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Climate change: The importance of making it personal

REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
Currently, climate change is not a “normal” topic to bring up in conversation.

As it turns out, conversations about climate change aren’t about how well you can talk, but rather how well you can listen. In order to have a rich dialogue about this issue, we need to be willing to learn from each other. This is especially important when trying to connect with someone who may have a different viewpoint than yours; aligning our values helps us break down barriers and find common ground.

Megan Van Loh

For a long time, society has talked about and reported on climate change from mostly a scientific perspective. Yet personal stories are the best way to connect such a broad issue to people’s lives. It’s actually when we balance the stories with the science that we can place the facts and figures into context. Stories are how we make sense of the world around us. They help us remember things, and when told from a personal perspective, they also have the ability to inspire an emotional connection.

These aspects of listening to and sharing personal stories were the focus of Climate Generation’s Talk Climate Institute, where more than 65 people came together for two days to learn and practice how to talk about climate change. Climate Generation is a local nonprofit empowering individuals and their communities to engage in climate change solutions. No matter the experience level, every attendee was considered an expert on this issue with something to contribute from their different background, history, and perspective.

Jothsna Harris

Currently, climate change is not a “normal” topic to bring up in conversation. Research shows that most people are concerned about climate change and would actually like to talk about it more often, but they think no one else does. This is known as pluralistic ignorance. We need to shift the tide and start talking about climate change in our personal and professional circles in order to bring it into mainstream conversations. Then, it’ll be easier to make the case that the necessity for action can’t be ignored.

In order to feel confident talking about climate change, it’s important to have a basic understanding of the science. Climate change cause and impacts provide a foundation to start from and the confidence that science supports you. Additionally, our behaviors stem from our unique worldview, identity, and value systems, which are important elements to factor in when trying to engage in conversation. Knowing your audience and tailoring your message is essential. According to Yale's Six Americas study, there are six unique camps of how Americans think about climate change. Their defined "Moveable Middle” group, those who are cautious and concerned about climate change, will be the most receptive to your efforts.

Steps to having a conversation about climate change:

1. Ask permission to talk to someone
2. Ask an open-ended question about the other person’s thoughts on climate change
3. Listen — do not interrupt
4. Repeat back to them what you heard vs. responding with your thoughts
5. Share your personal connection to the issue and your experience
6. Share a fact that helps ground your story
7. Ask: Would you like to know more?
8. Conclude the conversation; thank them for talking
9. Ask them to join you in a specific action

At the core of Climate Generation’s work is the power of personal narrative. We were founded on the eyewitness account of Will Steger and his expeditions in the polar regions, where he saw firsthand the effects of climate change. We are now all eyewitnesses and all have a story to tell. Climate stories can include experiences of pivotal moments, impacts and loss, solutions and hope; they can speak to the range of emotions and experiences that surround climate change. Through the vulnerability of finding and sharing our stories, an intimate connection with one another becomes more likely; it brings in the humanity of the issue, it can spur empathy and trust, and perhaps even reveal pathways to healing. At the end of the day most of us just want to be heard and understood, for our fears to be acknowledged, and to be reaffirmed that our voices matter.

We invite you to think of what you care about and value in your own lives and how climate change is affecting it. From those stories, we can discover that we are connected to the natural world and to each other. As a Talk Climate attendee said, “This event really got my brain churning around this idea of adding a story element to climate communication. I've known for a while that that's important, but I didn't realize how important it was to make the story *personal*. Thanks for making these conversations happen.”

What is your climate story? Whom can you invite to a conversation?

Megan Van Loh, of Minneapolis, is the senior programs coordinator at Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy. Jothsna Harris is the public engagement manager at Climate Generation; she has helped to create a neutral balance in bringing the issue of climate change to communities across Minnesota.

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Comments (4)

A historial perspective on "climate change"

A historical perspective regarding “climate change” and “global warming”

For certain, society has talked about climate change a long time. A front-page Minneapolis Star article July 10, 1947 told readers, “Old Earth Is Warming Up.” The story advised ice in Iceland is shrinking because of global warming.

Revealingly, a May 7, 1974 story in the Des Moines Tribune, another afternoon newspaper in the then Cowles publishing empire, told readers, “Climate Rules You - And It’s Cooling Off.” The first paragraph told readers the world is getting colder. The second mentioned how Iceland fishing was being hampered by drifting ice.

One of my most vivid 1974 memories is ranting in my living room about my bad luck for still being alive as we were heading into an “Ice Age.” A quarter-of-a-century later, in 2003, scientists were telling me I had to start worrying about “global warming.”

Clearly, the answer is to hold on until 2028 when the same types of people, if not the same folks, will be advising me to start worrying about the coming “Ice Age.”

Pure nonsense

This is not a historical perspective on climate change. This is a reference to a couple of anecdotal newspaper articles. An actual historical perspective on climate change would show that over time, the evidence that man is changing the climate and the earth is warming has become stronger and stonger.

Sadly, the state of scientific illiteracy is such that many people are unable discern between overwhelming scientific evidence and “some guy said something way back when.”

How appropriate

... that the first comment would be one of the now-standard denial scripts.

A New Approach

Do people really conduct a conversation using a 9-point plan?

Over the years, climate has been a lively topic of discussion on the MinnPost Comments. Search “climate change” on MinnPost and take a look at the discussions from 2009. There are many claims of consensus and settled science. Anyone voicing skepticism was ridiculed, talked down to, and labeled a denier. Commenters were emboldened by the rhetoric of such climate bullies as Al Gore, Robert Kennedy Jr., and Bill Nye, none of whom are credentialed Scientists.

I am going to jump in to the conversation at #5, “5. Share your personal connection to the issue and your experience.” I could speak about what fraction of one degree the Earth’s average temperature has increased during my lifetime. But, to be honest, I have not actually noticed. My experience on this morning of April 20: I scraped heavy frost from my windshield. I did grill a steak last night, but I had to shovel heavy snow to get to the grill. If I hope to have success when fishing opens in Wisconsin in two weeks, I will need an ice auger. That is my contribution to the conversation.