When the winter holidays start, many of us find ourselves in a season of uncomfortable conversations. It’s a time of living-room and dinner-table moments catching up with relatives and friends—all of whom may have mildly or radically different political leanings, generational perspectives, religious views, and other ways of dealing with the world than we do.
This year, the beginning of the holidays falls at the end of a contentious election cycle, the close of hurricane season (which brought us Hurricane Ian, likely one of the costliest and most destructive storms in US history), and just after a set of tortuous and disappointing international climate talks in Egypt. Disasters, politics, and wonkery are not usually the fodder of polite holiday conversations, but as a climate journalist, these are the subjects I often write about. I used to cringe a little when asked about my work at family gatherings and casual social events. I am an introvert, and while I’m comfortable writing about climate change, it was harder for me to talk about it. While I do have some family members who distrust the broader facts about climate change, I worried less about getting into an argument than about finding a starting point that didn’t seem too abstract, too depressing, or too overwhelming. I didn’t relish telling people over a glass of wine or a bowl of potato chips about projections of future food shortages or how many thousands of square miles might eventually be swamped by rising seas—especially people with small children.
I have since spent several years intensely researching a book and conducting hundreds of interviews about climate change. I write stories about how it will affect the our lives and communities in the most fundamental ways, and I have come to understand that the silence too many of us keep on this subject is damaging our collective ability to make important decisions. We don’t act to stave off crisis, and we don’t prepare for what’s coming because we can’t even broach the subject. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, while six in ten Americans are interested in global warming, only about a quarter ever hear anything about it from someone they know. In her book Saving Us, renowned climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe—an expert on communicating in some of the most politically charged contexts—writes that talking about climate change is the “first, crucial step forward”—one of the single most important things any person can do. I now have more spontaneous conversations about climate—not just on the holidays but on phone or video calls with relatives, or at the doctor’s office, or while getting a haircut or a facial. In doing so, I have discovered something that surprised me at first: people are now hungry to talk about this crisis. When framed the right way, climate is not an abstraction but a kitchen-table issue. Much of America has already felt the impacts at home in recent years—in the form of heat waves, wildfires, drought, or extreme storms. (Just last year, more than 40 percent of Americans were living in counties that felt the blows of climate disasters, and more than 80 percent experienced a heat wave, according to a Washington Post analysis.) People are often frightened by what they are witnessing, and they want to know what to do. The conversation about climate does not have to be gigantic or wonky or dismal. It can begin at a scale people can grasp—in the familiar territory of home and community.
I learned this first from my own experience as a journalist. I noticed that climate conversations became more productive and thoughtful when I asked people about tangible and nearby concerns—whether I was talking to a former bank executive in Los Angeles about flooding in the side streets or an Indiana farmer about the shift in USDA “plant hardiness zones” (less cold-hardy crops can grow at higher latitudes as the planet warms). In writing my book, I found that conversations about home helped some communities find common ground to organize responses to disasters such as wildfires, to rethink urban plans and economic decisions, and even to challenge corporations and fight to reduce in fossil fuel pollution.
I’ve also learned more about how to have those conversations by talking with experts. The Minnesota-based Center for New Democratic Processes, for instance, has for the past eight years led a project that convenes gatherings to discuss climate change in rural, often conservative-leaning communities. These conversations bring together people from a mix of backgrounds and political affiliations. They have allowed such communities to have productive discussions about planning for the impacts of climate change and developing local renewable energy projects—without getting mired in ideological fights.
Kyle Bozentko, the Center’s executive director, has distilled several principles from talking earnestly but non-combatively about climate change. One, he says, is to let go of assumptions that people around you don’t care about the subject. (According to a study in the journal Nature Communications, 80 to 90 percent of us underestimate how much our fellow Americans care about climate change. Moreover, staunch denialists are rarer than people realize—about seven percent of the U.S. population, according to Yale researchers.) But a neighbor, a friend, a relative, or a stranger may not bring it up simply because “they may just not see themselves as part of the equation,” Bozentko says. Climate change may seem to them like a far-off policy problem. Or maybe it’s just an anxiety-producing dilemma that they can’t imagine they having an influence on. A significant number of people, even those most alarmed by climate change, don’t take any action because no one has ever asked them to.
A second is to talk about impacts people can observe in their own lives and allow them to share and reflect on their own experiences. In one dialogue Bozentko and his colleagues organized, the attendees shared stories about what was happening on snowmobile trails year after year as winters became less reliably wintry. “Everyone who snowmobiled was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right that we don’t get to go out as much,’” he recalls. When people come to terms with what is happening immediately around them and why it matters to their lives, they are far more likely to take active steps to address the crisis.
It is also important to be direct about naming this crisis, says Lara Hansen, chief scientist and executive director of the climate organization Eco-Adapt. Sometimes policymakers or practitioners try to use euphemisms—“extreme weather,” for instance—to get around the politics associated with the term “climate change.” Like Bozentko, Hansen holds workshops all over the country—often in conservative areas—to talk about responses to climate impacts, and she thinks it only muddies things if you avoid the scientific terms. “There’s a lot of real experience that people are having, and not calling it what it is doesn’t really give them the power to come up with a solution,” she says. People can sense that the world is askew. The conditions, the weather, the kinds of disasters and risks people face don’t fit their expectations or experiences any more, and “it gives you a real sense of insecurity, and we need to figure out how we just have this conversation and stop worrying about the politics of it.”
Climate denialists have sometimes joined Hansen’s workshops. “I have only ever had one person leave the workshop still believing that this was not a problem for them and still refusing to talk about climate change,” she says. Rather than arguing about abstractions, she emphasizes why people have a stake in the issue—how it will affect things they care about in the places where they live. She presents climate data and projections and asks those in the room about their own life experiences with changing conditions and weather patterns. “When their life experience actually maps to that projection, it is very hard for them to say, well, that’s not happening,” she reflects. “And when you start talking to them about, what do you want to see happen in order to reduce your risk from this, then they’re invested in it.” By the end of one workshop with a conservative group in Alaska, the attendees were planning a climate-themed lunchtime lecture series and a school fair, “because they’re like, everyone needs to know that this is going on so that we can make good economic decisions for the region.”
All this talk may sound more passive than, say, marching or campaigning or any kind of confrontational activism. But it is arguably just another piece of the work that must be done to move people to act everywhere on this crisis. No one will understand the urgency if we don’t talk about it.
I noticed this as I chatted with someone who was adjusting my eyeglasses in a medical office in downtown Seattle a few months ago. She told me she’d hardly ever heard anyone talk about how climate change was affecting people—just animals and ecosystems. But in some quiet discussion over her desk, as she cleaned my lenses and fitted the ear pieces, we reflected on the shocking heat waves that had struck Seattle the last couple of summers and the thick plumes of wildfire smoke that kept settling over the city. She looked suddenly eager and asked question after question—as if we were airing a secret or uncovering a surprising finding.
The holidays are an even bigger opportunity for this kind of talk. And it does not have to be political or contentious, just earnest: after a too-warm summer and a stormy autumn, it isn’t hard to have a conversation about the weather and the future. People want to talk about what’s happening to the world—how precarious it feels, what we do, how we keep each other safe. It’s too urgent to allow silence to settle across the table.