Friday, December 23, 2011

Climate Change Talking Points for Holiday Gatherings

'Tis the season for uncomfortable conversations! 

For the last several days, Climate Literacy Network (CLN) listserv has had an engaging discussion on how to handle holiday conversations that turn to climate change. This post will draw some suggestions from that exchange and bring in additional ideas of my own.

There are a number of different ideas that follow -- hopefully readers will find a few that are useful. I don't suggest applying the full suite in one dinner conversation. I've written a fair amount, but tried to make it skimmable by highlighting key ideas.

In my own family everyone accepts the scientific consensus that climate change is real and primarily human-caused. A family of science geeks, our arguments are more likely to be about which of siblings has the greater surface-area to volume ratio, as I noted in last year's seasonal post. Last year's post describes how to use your Christmas tree in discussions of, and reflections on, carbon. This post will offer up some other discussion ideas.

I'm lucky that my family all gets along and treats each other with kindness and respect. And I consider myself lucky that we're all pretty amusing science geeks. I know that not everyone is so lucky. Civility should be your starting point. If the conversation can't stay civil, figure out how to end it or change the subject. They are family, after all. And, you won't change anyone's mind and they won't change yours if things become too heated. A bit of disagreement is par for the course, and even kind of fun for some of us, but if people start yelling, well, ick. That's not a good way to spend your family time.

Where to Begin?
Well, beyond being civil, where to begin?

Four simple points can open the door for deeper discussions. A study by Ding et al which draws from work by Kosnick et al suggests four key beliefs about climate change are predictors of support for policy grounded in climate science. Those four points can also make for good cocktail party discussion. They are that climate change is:

  1. real
  2. human caused
  3. serious, and, 
  4. solvable
Friend, climate educator, and CLN colleague, LuAnn Dahlman, has tried it out (stating these four points) at a few holiday parties and finds that people tend to pick up on one of those four points and dig deeper.

After opening the discussion with those four points, let others in the conversation point you to what's next. The rest of the post should be helpful in the follow up. If it's a dinner party conversation where you might not know the folks very well, this can help you to know your audience. If it's your family, then hopefully you already know them. Keep in mind what you know.

Avoid stating misconceptions -- even if it is to refute them. There is compelling research to indicate that just hearing misconceptions reinforces them. See The Debunking Handbook for more information on the discussion of myth or misconceptions (also referenced below).

These suggestions are not hard and fast rules, so I'm going to break the one above immediately, sort of. The atmosphere operates pretty differently from a greenhouse. While this may not be exactly a misconception, analogies always have limitations, and describing the atmosphere as being like a greenhouse is no exception. Like a greenhouse, the atmosphere allows visible light to pass through it and warm up the surface beneath or inside. Like a greenhouse, those warmed surfaces inside [the greenhouse or the atmosphere] radiate heat to the surroundings and warm the air inside. But a greenhouse warms up largely because the glass stops hot air from rising. The atmosphere doesn't have a glass ceiling and it doesn't shut down convection. When the heat is radiated from Earth's surface, the atmosphere is acting more like a heat-trapping blanket than a pane of glass, and some climate communicators prefer the heat-trapping blanket analogy. You can see it's getting complicated. Know your audience well enough to figure out if you want to slice and dice analogies. If that's too complicated, then...

State the scientific case as simply as you can. At the beginning of the year, I wrote a post laying out just two simple facts along with a tiny bit of grade school vocabulary to make the case that climate change is real and human caused. Those points hold up well and you should know them as background for any discussion on climate change. The post itself is brief, but I'll reiterate the key points even more briefly here:
  1. Know the difference between weather and climate. Weather tells you what clothes to wear today. Climate tells you what clothes you should own.
  2. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases absorb heat and make the atmosphere warm up. It's very simple to demonstrate, and the post includes a short, sweet video.
  3. Each and every "normal" middle class or wealthy American is putting tons and tons and tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Where do you think the gasoline in your car goes when you burn it?
Energy use is central to the human contribution to climate change. We need energy to make things and to move people, products and information. Almost all of our energy use comes from burning stuff which puts a lot of carbon dioxide (and other stuff) into the air. Reducing energy use not only reduces climate impact, but also saves money, reduces our dependency on foreign countries, and helps keep our air and water cleaner. Aspects of it -- like living closer to where you work and therefore shortening your commute, or telecommuting can also give you more time. 

The Joel Pett cartoon below captures this set of issues very, very well.

Let people feel safe in disagreeing with you. Evidence alone is generally not sufficient to change a tightly held belief. Most scientific issues are not just scientific issues. Scientific issues with serious implications about the nature of our economy and our society are never just scientific issues. They also are issues of identity and community. Even the bluntest evidence may not be sufficient for the most deeply committed to their beliefs. But I still favor sharing blunt evidence.

The scientific understandings of climate change have become tightly connected with politics. Perhaps that not a strong enough statement -- for some, what they believe about humanity's role in climate change is a central part of their worldview. That tight connection is problematic as it makes people believe that if they change their position on climate change, then they are also undergoing a conversion experience that separates them from their identity and their community. Seen this way, it's akin to a religious conversion. But it doesn't need to be that big a shift -- one can be of any political persuasion and accept the scientific consensus on climate change. As Kathryn Schulz notes in the excellent book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, people are not shunned by their community when they adopt a belief the community scorns, but rather when they abandon a belief the community cherishes. 

Adopting climate friendly policies means adopting policies that reduce government waste and take our troops out of harms way. These policies not only reduce our emissions but also reduce or eliminate the need to be in places that provide fossil fuels. Furthermore, resupply convoys are often military targets and the lion's share of what is being resupplied is typically fuel. See Operation Free, a coalition of veterans and national security organizations that recognize the role of climate change and energy dependency in national security.

It's worth stating that the tight connection between climate change and politics is problematic for the reason stated above, but that tight connection is also essential as politics should deal with things that matter. And, as noted above, climate change is serious.

Relevance Helps
Draw on the local and familiar. Polar bears, penguins, and glaciers matter a great deal, but most of the people I know have very limited experience with any of them. 

As a native Buffalonian, though, I find it odd that Buffalo had no measurable snow in November for only the fourth time in 140 years of record keeping. Of course, one weird month doesn't equate to climate change. Even though it's now over a month -- the lowest snow totals for a winter on record as of December 23, 2011.  However, the fact that the third snowless November on record was 2009, and one begins to wonder. 

As the husband of a long-time avid gardner, I know too that the length of the growing season has been creeping longer and longer over the last couple of decades. These kinds of changes were predicted by climate models and when predictions regularly hold up, people should give more credence to the predictors.

Stories are helpful. It's a story that I've got a brand new snowblower and have had no excuse to use it. The story may change as Lake Erie is 40° F in late December. That means lake effect snow will be possible for sometime to come. Lake effect snow has increased over the past century as a result of warmer lakes in winter.

What about the weather where you are? Or where you're from? Chances are fairly good it was a very unusual year -- 56% of the U.S. experienced an unusually dry year (top 10% historically) or unusually wet year (again, top 10% historically). That link includes a list of some cities that have broken precipitation records so far this year. Note that Binghamton didn't merely break its record -- the record was washed away in a deluge. 

Climate models predict that climate change will make wet places wetter and dry places drier. While climate science does make this sort of general prediction, how fast these changes will take place is tricky, especially on local and regional scales. 

It matters that climate pattens are changing because successful farming (and therefore a dependable food supply) is much easier when the climate is stable. It's a lot easier to do a range of business activities in a stable climate than in an unpredictable one, and climate change brings climate destabilization. And public safety is easier to protect when things are stable.

Resources for Going Further
There are many great resources for deepening understandings. Here are two that include specific attention to how to talk to climate change contrarians:
  • Earth: The Operators' Manual -- a PBS series with an accompanying website.
  • The Debunking Handbook -- this short publications offers valuable insights into how to avoid your advocacy backfiring. You may be familiar with the feeling more entrenched in your beliefs after a debate. Chances are fairly good that the person you debated also feels his or her beliefs more strongly.
What suggestions do you have? Please use the comments for sharing ideas.