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How to talk to your friends & family about the climate emergency

There is a lot of information out there about how to "re-frame climate change" in a way that is less scary for people, the idea being that folks are more likely to change their behavior if there is a positive spin on climate breakdown. I see this a bit like trying to put a positive spin on a cancer diagnosis while continuing to chain-smoke. Others err on the side of doom and gloom, effectively rolling over and navel-gazing under the dark, poorly-defined cloud of 'Climate Change'. This is like the cancer diagnosis scenario, except the patient rejects treatment, and instead delves into despair and blames the doctor for not telling them sooner.


There is a middle path, and it is clearly supported by scientific consensus: we have a very small window of opportunity to limit climate breakdown so that the future is very different, but livable. Delivery should be truthful, direct, and compassionate; like telling someone that they have cancer, but that the prognosis is fair with aggressive treatment. There are two main points that need to be communicated in any conversation about the climate emergency:


1) Our present situation is an Emergency. Not change. Not 'warming' like a cosy sweater. Emergency. The climate system has within it the potential for positive feedbacks that amplify the heating caused by human greenhouse gases (GHGs) to start, setting off a chain reaction of heating that will accelerate all of its impacts and bring us to climate breakdown. We do not know when these tipping points might be crossed within our climate system, but the science suggests that we are very very close, if not past some of them. These feedbacks are NOT included in the IPCC recommendations for CO2 reduction targets, because they are difficult to model.


2) The climate is still within our control, even if some tipping points are passed, but not forever. If we stopped emitting GHGs immediately, there is a good chance that we could preserve a climate similar to what we've experienced this past year (2021). We'd still have 'natural' disasters, some sea level rise, but we'd live, and the natural world could recover somewhat. This is because those positive, amplifying feedbacks will peter out once their fuel is cut off. New modeling has demonstrated that the climate system will stabilize in decades, not centuries, near whatever level of heating at which we stop emitting GHGs. This means that the sooner we stop, the better the chances are of the living world (including us) continuing to live. "Net-zero' by 2050 is far too late (and a disingenuous promise- more on that in another post).


So how does one approach this with friends and family? Start with imagination. Write for yourself a short paragraph of the kind of future that you want to live in- and don't focus on the absence of bad things- focus on the presence of good things. This gives people something to work towards rather than just run away from, which is not the same thing as passive 'hope' or positivity. It is the act of imagining. A few great examples of this are the short films presented by The Intercept and Naomi Klein, A Message From the Future and The Years of Repair.


The Conversation

Have your imagined future in the back of your mind, then find a quiet space and time to have the conversation so you won't be interrupted or inadvertently pull others in for a 'debate'.


1) Begin your invitation to talk with emotion, like "Hey (relative or friend), I'm really worried about the climate emergency, and I was wondering if I could talk to you about it." This is likely a true statement, and it sets the stage for open dialogue, not an argument.


2) Relay the two scientific truths above, but in a narrative way. People do not respond well to numbers, statistics, or graphs. Learn the two points above, then put them into stories in your own words. Whomever you talk to is much more likely to understand and remember those points as a narrative. Then ask, "What do you think?"


3) Listen to what the person has to say in response, and do not judge. DO NOT get into a debate or argument. The moment someone says 'yeah, but..' they are no longer listening to you and do not want to hear what you are saying. Kindly end the conversation, and move on to someone else. Come back to them later.


4) Move on to What To Do About It (WTDAI). The most important thing to do is something, and with other people. Rupert Reed, an ecological philosopher, has suggestions here. I plan to write more about WTDAI in future posts, but for now I'd advise: 1. think of what transformative change means in your life and community, 2. what privilege you have as a global-northerner, 3. what is the boldest, scariest thing you could do to galvanize social & political change, and 4. Do It, with advice/help/support from others who are already working on it. I do not mean recycling more, or buying 'green products.' Think transformative change in all aspects of society. This is when the conversation can become really interesting and exciting. Start with your imagined future, and make plans to build it with others.

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