How (Not) To Talk About Climate

Martin Voelker
CRES Jefferson County Chapter

Maria Talero’s workshop combined social science findings with practical exercises.

In case you hadn’t noticed: talking about climate change with people is hard, and having a good grasp of the scientific facts won’t help, either. On the contrary, citing science it may simply serve to alienate them. And even those who might accept your facts often feel threatened because they don’t want to face the horrifying immensity of the climate issue or feel guilty about their small role in it.

To help lift the silence about climate change and shrink the barriers to talking about it the Jeffco chapter invited Maria Talero, PhD, to give a workshop, jointly sponsored by Jefferson Unitarian’s Green Task Force and a private donation from CRES and Clean Energy Action member Leslie Glustrom.

After a brief introduction to the issue which has attracted substantial academic interest, e.g. in Yale’s “Six Americas Study”, we split into small groups to share real life personal experiences with such conversations.

What helped to make sense of these encounter were insights from a fairly new approach by Yale professor Dan Kahan, called Cultural Cognition Theory with regards to risk perception.

Dr. Kahan finds that we tend to reject information and advocacy messages that threaten our core beliefs about how society should be organized. In this context it becomes understandable why we don’t get anywhere by simply explaining the science behind contentious issues, and why it can drive the two sides farther apart.

Another exercise helped the 30 participants locate themselves on a spectrum of hierarchies vs. egalitarian, and individualist vs. communitarian mind sets. Research shows that we interpret climate risk very differently depending on where we are on this spectrum.

Knowing (or guessing) the other person’s mind set provided the basis to construct conversations that were not doomed to failure at the outset, and the participants experimented role-playing different approaches.

Had there been more time we would have also been acquainted with the founder of Climate Outreach, George Marshall, whose exceptional book Don’t Even Think About it: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change should be required reading.

Marshall’s work will be addressed in future workshops with Maria Talero, who tailors her presentations to the needs of each organization.

We received extremely positive feedback from the participants and would encourage readers to invite Maria as she is now working full time as an independent climate educator.

Maria’s next event is Sat. May 14th in Denver and will focus on climate scientist Katharina Hayhoe’s approach to engaging Conservatives on Climate Change. Details are here.