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Talking about climate change: Necessary, yet so uncomfortable

Posted on 28 May 2021 by timo

This is a re-post from Timo's blog Tmag

Talking about climate change in order to prevent climate change is a necessity. And just like many other necessities, it's painfully uncomfortable to do. How come?

Climate change is a problem that affects every last one of us. It is a real looming threat and requires urgent action by as many people as possible. Although climate change is a known problem, too many people are still ignoring it, refuse to act, or simply shrug it off. It seems like a majority of people do acknowledge the reality of it and agree that "something needs to be done". But this does not mean that they are willing to actually do something. Which brings us to today's (literal) talking point: We need to talk about climate change. This is necessary to get more people to understand its urgency and thus getting them to act like the urgency demands. Yet, - I don't know about you, but - I often find it painfully uncomfortable to talk about it with others. Here, I want to analyse why that is.

Well, first of all - even though climate change is a very complex topic with loads of very diverse scientific sub categories, nearly everyone seems to have a rather black or white opinion on the matter. Most often, these opinions are anchored so deeply in a person that they defend their stance on the topic so passionately as if they themselves were experts on the underlying science. Very often, people have one or two go-to-arguments that exemplify why they are 100% sure that their opinion is correct (e.g. "climate changed before humans were around", "Studies say it's solar activities", "I heard the science is not settled" etc). And since their conviction is rooted so deeply, people tend to get emotional over the topic. For me personally, it is no fun to argue about a scientific topic with a person that is overly emotional. And pretty often I find myself surprised, who among my friends, family, and casual acquaintances are so convinced of their opinion regarding climate change that they are willing to truly pick a verbal fight over it - although their stance very often solely relies on one of their errant go-to-arguments or on anecdotal "evidence" ("I go swimming in the Netherlands every year - I saw no sea level rise whatsoever").



Why is climate change such a loaded topic?

This observation raises the question why people get so emotional about the topic. I mean, climate change is dangerous and I would understand people becoming scared or worried very much... but surprisingly the people that are most emotional are those that either reject climate change or carry the opinion "I believe that climate change is real and we should do something about it, but...". Followed by the "but" are usually attacks on climate policies or ad hominems on politicians and activists. And this "but" also keeps justifying that although they "believe" in the problem of climate change, they are not willing to allow uncomfortable measures and policies to be introduced to counteract the problem. Because these policies might intrude their way of living and thinking, they sound expensive, are over-the-top, or at least one would assume that they are. Introducing climate policies - such as a carbon tax - is an important but also controversial instrument; usually they are attacked by many political parties and politicians except for the Green ones. The science of climate change may be scientific, objective, and apolitical - but introducing climate policies is a very political matter.

Thus, chances are that your opinion on the reality and especially urgency of climate change is defined by your political affiliation. So if someone starts talking about climate change with you, you usually respond with the answers that you usually hear by the politicians you endorse (please never forget that these politicians have agendas and that they are meeting with lobbyists on a regular basis). This means that if someone challenges you on these opinions, then they basically question your political stance, and thus - more or less - your world view as a whole. This is of course not intended. Maybe the person really just wants to talk about climate science. But still, it is not a nice feeling to have your world view put in question... and it justifies getting emotional about it. But that cannot be the only reason as to why talking about climate change is so controversial and difficult.

The most recent years have brought climate change to the front pages of most newspapers and media outlets. The reason are youth movements such as Extinction Rebellion and Fridays For Future, who are trying to shed spotlight on an important topic. While the main message of these movements is that politicians need to listen to the scientists in order to counteract climate change, their message is often reduced or distorted to blaming, shaming, and pointing fingers on politicians and previous generations for their inaction in general. I have met many elderly individuals feeling deeply offended and put to shame by Greta Thunberg and affiliates. Nobody likes to be put to shame - especially since most people really didn't know about the threat of climate change some 20 or 30 years ago. The many ambiguous feelings people feel towards Fridays For Future are the topic of a recent standalone blog post of mine. And do not forget to combine these reactions with the implications of the actual message: We have messed up our earth climate and this is a very dangerous situation. It may mess up the life of your kids and grand-kids and it is important that we act in a way that your political affiliation maybe rejects whole-heartedly. Now, that I have written all these thoughts out and read them back to myself... I do not wonder anymore that people get emotional when it comes to the topic of climate change.

There is not a singular solution to climate change - and each proposal has flaws

I do strongly believe that these talking points are the main reasons for people getting emotional on the topic. And it is important to understand these points, because if we do not understand what drives people, we will not be able to communicate with them efficiently. What they are choosing, probably unknowingly, are excuses instead of actions. And excuses are abundant. They are spread by political parties, conservative think tanks, the fossil fuel lobby... but most of all by a combination of these three. Much of the disinformation spread by them is thinly concealed deceptions or lies. Others are of a much more sophisticated nature because they prosper from the real existing uncertainties about climate policies. To explain this, we need to focus on the fact that the problem of climate change does (realistically) not have one singular solution to fix it. Most experts are divided in putting their money on certain actions, regulations, and technologies to halt climate change and combat its consequences. It is likely that a range of solutions will be required rather than focusing on a single solution:

The combination of a carbon tax, with a shift from fossil fuels to a mixture of renewable energies (solar, wind, water) or even nuclear energy. Reducing emissions by supporting electric automobiles and upgrading the amount of charging stations. Investing in geo-engineering solutions like carbon sequestering or aerosols that block the sunlight. You will not be surprised that each of these solutions and technologies has their flaws and none of them can stand for their own. Renewable energies, for example, are hard to store and distribute to the energy network efficiently, e-vehicles have batteries that may be hard to discard or they are carbon-intensive in production or there are not enough charging stations. Also, there is no geo-engineering solution that is in a state that it can help soon and world wide. Fusion power is too slow in production to help us anytime soon... and I'm not even touching the nuclear topic with a ten-foot pole. This is just a very short overview of excuses why each of the proposed solutions may not be sufficient, suitable, or simply non actionable. Basically, you can find arguments against all of them if you search hard enough. And that is not surprising: Most of them are pretty new technologies and they need to be vetted and optimised. Some are farther in this process than others; e.g. solar power in comparison to fusion power. It is obvious that we need to discuss any technological shortcomings and fix them. But discussing them over decades whilst aggressively halting their development will only lose us more time. And this is what many people are doing with their "but" in "we should do something, but...".

It's no use shouting from the rooftops that there are not enough charging stations for a large-scale distribution of electric vehicles - invest in more charging stations and support the political parties that do. It's no use waiting for fusion power if we all know that it will be market-ready in a best case of two decades. It's no use waiting for geo-engineering solutions that are not even invented. Or complaining about the storage of solar and wind power. Invest in storage solutions and also in combinations of energy sources. If there is no sun, use wind. If there is neither sun nor wind, use hydrogen. If you need more power, use nuclear or even coal. As long as the former are being built on a large-scale while the latter are slowly being shut down, this can work very well. Even with the current and imperfect storage solutions we have. But why am I drifting away from the initial topic of this post? Because I want to show you that (i) there are enough excuses for everyone to delay climate action, and (ii) most of these excuses cannot withstand some basic logic and are exactly that: "excuses". For not having to act. For being able to keep everything as is.

How can we talk to someone who has enough excuse to not having to listen?

These excuses in combination with down-right disinformation campaigns by the fossil fuel lobby are soothing for most of us: Don't believe the hype of those climate doomists. Because it's much easier to believe the excuses and misinformation that are being circulated than to act. For many, it is easy to overlook that basically the only objective source of evaluation we have - science - is very much sure that climate change is real, humans are the main driving force, and we should definitely act ASAP to prevent climate catastrophe. Thus, climate action must be the main focus of our generation. And talking to friends and family about these problems is important, no matter how emotional or difficult it may become. Often you find yourself shouted down or repeatedly interrupted in the middle of a sentence, because the topic makes people boil. You will hear falsehoods, misconceptions, and lies that are circulated by politics, media, and lobbies. Rebutting all of them is near impossible - in a conversation it is entirely futile. People get overly emotional and maybe after reading this text you have a better understanding on why they are emotional. Make sure you don't reply with the same level of emotionality... first listen. Listening is the basis of finding common ground. Even if it means having to bite your tongue for a time.

Although all of this may sound a bit hopeless, it is not. With a bit of exercise you will grow more confident in talking to others about climate change. Don't forget one of the main points: Listen to each other! Don't compete in a shouting match. And keep reading about the actual climate science from reliable sources and teach yourself to identify common techniques that are employed by science denialists or just people that "would like to act, but...". There are handy concepts, such as FLICC, that help to identify the most common rhetorical tactics by people denying or misrepresenting science. Since it is completely impossible to rebut every piece of misinformation on the fly, it is much more efficient to identify the logical fallacies, anecdotal nature of evidence, or the fake experts that carry the rhetoric. It may help your conversation partner to understand that their thinking may be flawed and climate action could be worth a thought (or even a vote) after all.

Photo references: Crancy UncleMimi ThianChristina @ Wocintechchat

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Comments 1 to 11:

  1. Well said. I think a significant part of the scepticism and emotion about the climate issue is just some peoples natural fear and dislike of change, whether its new science, or economic or social changes. Especially if they are making good money from business as usual. The climate issue is pretty big and complex so that amplifies the fear. Unfortunately its spilled over into political tribalism. Changing all this is hard work, but we just have to keep trying. It might help to show them the wider benefits of climate mitigation policies.

    And sooner or later fossil fuels will run out so we can't put off change forever even without the climate issue. Now might be as good a time as any. 

    And human beings are slow to do much about climate mitigation because we are mentally constructed to respond most strongly to immediate threats, not more distant threats like climate change. This is basic psychology. The work around might be to show people the fact that things like renewable energy and electric cars etc have some immediate and wide benefits.

    If people are convinced something else is causing climate change like the sun or cosmic rays or geothermal activity they will remain being sceptics, so you must prioritise rebutting those arguments. You can rebut everything else, and miss this issue, you won't achieve anything.

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  2. Nice article Timo.

    My personal opinion is that very few people will change their ways just by reading this or any other article on SkS or other high-quality news sources. However, reading these articles gets people equipped with the information they need so that when they encounter the types of painful transitions in their lives that do motivate change, that they are then equipped to change in the correct direction.

    Talking about climate change is essential to prepare people for change, even if the change itself is delayed.

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  3. Great post. I can share those identifications - been there, done that, on many occasions.

    These obstacles were what got me into writing books like The Making of Ynyslas - to see if coming at climate change from a less conventional angle might bear fruit. Fitting a narrative of change to a place created by that change makes it hard to argue against the fact that the change has occurred.

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  4. About the only time I feel positive about people understanding the dire straits we are facing (even before the terrible tipping points soon to come)-is reading here on this blogsite the consensus of fixes and ways forward to address this building doom.  Alas, upon resuming my regular day to day life ( I'm a farmer) it seems our systems are all failing us, not just GW and since unbiased common sense isn't coming from our leaders... will it come at all.

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  5. Thanks Timo,

    "This observation raises the question why people get so emotional about the topic...

    Often you find yourself shouted down or repeatedly interrupted in the middle of a sentence, because the topic makes people boil. You will hear falsehoods, misconceptions, and lies that are circulated by politics, media, and lobbies."

    Been there, done that. And while doing that I discovered in a public house in Exeter several years ago that political neuroscientists have a theory:

    Accurate political predictions can be achieved through modelling brain function. This produces a new view of human nature, with biology subservient to the demands of human politics and its shifting coalitions, making our brains hardwired not to be hardwired.

    See also:

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  6. prove we are smart @4 You ask good, probing questions and I don't want to pretend to offer simple answers. A researcher who has influenced me a lot is Prof. Kevin Anderson in the UK. I highly recommend watching some of his video lectures, because I think he is one of the few people giving an honest assessment of the problem and what solutions need to look like. For one, we won't build a bunch of wind and solar farms and solve the problem. It is deeper than that, and Prof. Anderson does a great job of dealing with this difficult subject. He is more of an engineer than a scientist, and I think he comes at the problem with the common-sense approach of engineers. To find his talks, try the following Google search:

    youtube Kevin Anderson climate

    He gives a lot of talks with different titles and similar content. One that I think is particularly informative is the following.

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  7. Evan @6 - Once upon a time, in my professional capacity, I gatecrashed one of Kevin's seminars to a couple of lecture theatres full of climate scientists. Et moi.

    I discovered that I still had my surfcam in my backpack, so here is the abstract:

    There's a link to the whole thing in the YouTube description.

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  8. Thanks Jim for the link. The classroom and general layout looks familiar. Could it be that I've seen this presentation elsewhere? :-)

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  9. Thanks Evan for introducing me to Prof Kevin Anderson- this link to one of his youtube classes really hits home

    I also followed his advice to watch this also  " Merchants Of Doubt" . The sound is a bit low and a quirky way the poster got around the copyright but if only the climate deniers could watch it

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    Moderator Response:

    [BL] Links activated.

    The web software here does not automatically create links. You can do this when posting a comment by selecting the "insert" tab, selecting the text you want to use for the link, and clicking on the icon that looks like a chain link. Add the URL in the dialog box.

    The second link (to Merchants of Doubt) appears to be restricted to certain regions.


  10. prove we are smart @9, glad you got something out of Prof. Anderson's talks. Thanks for providing the link to one of his other talks.

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  11. "...although they "believe" in the problem of climate change, they are not willing to allow uncomfortable... policies to be introduced to counteract the problem."  Lately, I've sifted my conversation toward discussion of risk: What is the risk of making a permanent mistake, from a particular course of action?  Mistaken policies to fight climate change can be undone with the stroke of a pen, and there is nothing permanent about a wind turbine, or a field of solar panels.  They are even dismantling dams in the State of Oregon.  But the excess carbon dioxide we're putting into the atmosphere will be there, in human terms, forever.  It's reasonable to assume that future technologies to reduce that CO2 back into fuel of some sort will require at least as much energy as was released when that fuel was first oxidized.  Although I understand there are promising technologies in underground injection, we should assume the excess CO2 will be up there for hundreds of years, and we already know a changed climate is proportional to a changed CO2 content.  So, on this problem, the risk of the 'do nothing alternative' is quite high, due to its irreversibility.  It matters, as well, that the relevant experts charged with understanding the costs associated with that excess CO2 are themselves alarmed by the prospect of this change.  Meanwhile, the risk of taking action is quite low, due to its reversibility.  Wind and solar farms can be put up and taken down as needed, but once you put excess CO2 up into the atmosphere, it's not coming down, by any technology and expense now imaginable.

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