Those of us passionate about our changing planet desire to engage family, friends, co-workers, and random people in public in conversation about climate change. It gets discouraging when the conversation shuts down faster than it begins. Well, I have been trying out various strategies to help people open up about climate change. Both in researching how to talk about climate change and through trial and error, I have learned a lot in a short time. I’m thrilled to share this successful strategy with you. I have landed on a way to start a conversation about climate change that actually causes people to be curious as they ask questions and want to know more. Now that is rare and wonderful.
Here is the link on SoundCloud and I have a transcript below.
I’m not an environmentalist but I am concerned about climate change
Last September I had my coming out party. Yes, I think of the People’s Climate March as the moment when I publicly came out as someone concerned about climate change and who is committed to doing something about it. Coming out has its own challenges and pleasant surprises. The biggest challenge was the silence I suddenly faced.
As a performer, public speaker, and comic, I look closely at crowd reaction. A smile here, a chuckle there, even a furrowed brow helps me know that I am communicating something that has an effect. Not so with climate change. As I began to tell people about my new work —looking at artistic, creative, and even comic responses to climate change—I saw a look on people’s faces that I have rarely ever seen before. In fact, I did not know what to call it. It wasn’t resistance or anger, fear, confusion, and definitely not delight. The people I spoke to had an inscrutable look on their faces. Their expressions smoothed out and then went blank, drained of all emotion, even devoid of apathy. It was like I had been talking to a fully animated action figure when suddenly someone pulled the plug. Blank, dull, flat, even their eyes lost luster and focus.
I knew it was new material and wondered if I was simply not presenting it correctly. Was I too earnest? Too pushy? Too jargony? What was it?
Fortunately in reading George Marshall’s excellent book, Don’t Even Think About It—Why our Brain are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, I got some clarity. Ffter several trips to the US, Marshall, a Brit, describes the phenomenon in the Chapter 17. “I am constantly dropping the term climate change into conversations with strangers. I may talk about my own work or relate it to the weird weather or some other issue that is hogging a prime spot in their pool of worry. I am very relaxed and casual about it—after all, no one wants to find herself sitting next to a zealot on a long-distance train journey.
Really, though, it doesn’t seem to matter how I say it, because the result is almost always the same: The words collapse, sink, and die in midair, and the conversation suddenly changes course. It is like an invisible force field that you discover only when you barge right into it.
A survey found that a quarter of people have never discussed climate change with anyone at all. In real life, it seems that the most influential climate narrative of all may be the non-narrative of collective silence.”
Collective Silence. I call it climate change-induced zombie syndrome.
The good news is that there is a cure! Yep, there are ways of talking about climate change that will keep people engaged and plugged in. From what I observed so far, part of the solution is to jump ahead of the listener’s expectations. They hear climate change and immediately downloaded into their brains are messages and images of dire gloomy overwhelming guilty hopeless dread. And polar bears. That literally short circuits the brain.
On episode 24 of Climate Stew, Rev. Nancy Wilson reminded us about the HIV/AIDS Crisis in the early 1980s and the slogan, Silence=Death. She says that slogan is just as true for climate change today. So my job, your job, our job is to break through that silence, but to do so in ways that truly engage, that open people up, that invite them to be curious, and come closer to climate change. We need a society that is engaged, reading, thinking, planning and not just clicking onto the next hot Internet sensation
I think back to my days as a missionary in New York, Ecuador, and Zambia, sharing the good news. Back then I thought a lot about Jesus’ words to be wise as a serpent and gentle as a doves. If the message is important enough, the messaging needs to be carefully considered.
Some suggest that leading with hope, letting people know that there is plenty we can still do, will help keep the brain from freezing up. I have seen this in action; it doesn’t hurt, but it hasn’t been enough.
So far what has been most successful is for me is to start with something like this. “Well you know me, a (then I fill in the blank, and for me there are lots of options) Bible scholar, comic, LGBTQ rights activist, Quaker, a Christian, married man, swimmer, performance artist, cat owner, etc. I establish where I am coming from then I say something like, “It’s funny, I’m not an environmentalist, but I am concerned about climate change.” Or, “Lately I have been thinking a lot about climate change, not as an environmental issue but as a human rights issue or a faith issue or a queer issue.”
So I have an assignment for you:
How about you try this yourself. Engage in conversation with someone (in person or on-line but better in person)
First: Identify some important part of yourself: As as (parent, race car driver, fry master at McDonalds…whatever
Second: Reframe the climate conversation: say something like: I am not an environmentalist is but I am concerned about climate change. (and if you are an environmentalist try this: Sure, I’m an environmentalist, but I don’t see climate change as simply an environmental issue)
Third, Explain yourself and one aspect of climate change that moves you but one that is outside of the traditional environmentalist talking points.
Here’s an example. I had dinner recently with a friend and her parents who were visiting form California. Evangelical Christians, they have been to my house and know my husband well and they know about my work as a queer comic performance artist. After we ordered my friend turned to her parents and said, “Peterson is working on some new topics including climate change.” Before climate change-induced zombie syndrome set in, I blurted out, “Yeah, it’s funny, I’m not an environmentalist, but I am concerned about climate change as a faith issue.” My friend’s mother responded. “I’m not an environmentalist either,” she then added, “but how is climate change a faith issue?” Wait, What?!? someone not only listening but asking questions about climate change. Yummy. I told her, “Well there are so many stories in the Bible about water and wells. So much happen at wells—conflict, romance, new beginnings, despair, and hope.” She perked up, “Yes, I can see that, and you know we have had this terrible drought in California…” And we went on from there.
So try these three steps yourself:
Identify one part of yourself
express concern about climate change but NOT as an environmental issue
explain yourself through the lens of who you are.
Try this and let me know how it turns out.