Adding Light to the Heat: Talking Climate Change with Your Uncle | wisconsinacademy.org
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Adding Light to the Heat: Talking Climate Change with Your Uncle

Tue, 08/11/2015 - 10:41am -- Meredith Keller

In her 2013 blog post “Beyond Climate Silence,” Academy Executive Director Jane Elder pointed out the ongoing connection between climate change, communications, and American politics:

Last fall the term “climate silence” starting showing up in various blogs, particularly in the context of the fall elections. Aha, I thought—a name for the missing conversation on climate. I suspect that campaign advisors had urged their candidates to stay away from the “c” word, because regardless of the scientific consensus, it can rouse some fairly intense reactions, and when you are striving to be everyone’s likeable candidate, that can be problematic. I have a Facebook friend with whom I had to draw a strict line in the conversational sand on this topic, because the rhetoric was adding heat, but no light, to our exchanges.

Elder’s relationship with her anonymous Facebook friend is one to which most of us can relate. For my part, I’ve reached an unspoken détente with my extended family not to bring up certain charged subjects over Thanksgiving dinner. Climate change or global warming is among those subjects we as a society do not discuss so as to ensure civil dialogue and familial harmony. Given that climate change will affect—or already has affected—every person on the planet, its status as “taboo” in polite conversation is not only ironic, it’s dangerous.

So how do we effectively engage with others on such a complex and uncomfortable issue?

When you find yourself in one of these conversations, first think about where the other person is coming from, including their interests and their knowledge on the issue. According to Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC), “the American public does not speak with a single voice on this issue.” Our family and friends don’t either.

In 2009, the YPCCC and George Mason University issued its first Six Americas report, which identifies six distinct publics and their views on climate change (it has since been updated and revamped to focus on various issues – see here). The report is a compilation and analysis of survey data taken from across the United States that explores Americans’ “beliefs, behaviors, and policy preferences” on climate change. The audience categories (as originally established from 2008 data and recently updated from 2012 data) are as follows: The Alarmed (16%), the Concerned (29%), the Cautious (25%), the Disengaged (9%), the Doubtful (13%), and the Dismissive (8%).

For the sake of strategic, meaningful communication, I want to focus on the middle four: the Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, and Doubtful. To this end, I will apply the five simple bullets Leiserowitz lists for those wanting to engage such audiences on climate change:

  1. It’s real
  2. It’s us
  3. It’s bad
  4. Scientists agree
  5. There’s hope

There’s Hope, There are Solutions

It is so easy to jump into a climate change discussion with post-apocalyptic descriptions à la Mad Max or The Road. This often turns people away. All the way from the Concerned to the Dismissive, many already see climate change as a distant issue, that it is a problem for future generations and other places. Your friends or family might say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. So what? There’s nothing I can do.” Or “We have time.” Or they might be overwhelmed with the weight of the problem, and are unable to see their role in it. Explain that there are solutions out there, many of which are occurring right here in Wisconsin. Wisconsin and the United States can lead in the research and development of clean energy technologies that would not only be safer for the climate, but for our health and economy as well. Focus on these “co-benefits” of emission reduction and energy innovation. Energy efficiency saves money and produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions, which is a boon to public health. Emphasize that each of us can take actions to be part of the larger solution.

It’s Real, It’s Us, Scientists Agree

9 out of 10 Americans (specifically 88%) do not know that there is scientific consensus that climate change is A) happening, B) due to a dramatic increase in greenhouse gas emissions, and C) human-caused. It’s likely that some of them are around your dining room table. All you can do is assert the facts: 2014 was the warmest year on record globally, coming on the tail-end of the warmest decade on record. Since 1880, the average global temperature has risen by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit. This will continue into the double digits if society does not curb its greenhouse gas emissions. There is consensus among scientists that this rise in temperatures is due to an increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—and that this increase is due to a variety of human activity (including burning fossil fuels, deforestation, etc.). 97% of scientists agree on these points, and agree that this phenomenon will have a lasting negative impact on our health, culture, and environment.

During a 2013 summer camping trip, mosquitoes assaulted our group. Climate change is increasing the range of these insects, forcing us to resort to these fashionable head nets—and use more and more toxic DEET.

It’s Bad, It Affects Everyone

Climate Change is Affecting the Economy, Culture, and Health of Wisconsin

It is always best to focus on the impacts that hit close to home, regardless of which audience you’re conversing with. We are already seeing the effects of climate change here in Wisconsin. Development along the state's coasts, in cities like Bayfield and Green Bay, is at an increased risk of severe lake level fluctuations caused in part by extreme weather. Such dramatic shifts in lake levels can adjust the Ordinary High Water Marks putting further development at risk - and lead to property damage and coastal erosion. The Nature Conservancy and NOAA recently published an exploratory paper calling on cities and other property developers to rethink their coastal structures due to anticipated volatile water level fluctuations and extreme weather along the Great Lakes coasts.

In addition to rendering economic development and property more vulnerable, climate change is contributing to the spread of disease in the Midwest. The range of ticks and mosquitoes is moving northward, and their populations are on the rise in the Midwest (and, with that, cases of Lyme Disease and West Nile Virus). You could also discuss how the recent trend of damaging heat waves might become the norm, putting our health—and even our cheese—at risk.

Remember to Rely on Common Interests

If you’re not so close to your Uncle Ned, rely on unifying issues like recreation and health. I have found that framing most any issue in the context of how it will impact public health or how it will influence, say, an angler’s ability to fish his or her favorite stream is uniquely successful in bringing people together.

For example, climate change contributes to toxic algal blooms that affect not just anglers and boaters, but the health of swimmers—and, in the case of Toledo, Ohio, the public. Indeed, the massive algal bloom in Lake Erie has been an issue for years, but it was not until its cyanobacteria leaked into Toledo’s water supply that it grabbed the attention of citizens across the Midwest.

Return to discussing the health risks brought on by an increase in heat waves; according to Climate Wisconsin, “extreme heat kills more people in the state than all other weather disasters (e.g., tornadoes, floods, blizzards) combined.”

My husband and I enjoy canoeing the lakes and rivers of the Midwest. Above, we are exploring the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness—a part of our region deeply affected by our changing climate.

We need to talk about climate change. We need to help others see themselves in the solutions, and how those solutions benefit all of us—locally and globally. So bring it up. Bring it up until Mom asks you to let it go. Or don’t let it go. Do this not because you want to best your uncle in that annual battle of wits during the family reunion (although that might be a perk), but because this is an issue that affects everyone, everywhere.

We hope this monthly blog on Wisconsin’s climate and energy challenges and triumphs will help aid you in this conversation.

We need to have this discussion. Sometimes the best place to start is at home.

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Meredith Keller was the Initiatives director at the Wisconsin Academy from 2014 to 2016, where she led both the Waters of Wisconsin and Climate & Energy Initiatives, and launched the statewide, annual Local Government Summit on Energy & Resilience.

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