The climate communication challenge

group conversation

Where does one start when tackling the thorny challenge of talking about climate change? AK CASC’s Tribal Liaison Malinda Chase, and researchers Jeremy Littell and Ryan Toohey held an interactive seminar with former AK CASC science communicator Kristin Timm to help participants through these tricky conversations at the 2019 Alaska Forum on the Environment in Anchorage.

Timm, Chase, Littell, and Toohey practiced what they were preaching from the first moments of the seminar: they listened first. As they asked participants to pair off and share about themselves, the room buzzed with conversations about hometowns, experiences as Alaskans, and what holds us back from talking about climate with friends, family, and others.

When the room quieted, attendees listened eagerly for insights on how to have productive conversations about our changing climate and tested out strategies by talking to one another, especially recognizing some of the cross-cultural communication dynamics that we may find ourselves in.

Read on to learn a few of their tips.

Don’t start with science

Littell shared a tip that may come as unexpected from a climate scientist and ecologist. “Instead of pulling out the charts and projections, make connections on values first”, he said. We all have shared values, in Alaska and as people. When we begin conversations by finding common ground, we can bridge ideological gaps.

Share your climate story

“I’m a berry picker,” relays Chase, as she stood to share her personal connection to climate change. In her hometown of Anvik, that sits along the Yukon River in remote Interior Alaska, berries are an important subsistence food. She recalls returning home several years ago to find the rose hip and cranberry bushes near her house stripped almost completely of leaves and berries. Thousands of caterpillars had passed through. While the insects aren’t a new addition to the landscape, warming temperatures cause longer ice and snow-free seasons that allow more larvae to survive and impact plant health. Talking about how climate change has impacted us personally can bridge the gap between abstract scientific concepts and what matters to individuals. It also helps demonstrate how climate change affects us here, now, and in our communities rather than as a distant threat.

It’s a conversation, not a lecture

At one point or another, each of us has found ourselves at the receiving end of a one-sided conversation where facts are thrown at us faster than we can process. Scientists often communicate this way, as the academic community has historically relied on one-way outreach in the form of presentations and talks to the public. But effective communication means listening first, asking questions, and sharing from a perspective of understanding and mutually-held beliefs. In other words, there’s no one climate script to follow. Each conversation is unique as a two-way dialogue where both participants have something to learn from one another.

Give solutions and hope

“We have a finite pool of worry,” said Timm. “Climate change, because it’s abstract, often falls to the bottom of the list.” That’s where providing solutions comes in. Ending conversations on climate change with actions and solutions can empower your partner to move past the disillusion phase into action. “To change behavior, people need to know that there are positive outcomes for them and that they will be successful,” said Timm.

Having climate conversations is one of the most important things we can do to address climate change and inspire action. For many, the seminar provided the tools they needed to start talking.