself. Except I did go to the doctor last year and he asked what I did and then the educated medical doctor started talking about how there’s no real evidence of climate change. I was just like, “That’s like me saying there’s no real evidence about cancer.”

Sara: Laura, I also got into an argument with a doctor. It was actually a friend of mine, so I wasn’t seeing him in a medical environment. I said something about climate change, and he was like, “What climate change?” And I had a similar strategy to you. I said, well, the evidence is as strong for climate change as the evidence that smoking causes lung cancer. And I think maybe because we were already friends, I could see the impact of that landing.

Laura: It’s so disappointing coming from a trained medical professional when there are strong links between climate change and health impacts. You just really expect better.

Sam: An eye doctor once asked, “So what do you do?” I told him and he said, “Oh, that’s awesome. I have solar panels.” There are some of them out there that are doing good.

Sara: I’ve also talked to my eye doctor about climate change!

Laura: I’ve been consciously making more of an effort to just talk to random people about climate change. The thing I was working on before I joined Yale was relational organizing. It’s all about how to get people who are already vegetarians or installing solar panels to talk to their friends and family about doing the same things because they are the best influences. I was like, “I need to put my money where my mouth is.” I chat about climate change to the groceries delivery driver, or to the hairdresser. I usually have really good conversations, like almost everyone is on board with “climate change exists.” But it’s usually like, “Well, what can we do about it? It’s the government’s responsibility, and we can’t change the government.”

Sam: Yeah, I like having go-to things that I can tell people to do. If anybody around my city is like, “What should I do about climate change?” I’m like, “Well, you could take your food scraps to the farmers market with me.” But also, I would really like an e-bike rebate program. So maybe if enough of us email the city, we’ll get one.

But I have started more and more to draw a line of I can’t be people’s climate therapist. I have acquaintances who want to talk about how terrible they feel about all of this and how they think we’re all doomed. And I sort of just had to be like, “Actually, you need to find somebody else to talk about this with. If you want to talk about things you can do, I’m here for it. You want to talk about where the science is, I got you, but I actually cannot take any more climate emotions into my body at this moment.” 

Sara: Laura, do you have any tips or advice for talking with people who are really worried about climate change or think it’s a huge bummer? Because in my experience, that’s a much more common response than the flat-out denial.

Laura: So obviously, like Sam’s idea, self-efficacy is super important, you know, giving people options for what to do. I think there is a really common habit of falling into individual consumer mindsets: “What you need to do is buy the right thing or not to buy the wrong thing.” And that’s quite isolating. And it’s not always possible for everyone, and I think it can be disempowering, as well. 

So I think focusing on social and collective power is important. It’s really empowering to go to a protest or meeting or be surrounded by people who are worried. Especially if you start chanting, there’s music, you just feel really connected to other people and feel like the world’s gonna be all right. If the world is filled with people like this, then there is hope. We can make change, and we can do it together. And I think then being able to focus on that instead of just worry is really, really helpful.

I like to think of relational organizing, or talking to others, as your climate superpower. If I went vegan, I’d save X amount of animals, or X amount of trees from being deforested, or X amount of carbon. But if I persuaded five friends of mine to all stop eating red meat, I’ve multiplied my impact by five, and if they then go and talk to their friends or family, it’s exponential. That is how new attitudes and behaviors spread through social networks. Focusing on your relationships with other people and promoting these good attitudes and behaviors is so much more powerful than just thinking about you as an individual.

Sam: Yeah, like Sara, you mentioned when you were talking to the doctor, you guys had already established a good rapport. There was trust between you. So that message was received better than someone you’re maybe just meeting for the first time.

Sara: Absolutely.

Laura: The advantage of it is we know our friends or family, we know what appeals to them. So we know what sort of messages or values to talk about. You know, I wanted to try and persuade my mom to stop eating red meat. I knew the way to do that with my mum was to tug on the heartstrings like, “Don’t you care about my future? What about my nieces? Don’t you want them to grow up into a nice world? Think about what you’re doing to us.” Whereas for my in-laws, that approach wouldn’t work. But talking more about health impacts and being healthy into older age, I know that’s a message that works better for them.

Pearl: Did it work? 

Laura: Yeah, well the intention’s there. She does slip up. Then I tell her off. She’s like, “I’m so sorry!” *everyone laughs*

Sam: Even if it’s not 100% effective, you’ve still made an impact.

Pearl: She could be a flexitarian

Sara: I’d be curious to hear how each of you gets these conversations started. 

Pearl: I slip it into everything. My husband hates me. *everyone laughs*

Sara: Oftentimes, I think the guides online for talking about climate change are framed around sitting someone down for a talk. That feels so unnatural to me. I have no desire to do that, and yet I do talk about climate change all the time.

Laura: I’m British, so it’s the weather. It’s just always the weather. Every conversation in Britain will start with the weather. And whatever the weather is like, you can connect it to climate change. Right now, it’s pouring rain and like, “Oh, yeah, climate change, isn’t it?” Last weekend it was really hot, hotter than average, so it’s like, “Yeah, climate change, isn’t it?” 

Pearl: A big one for me is appliances and in particular, electric stoves. Even my best friend down in Florida was like, “Oh, I know that gas stoves are better.” And I’m like, “No, no, no. Let me tell you about that and what the gas and oil industry has made you believe for decades.”

Laura: We just moved and we’ve got an electric stove now, but I didn’t realize it, so I put it on to bake something for the first time, and I had to call my wife because I was just sticking the fire light in all the corners going, “Nothing’s catching on fire.” *everyone laughs.*

She goes, “It’s an electric stove, Laura.”

Sara: But doesn’t that speak to how deranged it is?  The way we’ve set up our appliances that you have to —

Sara and Pearl simultaneously: Set it on fire? 

Sam: Yeah.

People in the Upper Midwest also love to talk about the weather. I think it’s sort of related to the origins in farming culture. My friend married a dairy farmer, and I don’t know if we’ve ever explicitly said the words “climate change” to each other. But he’s like, “Yeah, it’s been like a really wet spring, I haven’t been able to plant.” People are seeing the changes.

Pearl: It’s funny because we always have used weather as something that is not divisive. 

Sam: Small talk

Pearl: Small talk, right, but now when we talk about weather, we have a purpose behind it. 

Laura: There’s a good argument to be made that there might even be more value from the casual connections and the casual chitchat about climate change than there is from having a deep heart-to-heart, because you can just do so many more. Having a heart-to-heart about climate change is quite a big, emotional, heavy thing to do. Whereas just a five-minute conversation about stuff about climate — it is much more doable. Everyone thinks that other people don’t support climate action or government action as much as they do. So if we all just had these casual conversations and started waking up to realize everyone else is really concerned, “Why aren’t they doing more about it?”

Pearl: It’s also really affirming when you do have these conversations. You’re like, “Oh, I’m not as alone as I thought I was. I’m not the only person that’s worried about XYZ.”

Sara: I find the easiest way to talk about it is to do something about climate change and then talk about it. Everybody in my life knows that I got a heat pump. And two other people already have gotten a heat pump because I was talking about it.

Laura: Relational organizing in action.

Sam: I think one place that my climate anxiety manifests is in worrying about the future health of my friends and family. I’m like, “Mom, do you have an air purifier?” “Friend, are you paying attention to how your medicines interact with the heat?” I try and model, “OK, these are the plans that I have for how to stay safe in heat waves and smoky air,” and talking about that. Making sure that other people also have plans. Just like trying to be like, “Are you keeping yourself safe? And are you aware that the ways that maybe you’ve prepared in the past aren’t good enough anymore?” Things have changed, and I’m trying to make sure that people are aware of that.

Laura: That’s a really good point. Literally, an hour ago, my mum called me and asked me to talk to my nana because my nana just got heat stroke over the weekend when it was much hotter than average. She’s in her 70s trying to mow her lawn in the heat and got really ill. So my mom’s like, “Can you ring and talk to her about how this isn’t safe, and she needs to not do this now?” 

Sam: I do think that most people that I talk to understand that climate change is a risk and understand to some degree that it’s happening. But I still think that there’s sometimes there’s a lag. I’m like, “Are you aware of what’s really possible?” I live in a floody area — I live on an isthmus between two lakes. And I asked my friends if they were worried about flooding, and four out of five said no. I was like, “What?” This makes me very nervous.

Well, we’re already five minutes over. Do you have last thoughts?

Laura: I just want to reiterate that I think the No. 1 thing anyone can do is to try and build their social and collective power. Meet like-minded groups of people to both be able to vent to but also to empower each other, share solutions, work together. It’s the thing: An elephant’s not scared of a mouse, but he’s scared of 1,000 mice. That’s how we make change. That’s how change happens. 

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