Get The Message: How To Effectively Talk Climate Change

How to win friends and influence the environment.

A problem as big as climate change needs large scale action at the grassroots level as well as from governments. The easiest thing to change is your own behaviour, making more sustainable lifestyle choices and getting engaged in other ways. But is there any way we can extend this process, to consciously influence others around us? And how can we do this without coming across as sanctimonious? There has been a great deal of psychological research into how people can be persuaded to adopt more sustainable behaviour, and the experts still haven't completely got it figured out. But there are a few general pointers that we can apply in our own lives.

  • (1) Know the facts. You will feel more confident talking about issues if you understand them. Furthermore, many people that you meet are probably poorly informed, but might be open to changing their behaviour if they had more information. Make a point of reading about the current issues and talking about sustainability issues that you might have read about or seen on the news – especially things that people can relate to personally ("I've just been reading about plastic microbeads used in beauty products. Have you heard about this?").
  • (2) The power of peer pressure. Various studies show that once a critical mass within a population changes their behaviour, others will follow. People subconsciously want to conform to social norms. One study showed that when people were given different messages aimed to encourage energy efficiency in their homes, the message that was most effective at creating behavioural change was to tell people that most of their neighbours made efforts to conserve power. This message had more impact than telling people that they could be socially responsible citizens by using less power, or telling them that they could save their earth's resources by using less power, or even pointing out that they could save money by reducing power consumption! This knowledge is pretty easy to apply in our everyday lives: we can do our part to normalise sustainable behaviour within our communities simply by living sustainably! Bonus points if you manage to bring it into conversation occasionally – if the guy at the checkout comments on your reusable produce bag, say something about it: "I'm trying to reduce my waste". Double bonus points if you happen to casually mention that most of your friends do the same thing!

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  • (3) Present the positives. Describing frightening scenarios may work to draw people's attention to the problem of climate change, but fear isn't usually a good motivator for personal engagement. Instead, focus on the positives – how an individual can feel empowered and all the good things that might come from lifestyle and social changes. One study found that although images of large-scale consequences and catastrophes such as storms, floods and starving children made climate change seem very important, these images also made people feel disempowered and less likely to engage. On the other hand, positive images and smaller-scale concepts, such as a cyclist, low energy light bulbs and solar panels, made people feel more empowered and thus more likely to act.

  • (4) Make it personal. Most people can't really relate to thawing glaciers, the plight of the polar bears, or even the situation for other people that will become homeless in low-lying countries, nor can people relate to terrible things that might happen in the distant future. But people can relate to personal and local issues, such as the potential impacts of climate change on health and how one's local community might be affected – especially if they understand that these impacts will be felt within our society and within the lifetime of our children. Messages about health and about local impacts tend to be more effective than other types of message in engaging people both in acting to mitigate and to pressure local officials to act on climate change. So, if you're going to talk about the scary stuff, keep it local and personal, and make sure you also talk about what we as individuals can do about it.

Experts agree that climate change is an incredibly difficult topic to communicate about effectively, and unfortunately it is still a divisive and political topic. But, as Arnold Schwarzenegger articulated, if you put politics aside you'll find that at the core most people will agree about the key issues, namely that renewable energy sources are the way of the future and air pollution is not a good thing. And interestingly, a recent study found that those of us that accept that humans are contributing to climate change do not necessarily live greener lifestyles (minimising energy use, using public transport) than the sceptics. So perhaps, when it comes to the things that really matter, we are all similar. Most people, regardless of age, sex, race or politics, would agree about the importance of health, clean and affordable energy, less pollution, less traffic congestion, strong and resilient local communities, and a bright future for our children. At times the best way of communicating about climate change may be to not talk about climate change at all, but instead to identify common core values – the things that matter to all of us as humans, and the little things that we as individuals can do to help to move society in that direction.

Banner image: Shutterstock

Eve White lives in southern Tasmania. She is a full-time mum and part-time freelance editor with a professional background in ecology.

Read part 1 of our climate activism series: How to be a climate activist: Getting started

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