Picture this. You’re sitting at the family dinner table and the conversation turns to climate change. A family member, let’s call them “Great Uncle Bob”, starts to weigh in on global warming. You clutch your fork, trying not to bang your fists on the table or throw something.

We get it. Talking about the climate crisis can feel like a fossil fuel-filled minefield. It’s one of the most polarising issues in the world.

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, who, according to the New York Times is one of the United States’ “most effective communicators on climate change”, is committed to changing the way we think about this urgent issue. 

An atmospheric scientist who blends knowledge of the environment with the art of communication, she believes having those conversations — particularly with people who don’t agree with you on everything — is the most important thing you can do to fight climate change. 

Perhaps you’re thinking “the time for talking is over”. But consider this: no action ever began without communication laying the foundation. Hayhoe explains: “How do we develop policies? By talking. How does a company decide to go green? By talking. How does the church decide to divest from fossil fuels? Someone begins the conversation. Talking catalyses action.”  

But if you’re still dreading being the person that brings climate change up amongst your friend group *again*, you needn’t be. When discussing contentious issues such as global warming and the climate emergency, Hayhoe says, “we often tend to lead with our heads. That can lead to heated arguments, pitting one set of facts and opinions against another’s.” 

Over the past 15 years Hayhoe has found that the most effective way to talk about climate change is not simply to focus on the facts, but on shared values and common ground. “To truly change minds, we need to do the opposite: start with our hearts,” she says. “What are we passionate about? How does climate change affect them?” 

@glblctzn When you’re having a personal crisis about the #climatecrisis, you know who to call! #tiptok#ecotok♬ original sound - Global Citizen

With that in mind, Hayhoe has developed a simple recipe based on conversational science to make climate chinwags feel more conversational, less confrontational. 

This is her three-step process, as outlined in her new book Saving Us:

1. Bond: Begin with something that you have in common.

Good conversations usually begin with two people agreeing on something.

Dr. Hayhoe explains: “When we begin a conversation with something we agree on, rather than something we disagree on, we are establishing mutual respect and appreciation. ‘You’re a good person,’ we’re implicitly communicating."

On the other hand, she notes, “a conversation that begins with disagreeing with someone or judging them communicates that ‘you’re a bad person’ and ‘you care about the wrong things.’”

So find an interest that you both already share. Maybe that’s being a student, living in the city, loving rugby, painting, dancing, or football. 

Let’s use the “living in the city” example. Say you both love living in the city: the access to culture, meeting new people, walkability, better job opportunities… Right here, you’re establishing rapport with the person. 

2. Connect: Connect the dots to how climate change affects it. 

Whether you’re a parent or a person of faith, a beach-goer or a sports fan, a foodie or a travel junkie, climate change affects someone or something you care about. Have a read of our explainer to see how climate change is already affecting your life.

The next step is to explain how that thing you bonded over is being affected.

Let’s return to the city. Although cities currently generate three-quarters of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, they are also incredibly vulnerable to climate change. High temperatures, sea level rise, and extreme weather are all felt more intensely. Ask the person you’re having the conversation with if they’ve noticed severe weather affecting their city (because who hasn’t at this point?). 

If they have, then they’ve already experienced climate change first-hand rather than it being something abstract that’s only happening to polar bears in the Arctic. Hayhoe explains: “When we can connect climate change to something we’ve lived through and seen for ourselves, it immediately becomes much more personal and relevant.”

3. Inspire: Finish on an inspiring note.

The sheer scale of the climate challenge can leave many of us feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Hayhoe advises you should always try to bring up a positive, constructive solution at the end of your conversation. 

What positive action is taking place in cities? Loads. One idea being discussed is the “15-minute city”, an urban planning model developed by French-Colombian scientist Carlos Moreno. The concept is simple: if citizens live within a 15-minute radius by foot, bike, or public transport of everything they need — schools, doctors, parks, supermarkets, and their offices — then they’re less likely to rely on travelling by car. It’s already being trialled to great effect in Paris

Over in Chicago, lush rooftop gardens — that have been shown to lower roof temperatures by up to 5°C — are sprouting up all over the city.

There you have it, inspiring, right?

@glblctzn When you’re having a personal crisis about the #climatecrisis, you know who to call! #tiptok#ecotok♬ original sound - Global Citizen

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is a Canadian atmospheric scientist and professor of political science at Texas Tech University. She is also the Nature Conservancy's Chief Scientist. Her latest book Saving Us: A Climate Scientist's Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World was published in September 2021.

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By Tess Lowery