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How I try to break climate silence

Posted on 6 March 2020 by BaerbelW

When it comes to climate change many people are still hesitant to talk about it even though many experts have stated that it's important to break "climate silence" whenever an opportunity presents itself. For example, here is how John Cook put it in the article 16 Sustainability Leaders Weigh In: How YOU Can Help To Reverse Global Warming:

"The most effective thing we can do as individuals to fight global warming is break the climate silence. Talk to our friends, family, and most importantly, our elected officials – letting them know we care about the issue of climate change and want to hand over a safe world to our children. It’s only by building social and political momentum that we will make the needed transition to clean, renewable society.

From Jill Kubit:

"From my perspective, talking about climate change is the single most effective thing that you can do.

By this, I don’t mean having an argument with someone in your family who disagrees. I mean thinking deeply about why you care about climate change – why this matters to you – and then sharing this perspective with your own friends and family and with your community. This action – talking about climate in an authentic, personal way – helps normalize the idea that climate change is an important, urgent issue and breaks the invisibility or climate silence that currently exists within our culture. [...]"

From Katharine Hayhoe:

"The single most important thing we can do about climate change is, talk about it!

Studies have shown that not even 25 percent of people in the U.S. hear somebody else talk about climate change more than once or twice a year. The biggest challenge we face isn’t science denial. It’s complacency: nobody thinks climate change is going to affect them personally, and why would they if we never talk about it? [...]"

By now, I guess that you get the gist! There's even a cartoon for this in John's new book "Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change":


Anybody who knows me, will be aware that I'm all for "breaking climate silence" and will do just that given half a chance! So, the rest of this blog post will list some of the things I do or at least try in order to break climate silence. Please use the comments to share how you try to do it and what - if any feedback - you received.

Some recurring activities

scarfOn Fridays - in support of "Fridays for Future" - I often go to the office wearing some climate-themed apparel like a t-shirt and scarf printed with Ed Hawkins' climate stripes. Colleagues sometimes comment on the colorful scarf without realising what the stripes signify and this then presents a small opportunity to "talk climate". As a t-shirt - even if long-sleeved - is too cold during winter, I also have the "uncozy sweater" from WWF Switzerland which on first sight just looks like a very colorful sweater to wear during winter. But, if colleagues take a closer look they quickly get what it's all about.

In the company I work for we have a little program called "Mystery Lunch". This is basically a platform to organise "blind dates" to have lunch together with a colleague from another department you normally wouldn't have much contact with in the course of your daily work. One obvious purpose is to network and to get to know people and a little bit about the processes from other areas of the company. But, there's usually also ample time to talk about non-work related topics, like each other's spare time activities. To by now most likely nobody's surprise I use this to bring up my climate-related activities which thus far have always shown to pique my colleague's interest. It also comes in handy that my office isn't far away from the main cafeteria, so I'm usually able to hand out a flyer about Skeptical Science I just happen to have lyinging around on my desk before we say our good-byes!

pole-to-poleAt least once or twice per year, I offer a climate-themed tour through our local zoological and botanical garden "Wilhelma" in Stuttgart.  During the 90 minutes tour I explain the basics of climate science like the greenhouse effect and how some of the species we have at the Wilhelma are already or will most likely be affected in the future by climate change. I've been doing these tours since 2014 and to learn more about them, please check my blog post "From Pole to Pole - a climate-themed tour through a zoo". The feedback I get at the end is positive and - from what I can tell - more engaged than when I present basically the same material in a lecture room (at least if the weather is cooperative and it's neither to hot or wet outside!).

Some other activities

Last year, I got the impromptu opportunity to host a 30-minute long "unconference" session while at the SAP TechEd conference in Barcelona and used that to "Talk about climate science to break climate silence" with eight other conference attendees on a Thursday morning. I'm already hoping for a repeat opportunity at this year's conference to perhaps introduce others to the Cranky Uncle app!

At the end of November I got the chance to do a presentation during a SAP Community call titled "Taking on fake news about climate science". The video below is a pre-recording of the presentation which is available as a PDF-file for download here.

By now, I have different versions of this presentation readily available in both English and German which I can then easily adapt as opportunities to do a presentation or workshop come up. Thus far, this year, I've used the somewhat more technical version during a workshop for Scientists for Future and the version geared towards a more general audience at an event for our local conservation group. The presentation material is all based on slide-decks originally created by John Cook who is kind enough to create versions for me without any text on them to make translating them into German a lot easier.

crankybookAnother small thing I'm trying out now that John Cook's Cranky Uncle book is available is having a copy lying on my office desk at work to see if it'll pique my colleagues' interest enough to actually pick it up and leaf through it (of course during breaks!). If they do, it'll be yet another opportunity to talk climate!

As you can see, there's quite some small and - admittedly - not so small stuff you can do to try to break climate silence. Not everything will be something to try for everybody, but it's nonetheless worthwhile to start with an activity you feel comfortable with and to not be discouraged when there's no immediately visible impact or feedback. You'll never know until you actually try and you may just be surprised by the reactions you get!

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Comments 1 to 9:

  1. Thank you, BaerbelW.   It's always worth the reminder, that a gentle "background pressure" of normalizing AGW references (into everyday conversations) can help achieve a better general awareness of the problem. (One needs to keep at the Goldilocks Level, where the mention of the subject is casual & ordinary, without seeming forced or fanatically intrusive, of course.)  All this, gets to put a grass-roots "upward pressure" on politicians ~ who are the ones who can produce the greatest physical change in the global situation.

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  2. "The single most important thing we can do about climate change is, talk about it!"

    Nope. The most important thing is to do something about it, even if its only a couple of things as a start. Then you will have something meaningful to share with other people and you won't come across as seeming too forced or preachy. 

    Of course talking about it is important. Sadly its become politicised so best to tread carefully like Eclectic says.

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  3. Have to disagree with you to some extent, Nigelj.

    Of course it's useful to do something  at your own personal level ~ the energy economizations, the house solar panels, maybe the electric car.  But those activities should not be mentioned pro-actively in ordinary social conversations: or it will come across as "preachy".

    You know that those activities only have a very small diminutive effect on the growing CO2 level.   There really has to be a top-down approach: which means wholesale conversion to renewables electric power generation; the fiscal encouragement of electric vehicles; the research push into organically-derived hydrocarbon fuels for ships planes and so on.   All this can only come from "the top"  i.e. from politicians taking action.   Politicians tend not to think of the long term ~ they are busy day-to-day and election-to-election.   But they do respond to vested interest lobbying by donors . . . and they respond to grass-roots pressure from voters.   They don't think about your roof panels . . . but they do think about your vote.   En masse voters, expressing an increasing expectation of climate action by governments.

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  4. Nigelj @2 & Eclectic @3

    While talking about climate change was mentioned several times in the article prompting this post, another suggestion mentioned multiple times was "to vote wisely" (my words, not theirs). Here is how Michael Mann put it:

    “Putting pressure on our elective representatives to act. We need to put a price on carbon and incentivize renewable energy to accelerate the transition underway from fossil fuels to green energy.

    But we cannot do that as individuals. Only our policymakers can do that. That means we must vote in politicians who favor action, vote out those who don’t, and put as much pressure as possible (in the form of activism, letter-writing, organizing, you name it) on our policymakers to act now.”

    or Stefan Rahmstorf:

    “How would I know what the most effective is? That is guesswork, but if you insist I would say:

    Always vote for candidates and parties that work for climate protection.”

    This just wasn't the focus of this particular blog post, otherwise I might have mentioned that I'm also actively involved with Citizens' Climate Lobby in Germany and across Europe where we try to engage with our elected parliamentarians in order to get a meaningful price on carbon emissions (but there's a post from 2017 about CCL).

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  5. Eclectic & BaerbelW

    I'm just trying to say people can so often be "all talk and no action" and I see evidence of this with climate change. Thats why I said the most important thing to do is not to just talk about stuff with friends etc, but to personally do something. By action I mean making some efforts to reduce our personal carbon footprints, but this would also clearly involve voting for climate friendly parties.

    I agree the main thrust of climate action does have to come from the top down. Its important to talk about that with people about that, and people vote for the most climate friendly party / politician.

    I would think its natural that people will talk with others about what they have personally done. It becomes preachy when people tell other people what they should do in a dictatorial, annoying manner.

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  6. My initial attempts to discuss climate change have met with some success but mostly dissappointment. While discussions have sometimes become 'heated', I haven't lost any friends as yet but I feel people are more wary of mentioning the 'c' word in front of me. I'm currently completing the Climate Denial 101x course which I'm finding immensely useful. I also subscribe to a number of websites including greenpeace, greens party and Market Forces and this is useful to get involved by emailing politicians or corporations about certain issues. Finally, I often post political or climate change news on Facebook, unfortunately with very few responses. 

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  7. I speak a lot about climate change. So hearing these statistics about people not talking about climate change is a little weird for me: climate change is one of the main topics of my live ..

    I like best personal situations, where I can adapt to the situation and try to connect. I use whatever situation I can grasp, but I try not to overdo or overload a person: too much does not help. But online posting and mailing to friends (not too often) also is part of the picture. I operate a small garden forum for local gardeners and these people get a good dose of climate information (links to reports, articles, sks, ..), always with a little link to the garden, which is not hard to find: 2016 etc. were so exceptional that nobody doing garden work can ignore it: I try to help connect the dots.

    What helps is if there is authentic action: I do not fly, have no car, eat no meat, little milk, mostly regional organic food, grow food myself, heat little (starting at 10C inside, but fortunately my current one room appartement does not get that cold: min 13 (I always live in the roof, so taking away little from other people in the house)), use no refrigerator (but I have computer, smartphone, books, an appartement for myself, an inline kitchen and a small bathroom for myself, a laundry washing machine, .. so far from being an eco angel). Authentic action already helped to impress even (and especially) very conservative people, because it partly fits their mindset, only the reason why I do it does not. Some started to think about it, I guess (I do not ask directly).

    What also helps a lot is knowledge about climate change itself and about climate communication and climate fear. It helps to stay calm, even if you happen to encounter a denier argument you did not yet hear of and cannot answer by yourself: you know you can easily look it up (e.g. here at SkS), read about the flaw/fallacy and next time have the answer ready. I also use inoculation, in the form I learned in the SkS MOOC, but also differently: I prepare people that they will be fooled, present a denier argument (preferrably cherry picking, e.g. glaciers are growing or short periods of intermittent cooling after some local maximum), tell them it's true (leaving them stunned and searching for an explanation) and then reveal the whole picture (like in the escalator). I do this, because even ecologically minded people get trapped: they have some taken over opinion (like I do for some topics too) and the denier mechanics is to break trust/confidence. So I try to build resilience to seemingly well founded denier arguments by suggesting to postpone the evaluation until comprehensive valid data (e.g. SkS) is available.

    I also regularly promote CO2 and footprint calculators if it fits the course of the conversation, because it helps to get the big picture and the extent of what is necessary. Especially ecologically minded people are often shocked to hear that they too have a long way to go (see ). Others have even longer ways to go, but some do not even care (yet, until they meet me ;-) ..).

    Recently, I also joined Fridays demonstrations (38 weeks ..): this is also a good opportunity for talking about climate change and networking.

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  8. A long comment with details added for anyone interested.

    My starting point, or foundation, is “Try to Help Others and Do No Harm”, with the awareness that Everybody’s actions combine to become the future. And being aware that compromising on understanding and its helpful application, or compromising on the required corrections, is understandably harmful.

    I think it is essential for people to learn to be as helpful as possible and as harmless as possible. That means personally expanding awareness and improving understanding and applying what is learned to help develop sustainable improvements, and helping others do that. And voting helpfully, and helping others vote more helpfully, is a key part of that individual action.

    Rather than provide examples of what I do I will share the basics of the approach I try to use to help others expand their awareness and improve their understanding and apply that learning to be less harmful and become more helpful. It is a work in progress, but this is its current form. (A recent example would be my comments on the “Silk Road article”).

    A bit of personal Background:

    I try to stick to the fundamentals of constantly improving awareness and understanding regarding any issue and applying what I learn to try to help others and avoid harm being done or reduce the risk of harm. I learned that was the foundation of being a Good Engineer. And it was reinforced by my MBA education which I pursued out of interest in expanded awareness and understanding to be helpful, not in order to get richer quicker.

    My MBA education in the 1980s, and my engineering career, taught me that misleading marketing can be temporarily effective but eventually fails, so Good Managers should not use it. My MBA education also taught me that there were very few case studies of Businesses that were Helpful Good Ethical participants in society. Seems that the pursuit of popularity and profit can compromise good understanding and helpful intentions.

    I live in Alberta, Canada. I often encounter people who don’t get climate science and the required corrections of developed human activity. Many appear to resist getting it because getting it would require them to give up beliefs and actions that they have developed a liking for.

    What I try to do when given an opportunity to discuss climate change:

    The following is an Idealized outline of my approach to a comment that initiates the opportunity to discuss human climate change impacts. I try to follow it to avoid getting sucked into a foundation-less argument. I also try to not ‘match the attitude’ of the person I interact with if they start to get angry. That can be difficult because mimicking is a good thing in an interaction when we are collaborating, but the Fight side of Fight or Flight seems to wire us to mimic the increased aggressive behaviour of the person we are engaged with.

    I Start by establishing that:

    • Everyone’s actions add up to become the future. This is key to inoculate against beliefs that Others should act first, especially that totally incorrect but very common demand that the Chinese and Indian populations are the climate change impact problem, rather than understanding that per-person impacts are the point. It also blocks someone from claiming the freedom to believe and do as they please because one person’s actions are no big deal.
    • Improved awareness and understanding applied to help develop sustainable improvements and reduce harm done is a Governing Objective. This ties to my primary interest in raising awareness of the Sustainable Development Goals (all of the SDGs), and the key importance of limiting human climate change impacts.
    • I see little point in further discussion without this fundamental awareness and understanding being established.

    I then try to establish the following points of understanding, based on the source information I refer to (I am careful about referring to the IPCC or SkS. Many people seem to have developed an impulsive dislike of the IPCC and SkS, especially in Alberta):

    • In the 1800s there was the initial development of awareness and understanding that GHGs in the atmosphere increase the temperature at the surface of the planet, and particularly that increased CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels could become a significant influence: I initially refer to Wikipedia History of climate change science. If there are questions about Wikipedia’s validity, I refer to the SkS History of Climate Science. That is a well-presented alternative to Wikipedia that has matching content and adds reference to “The Discovery of Global Warming” by Spencer R. Weart, and the Timeline webpage on the American Institute of Physics website.
    • Evidence of recent increase in levels of atmospheric CO2: NOAA Greenhouse Gas Website (also shows trends for CH4, N2O and SF6)
    • Evidence of recent increase of global average surface temperature: NASA/GISTemp data set (I refer to the SkS Trend Calculator if the person wonders about other temperature data sets, and I discussion the difference between surface temperature data and satellite data)
    • Evidence of recent reduction of Arctic, Antarctic and Greenland ice extents and mass: NSIDC, particularly the Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis page.
    • Rising sea levels due to warming of oceans as well as loss of ice, not just Antarctica and Greenland: NASA Sea Level Change.

    If I get agreement on those fundamentals, I bring up the Sustainable Development Goals and the understood need to achieve all of them through individual action, particularly getting individuals to vote for parties that will try to achieve the SDGs, all of them. And I point out that stopping climate change impacts of human activity is a major helpful action, because more significant human caused climate change makes it harder to achieve almost all of the SDGs.

    I then return to discussing the fundamental objective of learning to help develop sustainable improvements and learning to stop harmful actions, tied to knowing that Everybody’s actions add up to the future (negatives if they are harmful). And I try to make the point that there is no neutral position. There is no harmless bystander. Harm is harm. It is not balanced by doing good. A rare exception is trying to help an individual in a way that may harm them – the medical intervention dilemma. Aside from that type of rare Ethical dilemma all other considerations are pretty simple Do No Harm, and Try to Help Others.

    How I bring up climate change when given an opportunity to discuss any of the Sustainable Development Goals (there is so much covered by the SDGs that there are many opportunities for this type of discussion):

    I use an approach that is similar to the climate change one above:

    •  Start by pointing out that Everyone’s actions add up to become the future. And Improved awareness and understanding ….
    • Raise fundamental awareness and all of the SDGs, and the history of development of awareness and understanding that resulted in the SDGs: WWI – League of Nations (failure) WWII – UN, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (still a battle to have embraced and honoured by all Leadership) – everything since including Millennium Development Goals and SDGs.
    • Once agreement of importance of achieving all of the SDGs is established introduce the importance of stopping human climate change impacts because climate change makes achieving the SDGs so much harder.

    Regarding how people vote:

    I find it challenging to get people I encounter to consider changing their vote. Even if I can get a person to understand and agree that the threat of climate change impacts requires significant corrections of what has developed popularity and profitability, it can be very difficult to get them to change what party they vote for. Many people in Alberta are motivated by the wealth that they have developed a liking for obtaining from the export of fossil fuels combined with the comfort, convenience and enjoyment they can get from using fossil fuels.

    The majority of people in Alberta seem to have develop a liking for a certain type of political group based on uncritical identification, particularly just needing to see the Name Conservative or the political position being commented on as Right-wing (that type of party was Alberta’s leadership from 1931 through to 2015, and it returned to power in 2019). The recent time when a non-Conservative party won the leadership happened because there were two well-known Conservative Right-wing parties almost evenly splitting the Conservative/Right-wing votes (though the winning NDP did get a significant number of votes).
    And many of those Conservative supporters seem uninterested in investigating the helpfulness/harmfulness of the current set of actions and intentions of the political group they developed a liking for. Their natural inclination is to resist change. And that can be powerful enough to make them resist learning, resist fully correcting or expanding their awareness and understanding. Even getting them to be very concerned about climate change may not be enough to get them to change who they vote for. Some of them seem so ‘identity locked-in’ that they may dislike many of the current actions and plans of the party they developed a liking for, but they will still support it, accepting and making-up poor excuses for the harmful cheating actions and incorrect misleading claims made by Their Party because, well, it is Their Party and they want it to Win, they resist changing their mind (much like sports fans can excuse harmful cheating behaviours by Their Favourite Teams).

    I have tried to help them understand that the party they are supporting may have harmfully changed from what they developed a liking for. It may have moved to embrace the support of harmfully self-interested people and that change will damage the Brand they like to identify with. To be fair, many of them probably like their Party because of a harmful self-interest, but they are unlikely to openly admit it.

    Based on reading international political news I am quite sure that this also occurs with Right-wing parties and supporters in other nations. You may get them to understand climate science and the identified required corrections, but you are unlikely to get them to vote for a party that is not Conservative/Right-wing. And good luck getting them to succeed in pushing Their Correction Resistant Party to disappoint a significant portion of the Party’s dedicated motivated relied-on voter pool – all those who have a self-interest in personally benefiting as much as possible from the actions of the Party they support, especially the really rich supporters.

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  9. Regarding my comment @8,

    The following set of links are the specific ones I find are helpful, hard to dispute:


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