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How to Talk with your Family about Contentious Environmental Issues over the Holiday Season 101

Are you dreading Thanksgiving Dinner because you’re worried about contentious political conversations? Perhaps you’re grateful that your family doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, because you didn’t want to hear about the election. Or you’re relieved that COVID-19 is preventing you from being able to travel to see family so that you don’t have to hear all about how it’s actually a government conspiracy. If you’re dreading future conversations about climate change, here’s a few tips to keep in mind if the topic of the environment comes up over the next few months.

Stay calm, and don’t show them a graph.

When anything political gets brought up – the environment or otherwise – it’s really easy to let emotions get in the way. Take a deep breath, and stay calm. While your family members might not abide by them, going in with some “ground rules” about your behavior and how you will conduct yourself may be helpful.

Do not show them a graph. As a graduate student in an ecology program, I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a graph of temperature or CO2 plastered on a screen with someone saying, “I don’t understand what people don’t understand about this.” If they don’t already agree with climate science, looking at the graph you have to show them won’t change anything. Graphs are really useful when teaching people about climate change. However, your role at a family dinner is not that of a teacher. At a family dinner, you aren’t giving a lecture to students; you are merely a member of the discussion.

Graph displaying temperature rising over time
Increasing temperature over time (NASA)
Graph showing increasing CO2 over time
Increasing CO2 over time (NASA).

Instead, ask your family and friends questions. Listen closely to their answers to understand where they’re coming from. Listen to understand and not just to respond. When you do respond, respond thoughtfully rather than reacting emotionally.

  • Can you tell me more about your views of climate science and what makes you skeptical towards it?
  • What beliefs do you have about climate science?
  • Who do you trust regarding views on climate science?
  • How can climate scientists work to gain your trust?
  • What do you have to lose if climate science progresses?
  • If policies change to support climate science, how will you be impacted?
  • If society changes to support climate science, how will you be impacted?
  • What, if anything, might alleviate potential negative impacts?

 

Frame the conversation around what they care about.

Asking questions like these can help you better understand what other people at the table care about. While the subscribers to this blog likely value the environment and science highly, it is important to realize that these values are not universal. Not everyone inherently cares about the environment, and not everyone inherently cares about science. Not only do some people not care about them, but many people don’t trust scientists – especially those who study the environment – to make policy decisions that will benefit them. This is why your graph that was created by scientists won’t help and why you need to listen to their perspective to understand what they care about.

When you understand what someone else cares about, you can explain how environmental issues might impact them. For example, most major world religions have sacred texts or beliefs that the environment should be protected. However, religion can also be related to people’s opposition to environmentalism. For instance, while some Evangelical Christians have been found to be skeptical of climate science, environmental values can be framed from an Evangelical Christian perspective. They may also be concerned about the impacts of climate change policies on the economy. Try framing the conversation around the different types of jobs that will become available in various regions of the country. There is some evidence that pointing to the economic growth that would result from climate policies positively impacts climate deniers’ perceptions of climate change. They could also be concerned about the cost of green infrastructure. Dr. Scott Denning, a professor of Atmospheric Sciences at Colorado State University gives great talks about climate change being simple, serious, and solvable in which he discusses the accessibility of infrastructural change[1].

You might know of hobbies or personal interests of theirs that are threatened by climate change. If they have a favorite coastal vacation spot or dream travel destination, you can talk about how rising sea level might cause that to disappear. If your family member is an avid gardener, you could talk about the challenges that climate change will cause for gardeners and point them to strategies that are mutually beneficial for gardens and the globe. Perhaps they are hunters or anglers. You could discuss the threats that climate change poses on iconic hunted and fished species, that will affect both their own hunting and fishing and their ability to pass those traditions on to future generations. Do you know a climate denier who’s a history buff? Try chatting about the impacts of climate change on UNESCO World Heritage sites or the fact that mummies are degrading faster due to changes in climate. These suggestions are not an exhaustive list but are meant to give you ideas about how to frame your conversations.

When using these different frames, use language that suggests that you understand and value where they’re coming from. Try to avoid becoming defensive, because this will also put them on the defensive and hinder productive conversation. For example, “I understand that this place, species, hobby, etc. is important to you. I get that scientists need to do more to gain your trust, but their research shows that this place, species, hobby, etc. will be impacted by climate change.” Open up space for reflection on this reality.

  • How do you feel about that?
  • Do you have any thoughts on that?
  • How would your life change without this place, species, hobby, etc.?

 

Accept that you probably won’t change their mind and almost certainly not their behaviors.

The information deficit model of communication suggests that if we just give people enough information, they’ll not only change their minds about science, but also their behaviors towards those supported by science. Research has been shown the deficit model to be wrong time and time again. People’s minds are hard to change. We are less likely to honestly reflect on ideas that diverge from our own and more likely to become more entrenched in our own opinions when we feel attacked. This is why it is important to stay calm while having conversations on topics of disagreement.

People’s behaviors are harder to change. Our behaviors are rooted in what we value, the norms of the social groups to which we belong, and our particular environmental context. Even if we connect environmental issues to people’s values, and if we get them to consider changing their minds, people are still affected by what they perceive others in their social groups expect of them. The expectations of others in our community have a stronger influence on our behaviors than any information that can be provided. Furthermore, the context in which some people live physically makes it more difficult for people to engage in certain behaviors. If you live far from your job in a place with limited bus services, it’s going to be hard to cut down on driving regardless of your environmental values. Thus, if we’re going to engage in these contentious conversations, we need to be ok with the lack of agreement that will result.

Recognize the value in conversation.

Science communicators are calling for more dialog between scientists and the public as a means of addressing the limitations of the deficit model of communication. These conversations can start with you and your family. Whether you are a scientist or not, when you engage in respectful conversations about the environment, you build trust and invest in relationships. Try making this progress explicit. For example, “I’m glad we were able to have this conversation; I feel like I really understand where you’re coming from.” You don’t have to agree with their opinions about the environment to understand what might cause them to have those opinions. Showing someone that scientists or people who support science can be reasonable and won’t automatically disregard their point of view is a tangible step towards bridging political divide over the environment.

[1] While the whole talk is great, the part on green infrastructure starts at minute 46:15.

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