Twqo women in conversation

How to talk to people about climate change

I want to see Australia join the world in taking effective action against climate change. And since you’re reading this, I reckon you do too.

So we want to see enough voters convinced of this that they’ll refuse to vote for candidates who are standing in the way. That means we have to convince people who aren’t yet committed.

But too much discussion about climate change is negative and combative – which is exactly the opposite of what is most effective in helping people see things in a new light.

Let’s get serious

I’m ready to sharpen my skills and modify my attitude if it will help me be a more effective advocate for climate action. Are you with me?

Here’s 6 steps to having better conversations.

1. Understand people

When it comes to talking about climate change, people aren’t blank slates. They already have viewpoints and an identity, and any attempt to us scientific information to change that identity may be seen as a threat. Their response may not be totally rational. (For example, Liberal Senator Jim Molan said he is “not relying on evidence” to form his opinion on climate change.)

But most people aren’t dismissive of climate change. Studies show that less than 10% of Aussies don’t believe that the climate is warming. It will be very hard if not impossible to change the minds of these hard core climate sceptics. But the remaining people are open to change if they’re approached rightly.

2. Get to know the other person

Find out (if you don’t know already) what is important to the person you are speaking to – what are their interests and values. Establish a friendly and unthreatening conversation. If they seem sceptical about climate science try to find out or judge whether they are an active denier, or more passively sceptical.

Building this sort of relationship and rapport will make for a more pleasant and effective conversation.

3. Decide whether to engage

It is probably best not to engage in any hopeful way with those who are strongly dismissive of climate science, it will likely only lead to frustration. (However if they are influential, it may be strategic to engage. And if you do engage, Katharine Hayhoe suggests using the term “climate dismisser” rather than “climate denier”.)

But having conversations with those who are curious, open or passively sceptical is important. Climate scientist and advocate Katharine Hayhoe says having conversations is the most important thing we can do to promote climate action.

4. Start with the person, not the science

Research shows most Aussies don’t really find the science a problem and accept that climate change is real. Either they don’t think action is urgent, or that the solutions seem so threatening to their identity, comfort and way of life, and to the economy.

So presenting masses of scientific information isn’t likely to change their minds and so isn’t the place to start.

Instead, find points of contact in their values and interests. Hopefully there are things you have in common with them. Then you will be better able to frame the discussion around values that are important to them.

  • For people whose family is important to them, the future our children and grandshildren will face may be a starting point.
  • For business people, the economic benefits of new renewable technologies may be the place to begin.
  • Skiers may already have noticed shorter ski seasons. Farmers in eastern Australia will almost certainly have noticed hotter, drier summers. Most people in Australia will haveconcerns about bushfires.

5. Help people be their better selves

Once we understand people’s values, we can move the discussion to how addressing climate change is something practical and economic that they can support from their existing values. Climate action will be (hopefully) an extension of something they already think. They will likely want to be part of a positive solution. Showing them solutions is much more likely to change their minds than hitting them with negative facts.

The Climate Council suggests these three emphases:

  1. Talk about how climate action is already creating good, new jobs for Australians, and explain how it can also solve long-term problems like climate change.
  2. Invite people to change their own minds by sharing the latest facts and demonstrating how a renewables-led recovery can create a more self-reliant and sustainable Australia.
  3. Help people understand that climate action is inevitable, makes economic sense, and is already well underway.

6. Understand the basic science

It still helps to have a broad understanding of the science. (That’s what this website is for.) But it is more important to have some information about solutions and how they will save money in the long run. So it is best to meet objections to the science briefly, so as to avoid argument, and then pivot to some facts they can feel positive about.


Top photo by Anastasiya Gepp from Pexels. Other photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash.