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What to do about awkward climate conversations

By David Powell on February 7, 2023

Our Senior Engagement Advisor Dave Powell has recently been running workshops for grassroots climate campaigners on what to do about those climate conversations that leave us feeling frustrated or dejected. He thought a lot of what he’s been learning would make sense to business folk as well, and shared insights in this piece previously published on BusinessGreen.

Anyone who’s trying to inspire change in others will be all-too-familiar with the kind of conversation that makes us wonder whether it’s all worth it, or whether we should just give up.  You know the kind of thing: your annoying uncle who won’t stop banging on about bloody cyclists or the supposed hypocrisy of climate activists; your friend who says climate change is important but doesn’t appear to be doing anything about it; or your nephew who’s terrified of climate change but mostly just gets angry or anxious about it and you don’t know how to help them.

It’s picking up, but most of us still don’t talk about climate change much in our lives. Just because most of the UK public think that climate change is caused by humans and is important, that doesn’t mean daily life is full of positive and inspiring climate chat. There’s still a hefty climate silence, as I wrote about here previously. Climate change still isn’t the kind of scintillating banter in which most dinner party guests like to partake. One reason is that under the surface of that headline concern is all sorts of complex stuff: values, worldviews, norms, and emotions. Our insecurities, uncertainties and disillusionments often attach themselves to our understandings of what climate change is and what it means to us and for us in practice. Hence the variety of ‘difficult’ conversations we have, or dread that we might have: at home, in the pub, or at work. 

Wondering why other people are having particular emotional reactions to something is one thing. But it’s at least as important and interesting – and definitely more challenging – to ask why we find these conversations difficult in the first place. We’re imagining a particular challenging emotional state or behaviour on the part of the other person: recalcitrance, stubbornness, anger, or just plain annoyingness (if that’s an emotion). And that sparks off our own complex emotional reactions to climate change itself, as part of our worldviews and values – and also in response to what’s coming at us.   

Take the earlier example of the angry young person. Perhaps they’ve been on an XR march or similar, but they may be increasingly unsure that governments are really listening, or will actually do something. Here I should mention that this sense of powerlessness and lack of trust are deep trends we found in our recent research on communicating climate justice with young people across Europe. For many such people, climate change and ecological collapse may fill them with dread, woven into everything else they may fear about their future. Young people are losing faith that the system – which includes big businesses – is up to the challenge. For members of the business world trying to change how things are done, it feels really important to be able to show the next generation what a positive future might look like, and that it’s within reach. 

Back to that difficult conversation though. For you, someone who by dint of reading this wants to help others to do something:  in a conversation with a frustrated, anxious and possibly angry young activist, which emotions are you likely to experience? Someone in one of our workshops said: somewhat helpless. You might want to inspire them to maintain hope, but you’re not sure how, because this stuff can all seem a bit insurmountable sometimes. Perhaps, if you dig into it a bit, you worry you might find that your own oceans of optimism are not that deep. Easy to see how we’d think of that as difficult territory. 

To help get over this hump, we found it works to help participants dig into their own climate stories and the emotions wrapped up in them. After all, we all have our own reasons for getting interested in this stuff; our own metaphors for what climate change is, and how it makes us feel. (I was brought up going to church, and I’m pretty sure if I’m honest that this image sums up the essence of my mental conception of climate change: something wrathful, bigger than us. I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s mine.) Telling our own story is a great way to remind ourselves of what gives us hope, and to inspire others to do likewise. And then to listen – just to listen. 

Listening really helps. I know that one of the reasons I find difficult conversations so, well, difficult, is that I’m often thinking about how best to end them as soon as possible, preferably with me being victorious. But that’s not right, because that puts one into a combative, tetchy mood – hardly conducive to getting others to soften their stance. And not right because the purpose of conversation – actual conversation – is not to convince people of your view, but to converse: to have respect for them, and actually even to enjoy yourself.  Most people in the country don’t think like you do about things so trying to hammer them into submission with your rhetoric isn’t really learning anything. If there’s one thing we need to be doing if we’re in the business of changing hearts and minds, it’s learning more about how others think and feel. (For more on all this, see our Talking Climate handbook). 

It’s also essential to keep perspective. Most conversations about climate change itself are not difficult. A lot of what sits underneath some of the more frustrating views people hold about it – views we might find challenging, like climate activists being hypocrites – isn’t really anything to do with climate change itself at all.  It’s about people’s existing worldviews and values, and how they think the world works, and often climate change gets swept up in that without people really realising it. But remember that most people do care about climate change – and while we’ve a way to go, there’s ever greater awareness, action and everyday conversation. This can only be a very good thing.

This piece was originally published in BusinessGreen on 1 February 2023.

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Using values to promote sustainable ways of doing business

By David Powell

David leads our advocacy work, championing public engagement and effective climate communications with policy makers, politicians and those who influence them.

David has nearly two decades of experience as a campaigner, communicator, researcher and strategist on environment and climate change. He’s worked as Head of Environment and Green Transition at the New Economics Foundation and senior campaigner on economics and resources at Friends of the Earth. He has a MA in English Literature, an MSc in Environmental Strategy, and a Graduate Diploma in Economics. He’s particularly interested in the intersection between systems change and individual psychology, and how to build campaigns that harness the deeply held concerns we all have about the climate crisis.

Outside of work he hosts the climate psychology podcast, Your Brain on Climate, and until 2022 was co-host of Sustainababble. He is also the chair of Somerset Wildlands, and spends whatever time there is left running and playing the sax.

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