People don’t really talk about climate change. Here’s how to start.

Although a majority of Americans say they are concerned about climate change, It seems many don’t really talk about it with their close friends and family.

According to a 2022 poll by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 64 percent of Americans said they were “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about climate change — but 67 percent of Americans also said they “rarely” or “never” discussed global warming with their friends and family, according to the report, titled “Climate Change in the American Mind.”

That’s not ideal, some experts say.

“The first step to taking action on climate change is talking about it, which is the most important thing we can do,” he said Happy Tran, a science communicator at Columbia University that focuses in part on climate justice. “We cannot solve problems, especially on a global scale, if we don’t talk about the problem and the best solution.”

And on climate, he added: “How we talk about climate change really affects what solutions we have to climate change.”

According to Tran and other experts, here’s what you should know when addressing climate-related issues.

communication on climate change historically focused on trying to convince people that global warming is real, happening, and man-made. But opinion polls show that there are already “large majorities in the country” who believe these things to be true, said Jon Krosnick, a social psychologist and professor at Stanford University.

Krosnick, who has studied American public opinion on global warming, argued that continued efforts largely focused on convincing people of the realities of climate change will be “wasted money, wasted effort, wasted air.”

Instead, discussions about how “green” the American public is, as well as general findings from polls that reflect people’s views on climate change, could contribute more to how government officials are acting, he said.

“The American public doesn’t realize how green it is, and even elected officials don’t realize how green the American public is,” he said. “You don’t have to change anyone’s mind. You just have to make the unanimity or near unanimity more noticeable to people.”

How climate change is discussed could also have an impact on approaches to solving it, other experts said.

“It is important for climate communication today to really focus on how to include different perspectives and ideologies that can give viable hope – because there is hope – in terms of how to approach climate change differently than suggested in the past said Hanna Morris, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s School of the Environment who researches climate change media and communication.

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It sometimes seems as if conversations about climate change can be divided into two narratives: people are either overly optimistic about solutions – or claim it’s “too late” to act.

In reality, Tran said, most people who talk about climate change fall somewhere between those two extremes.

He cautioned against spreading messages too biased toward fear or optimism, either of which can lead to inaction.

“Why would you take action to solve something if you don’t think it will make a difference?” he said. “At the same time, if we believe the problem is solved, why should we take any action to solve it?”

Tran noted that the more pessimistic narratives can be attributed to the fossil fuel industry or other special interest groups invested in maintaining the status quo. The drumbeat of negative scientific evidence that keeps emerging can also reinforce this bleak outlook.

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Furthermore, “doomistic” views about climate change and the future are not grounded in reality, some experts say.

“It’s definitely not too late for each and every one of us to make a really meaningful impact on… climate change mitigation,” said Kimberly Nicholas, sustainability and climate scientist at Lund University. “That’s where the fatalism really worries me, because it’s not a scientific question about the technical details: ‘Are they possible?’ The question is: ‘Will enough people actually take the necessary measures?’ ”

Scaremongering can also be dangerous, Tran said. “If we don’t have hope for a better world, it becomes a more divided world.”

But it’s important to acknowledge people and help them process their grief and anxiety about climate change, said Jonathan Foley, executive director of Project Drawdown, a climate nonprofit.

“A lot of people in the climate discussion are younger or new, which is great,” Foley said. “But unsurprisingly, people who take notice of this suddenly say, ‘Oh my God, this is awful.’ ”

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“It’s like finding out you have a serious illness,” he added. “It’s really a shock, and grief is part of the stages we go through when we hear bad news.”

The key, Nicholas said, is not to get stuck in the “doom” phase and to use these feelings as a source of motivation for action.

Climate change is a complex problem, and proposing “simple, all-encompassing great solutions” is not the answer, Morris said.

These kinds of fixes, she said, tend to oversimplify problems and could fuel the notion that there is a right way and a wrong way to address the climate crisis.

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While experts said it’s important not to dismiss individual measures outright, they stress that certain measures are more important.

For example, the “every little bit helps” idea also has downsides, Nicholas said. You should turn off the tap every time you brush your teeth so you don’t waste water – but “it’s not a big impact” when it comes to the climate, she said.

“Basically I’m just talking about flying, driving and eating meat, I actually don’t think it’s really worth spending a lot of time doing a lot of other things,” she said. “We need to focus on where most of the emissions are coming from and focus on reducing them as quickly as possible.”

While it’s unlikely that a single person will be able to single-handedly effect major change, action can have “ripple effects,” Nicholas said.

She compared it to how cathedrals are built by hand – a process that has involved hundreds, if not thousands, of people over years.

“History doesn’t really know their names, and a lot of them probably didn’t live to see the completion, and they didn’t know where all the pieces came from or where everything went,” she said. “But they laid their stone, or they made their window, or they put the wood together. They did the one little bit that they were able to and it added up to this amazing thing that has really stood the test of time.”

But individual action should be seen as “part of a change ecosystem that requires changes at the systemic level,” Tran said.

Sending messages about solutions shouldn’t be limited to reducing emissions, he added. Social solutions that address injustices and environmental justice issues “need to go hand-in-hand” with discussions about physical or economic solutions to climate change, he said.

A key component of talking about climate issues revolves around making climate solutions just, said Beverly Wright, founder and executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.

“The people who are most affected by climate are people of color in general and poor people,” Wright said. “If we just approach the question from the perspective of, ‘Climate change is here, we need to reduce greenhouse gases,’ but don’t talk about how we’re doing that, then we end up presenting communities with what we call wrong solutions or that wrong solutions are presented to our legislators.”

There should also be communication that engages those most affected in the solutions, experts said. For one, Tran encouraged more trustworthy messengers to get involved in the climate discussion.

“You need people who look like the people in the communities who are dealing with an issue to be able to motivate them to take action,” he said. “You understand what is at stake. You understand how people are harmed. They understand which solutions need to be implemented.”

“We need everyone to be a climate communicator and not just rely on one or two people or just scientists,” he said. “Everyone needs to talk about climate change.”

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