A Guide to Talking to the Climate Change Deniers, Skeptics, Worriers, and Newbies in Your Life
When it comes to climate change, opinions are as diverse as the spread at a holiday dinner: full of spices and bursting with different flavors for everyone.
Think about your friends, family members, and coworkers. Many of us have that one skeptical aunt or uncle who questions anything that doesn’t align with their political beliefs—or worse, believes climate change is a hoax. Or maybe it’s an anxious younger cousin or child who fears the planet and their future is doomed. Then again, maybe you know a climate “newbie” who wants to learn about the climate crisis and what they can do to help.
It may seem like talking about the climate crisis is taboo, on par with topics related to sex, politics, or religion. But here’s the truth—you are the climate’s best messenger. Research by Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment shows that people are most influenced by the actions of their close friends and family. As social beings, we trust those around us and we’re more likely to adopt a new behavior if we see those we know doing it too.
So how do we approach tough climate topics?
By approaching climate change conversations through an individual’s world lens, we can help friends and family consider different perspectives. Countless research shows that facts alone don’t change minds; we need to pay attention to emotions too. We also know that as humans, we can fall victim to “confirmation bias.” We actively pay attention to information that confirms our beliefs and ignore that which contradicts us. Instead of focusing on changing people’s minds, we need to find common ground and meet people where they are.
The Climate Change Denier
If your friend or family member is a climate change denier, you won’t make progress by arguing with them. Instead, think about framing issues on their terms.
- Speak to their values: Politically, if your friend leans to the right, talk about climate change through the lens of their core values. Do they want more American businesses and jobs? The U.S. Bureau of Labor found that green energy jobs like wind technicians and solar photovoltaic installers will be the country’s fastest-growing jobs. Plus, investments within the Inflation Reduction Act will create more than 9 million jobs over the next decade. Would they love to one day live off the grid without bureaucratic restrictions? Federal investments in rural communities will ensure access to clean water, nutritional food, and solar power.
The Climate Change Skeptic
With rampant misinformation on the internet, it can be hard to decipher fact from fiction. Your climate skeptics might think climate change is a natural earth cycle. Perhaps they believe in climate change but don’t think human actions exacerbate it…or maybe they just don’t know what to believe.
Here’s the fact: 97% of scientists believe that humans are causing global warming and changes in climate. Your best approach when talking to your climate skeptic friends is to help them understand the facts from sources that they find credible.
- Make it personal: Talk about examples of climate change that you’ve seen firsthand in your communities. Maybe your state suffered from heavy flooding or severe summer droughts. Or you have a friend in California who’s had to evacuate due to deadly wildfires. Using real-life experiences and stories of familiar people can help climate change skeptics acknowledge a changing world.
- Make it trustworthy: No one wants to feel like they’re being assigned homework. To make learning more engaging, suggest likable journalists, podcasts, or social media personas they can follow. Bringing in trusted, relatable, and diverse messengers allows people to feel seen and view themselves as part of the movement.
The Climate Change Worrier
Younger generations tend to have a lot of climate anxiety and frustration with the older generations’ lack of action. It’s understandable; Millennials and Gen Z have grown up hearing about soaring temperatures, rising sea levels, and the loss of species at an alarming rate. The best advice for talking with climate-anxious friends is to help them understand that actions really do make an impact. It’s not too late…but we need everyone’s help.
- Validate their concerns: Share your feelings and let the person know their concerns are valid. Offer to be a listener so your friends can allow themselves to be comforted. If harnessed appropriately, emotions like anger, hope, and pride can constructively empower people to face the climate crisis.
- Take action together: The best way to beat climate anxiety is to take action. We can’t let fear get the best of us. Gather friends and create a climate-friendly initiative in your households or communities at large. Don’t know where to start? Rare’s BE.Center identified the six best climate-friendly behaviors with the greatest potential to reduce carbon emissions in the United States.
The Climate Change Newbie
Maybe your mom just learned about the benefits of composting for her burgeoning garden. Or your brother wants to learn how to cook a veggie meal to impress his new partner. No matter the motive, having a friend or family member with a newfound interest in learning about climate-friendly behaviors is excellent news! This group of individuals is open to advice and eager to learn, making them the best target for adopting new behaviors.
- Make it normal: Social science shows that people are more likely to engage in climate-friendly behaviors when they think a behavior is “socially normal.” More than 70% of Americans want to see more climate action. In this case, social pressure can be a good motivator to encourage climate newbies to take action.
- Make it doable: People don’t need to immediately adopt a zero-waste lifestyle to make a difference. Gradual steps like carpooling to work and cooking veggie meals a couple of times a week are a great place to start.
Want more resources to help you communicate on the topic of behavioral science? Visit Rare’s Climate Culture page to learn more ways you can encourage friends and family to take action for the climate.
Photo Credit: Nicole Michalou for Pexels.