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4 Tips for Conversations that Motivate Climate Action

Talking about climate change can help inspire change. Dr. Katharine Hayhoe offers 4 tips for conversations that motivate action.

I recently attended a talk by Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, atmospheric scientist and Chief Scientist for The Nature Conservancy. She was addressing 350 interdisciplinary professionals being re-trained at Terra.do to work on climate issues.

(If you ever get the chance to hear Katharine speak, take it. She radiates genuine hope that will jolt you out of any climate despair!)

This article summarizes Dr. Hayhoe’s message about how the small act of talking about climate change can sow seeds of change.

“Let me be blunt,” said Dr. Katharine Hayhoe. “Where we stand [with climate change] is bad.”

She was referring to the fact that more extreme weather events, including droughts, wildfires, storms and floods, are on the rise everywhere. The United States, for example, used to experience billion-dollar weather disasters once every four months. Now, these disasters happen every 2.8 weeks.

(Wondering how warmer weather leads to weather disasters? Check out NBS’ article What is Climate Change?)

Hayhoe has worked on climate change for decades. She trained as an atmospheric scientist, but increasingly, her efforts focus on communication. She believes that our conversations about climate change may be the way we have greatest impact.

She also points out that most people have two big problems in their climate conversations.

First, most people simply don’t talk about climate change in their daily lives. Second, those of us who do talk about climate change usually do it wrong. We beat people over the head with facts and doom. (We become ‘that guy’ at the party. You know… the one no one wants to talk to.)

But the truth is, globally, 80% of people already feel some level of concern over climate change. They don’t need to hear more about melting ice caps and dying polar bears. According to Hayhoe, providing them with a few strategic pieces of information can help them convert their concern into action.

Knowing about Climate Change Isn’t Enough

Most people know climate change is happening. But those actively trying to address it are fewer. For example, 49% of production sites in corporate supply chains are experiencing great climate variability. Yet, a majority of those sites don’t have a plan for how to address these issues.

Here’s Hayhoe’s model for action.

Knowing about a problem isn’t enough to fuel action to solve it. People also have to:

  1. Believe the problem is impacting issues (1) they care about, (2) in their community, and (3) in the present.
  2. Know what they can do to help.

When you can give people this information, says Hayhoe, you connect cognitive knowing (their ‘head’) to emotional connection (their ‘heart’), and ability to act (their ‘hands’). And THIS supports action.

    Graphic showing how you connect cognitive knowing (‘head’) to emotional connection (‘heart’), and ability to act (‘hands’)

    Based on this framework, Hayhoe offers 4 tips for having climate conversations that inspire action. Her advice draws on established research as well as her own work facilitating conversations.

    4 Tips for Climate Conversations that Motivate Action

    Below are 4 tips to have climate conversations that move beyond the listener’s head, to connect to their heart and their hands. I also share an example to show how these tips can be applied in conversations with your boss or your kids.

    Graphic showing 4 tips for climate change that support action

    Connecting to Someone’s Heart

    Tip 1: Discuss local impacts

    Physical distance from an issue reduces how intensely people care. That means it’s tough to inspire climate action by talking about polar bears, or the drought happening on another continent. Instead, talk about how climate change is impacting the local community of the person you’re talking to.

    Tip 2: Discuss present (not future) impacts

    People have a natural tendency to value the present more than the future. That’s why we eat the cake now, when we want to lose weight in the future. That’s also why this week’s work deadline feels more compelling than saving future generations from certain death.

    If you really want to motivate action, help people understand how climate change is impacting the world now. If you need to learn about this yourself, try Googling: How is climate change impacting [insert your region]. Unfortunately, that should give you some juicy information, as climate impacts are already playing out around us.

    Tip 3: Discuss issues the listener cares about

    People feel more emotionally connected to climate change when they understand how it impacts issues they already care about.

    So? Connect climate change impacts to your audience’s passions. If you’re talking to a neighbour that loves hiking, you could talk about the increase in tick-borne diseases associated with a warming climate. For your boss, you could talk about how increased flooding might impact a company facility near a floodplain.

    “Each person you talk to is already the perfect person to care about climate change,” provokes Hayhoe. “Their values are already perfectly aligned.” You just have to show them that.

    The Climate Mind app can help you make those connections. It provides evidence-based information about how climate change will impact all sorts of activities and experiences.

    Connecting To Someone’s Hands

    Tip 4: Share solutions

    If you’ve implemented tips 1-3 well, the person you’re talking to is probably starting to feel some climate urgency. Now, they need to know how to channel their concern into action.

    To do that, talk about solutions! (Especially solutions being used in the region of the person you’re speaking with. For example, if another company is relocating its flood-prone facility, talk to your boss about that. Role models matter – for example, research shows that people are most likely to install solar panels on a house if someone within a half mile of them already has solar panels.)

    Be positive as you share solutions. For example, instead of telling people they are terrible for eating beef burgers, talk about the amazing vegan restaurant you tried. People are more likely to act if solutions don’t mean major sacrifice.

    (Pro tip: Hayhoe says individual lifestyle changes, like eating less meat, will only get us 30% of the emissions reductions we need. That doesn’t mean they aren’t important, but it means we need to be sure to talk about systemic solutions, too – like how you plan to vote for a political party with climate-friendly policies, or how your company is creating a net zero action plan.)

    Don’t know all the solutions? No problem. Many credible sources are willing to offer help. From your industry association to local news media and non-profits, it’s easier than you might think to access expertise. (NBS’s Climate Change content library is a great place to start!)

    Below is a fictional example to show you how to use these tips to inspire action in anyone, from your boss to your kids.

    Example: How Cynthia Applied the Tips for Climate Action

    Cynthia is a 36-year-old woman living in London, Canada. She has an 8-year-old son and works as the Facilities Manager at ABC Golf Course, which is located on the banks of the Thames River.

    Cynthia has always loved nature, which is part of why she went to work at the golf course. On weekends, she’s often out in the woods with her son, taking walks and exploring.

    As a regular listener to CBC News, Cynthia has been hearing more about climate change. Last night, she heard an interview with a scientist who said that if the Earth warmed by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, extreme weather would start getting much worse. He also said the world was not on track to achieve its 1.5-degree target.

    Cynthia wanted to do something to help. So, she decided to start talking to the people in her life to see what type of action she could stir up.

    Here’s how Cynthia used the ‘head, heart, and hands’ framework to have action-inspiring conversations with:

    • Her boss, the General Manager of ABC Golf Course
    • Her 8-year-old son

    THE BOSS

    Cynthia’s boss is Tom. She has heard Tom reflect many times on how much it costs the company when they must close the golf course because the Thames River overflows its banks. Last year, the course closed for 2 weeks longer than usual because of unseasonably heavy rainfall.

    (Heart) Cynthia opened her conversation with Tom by sharing an interesting fact she read on the Climate Mind app: Climate change was causing more heavy rain and flooding. She reminded Tom how much revenue they lost last season because of flood-related closures, and expressed concern that those costs might go up in future.

    (Head) So that Tom knew the impacts of climate change would worsen over time, she mentioned what the scientist had said on the news.

    (Hands) Cynthia also shared that she’d heard wetlands could reduce flooding and even help suck carbon dioxide out of the air. (Coincidentally, they were also beautiful to look at and added biodiversity – which their golfers might appreciate.)

    (Outcome) She and Tom agreed to bring in a local environmental consulting firm to help them better understand how climate change would impact their golf course and explore the value of restoring on-site wetlands.

    THE SON

    Cynthia’s son, Tyson, is 8 and his favourite summer activity is fishing with his grandfather.

    (Head) One night over dinner, Cynthia asked Tyson what he knew about climate change. Tyson said he knew all about it. His teacher told him it’s when the Earth gets hotter and makes it harder for people and animals to stay healthy. Cynthia confirmed this was true.

    (Heart) She also told Tyson how climate change is impacting the fish in their community. Lake Trout and Redside Dace are two species of fish in Ontario that will have a hard time surviving as the water gets warmer. Concerned, Tyson asked, “Is there a way to protect the fish?”

    (Hands) Cynthia told her son that there are things everyone can do to stop climate change from happening, like turning off the lights you aren’t using. She also heard that the local conservation authority organizing a “Stream Clean Up” which would help preserve fish habitats. His eyes lit up a little. “Can we help with the Stream Clean Up?” he asked.

    About Terra.do

    Terra.do was founded in 2020, and has an ambitious goal of getting 100 million people working on climate change this decade. To achieve this goal, they offer a combination of climate education, connections to employers and climate jobs, and a supportive community of people who want to make a difference on climate change (including on mobile, through their app.)

    Dr. Hayhoe’s talk was a given to 350 participants of Terra.do’s flagship course, Climate Change: Learning for Action. The 12-week course explores climate change science, impacts, and solutions and is designed to educate and empower graduates to work on climate change. Current participants are from more than 30 countries and come from a broad range of professional backgrounds. All of them are looking to transition to working on climate.

    About Dr. Katharine Hayhoe

    Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist whose research focuses on understanding the impacts of climate change on people and the planet. She is the Chief Scientist for The Nature Conservancy where she leads and coordinates the organization’s scientific efforts.

    Katharine’s areas of expertise include science communication, greenhouse gas emissions, and developing and applying high-resolution climate projections for assessing regional to local-scale impacts of climate change on human systems and the natural environment. She holds a B.Sc. in Physics from the University of Toronto and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science from the University of Illinois and has received numerous awards and recognitions for her work, including four honorary doctorates and being named a United Nations Champion of the Earth.

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    • Chelsea Hicks-Webster

      Hi, I’m Chelsea. I have a Masters degree in Sustainability, where I studied ecosystem health. I'm also a Certified Life Coach. I used to be the Operations Manager for NBS, but now I just focus on my favourite part of that job – the writing! I also run a social enterprise, called Creating Me, dedicated to strengthening maternal and family well-being. I know first-hand how difficult it can be to balance career goals, impact, and one’s own well-being. When I’m not working on my own impact goals, I offer executive coaching and writing support to help researchers and change-makers grow their impact and well-being. (creatingme.ca/sustainability).

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