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March Action of the Month: How to navigate awkward conversations on climate change

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We all know someone who knows someone who isn’t too concerned about the environment.

Every day, we encounter people who don’t realize the extent of the climate crisis we’re facing. It’s especially hard when it’s your father, mother, child, uncle, grandmother, friend or colleague who thinks that they’re doing their part to save the planet by merely recycling. Or worse still, when they say that producing less waste demands too much personal sacrifice (time, money, habits, comfort) to do their share.

Here is some advice on how to make the most of your daily exchanges on environmental issues with the people around you, even the most uninformed or the most climate sceptic.

Inspire others through your own actions

First of all, the fact that you’re concerned about the climate crisis and are taking positive steps for the environment, you’re already making a huge impact on those around you. The choices you make on a daily basis, like choosing to buy used items, opting for local produce, or wrapping your gifts with “cute” newspaper are noticed by the people around you. It gets them thinking, asking questions, discussing and maybe it maybe even inspires them to try something new!

Don’t criticize or make people feel guilty

You won’t get anyone to change their behaviour by pointing fingers, making them feel guilty or making grandiose speeches to elicit fear or sadness. According to Dr. Anne-Sophie Gousse-Lessard, a researcher in social and environmental psychology, [TRANSLATION] “all that does is generate a sense of resignation. And it leads people into denial about the problems.”

Let’s consider, for example, a vegetarian perspective. Criticizing someone for eating meat is unlikely to get them to reduce their meat intake. But if you share your favourite vegetarian recipes or cooking blogs with them, or whip them up some tasty, inexpensive vegetable protein-based meals that have a small environmental footprint, you’re more likely to get people to modify their diet.

Raise awareness without offending or antagonizing

When the environment comes up in conversation, it generally very quickly becomes clear that not everyone is on the same page, and often some people are at different ends of the spectrum. Sometimes you can offend someone simply by pointing out an action that is not environmentally-friendly, especially if they perceive it as a criticism. Do you feel that your parents are especially susceptible to that? The reality however, according to a study published in May 2019 in the science magazine Nature Climate Change, climate sceptic parents are actually more likely to consider the arguments made by their children because they don’t see them as ideological adversaries. Good to know!

Gradually raising awareness while stressing listening, empathy and understanding is a good way of avoiding confrontation. Here are some tips (2):

  • Explore. Ask people what climate change means to them personally: “What influence do you think it will have on your life?/on your generation?/on your family?/on your work?
  • Be curious. Try to learn what it was that opened the person’s eyes to climate issues: “So when did you realize all that?”
  • Recognize that there are valid reasons to be worried: “I understand why you’re worried.”
  • Listen and encourage discussion: “You seem to be upset by all this.”
  • Admit that strong emotions are justified: “It’s normal to be worried.”
  • Show empathy. Help the person put their anxiety into words and be accepting of their tears, sadness or anger: “I want to understand your point of view./You seem really upset./You have every reason to be sad.”
  • Share. If you had a similar experience, share it: “I also had trouble coming to terms with all that.” But if you didn’t, be honest and admit that it is totally normal: “The more I listen to you the more I realize that there may be things I’ve turned a blind eye to.”

  • Encourage people to take action. Help those around you reflect on what they can do at the political, community, professional and personal level: “Once you begin to act, it often makes you feel better./Working with others can make you feel like you’re making a difference and are more in control of the situation.”
  • Don’t give in to despair and apocalyptic viewpoints: “We don’t really know what’s going to happen./The best thing we can do is take action./Even the simplest act will help prevent the situation from getting worse.”
  • Don’t try to give people a false sense of security or curtail the conversation.
  • Remain friendly, understanding and empathetic.

Explain how gratifying it is to be a part of the solution

Stress how rewarding it is to feel that you’re doing your part, and how when a single act is taken up by an entire community, it can make people feel more empowered about addressing global environmental issues. For example, talk about how much fun it is to bike around town - not only is this good for the planet, but is also good for your health and leaves more money in your pocket. That way you can show how your action can generate benefits in people’s day-to-day lives.

Be well informed and aware of the impact of your own actions

Finally, to speak in a credible way, it’s helpful to know the environmental footprint of your own actions. There are a number of tools to measure your environmental footprint, including Quebec platforms listed here, or this one: https://www.footprintcalculator.org/.

Remember, to properly present or defend a point of view, it’s best to be well informed and consult reliable sources (beware of fake news and stories you see on social media). And for a greater impact, use figures, evidence, hard facts and examples.

There are a number of dynamic environmental organizations in Quebec who specialize in various fields and have treasure troves of information on their websites: Équiterre, the David Suzuki Foundation, Greenpeace.

(2) Examples cited by therapist Rosemary Randall for the Carbon Conversations Project, taken from the article Comment parler du changement climatique avec sa famille, published on the EcoSia.org blog on December 20, 2019