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A Framework for Conversations on Climate Change

We should be talking about climate change. Many of us are, and at times it can be a frustrating experience because not everyone understands or necessarily wants to understand the science of climate change. How do we talk about climate change in a productive manner?

As a climate scientist engaging with the public and through my fortunate professional acquaintances, I have borrowed/stolen/refined/developed a climate change discussion framework that I employ to help me understand where people are and to better navigate deepening their understanding of the climate crisis.

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe in her brilliant Ted Talk claims the most important thing you can do fight climate change is to talk about climate change and I certainly do not disagree, but haven’t you ever had a conversation on climate change that made you want to scream? I know I have. Where you feel like you’re listening and addressing their points calmly and rationally, but getting nowhere and at the end both people are left feeling like conversation went nowhere. If you know that feeling, this is the cure: a conversational framework for climate discussions.

This framework is intended to help people talk to the climate change doubters, skeptics, deniers, trolls, and simply casually misinformed. It’s probably also possible to reverse engineer the framework and deploy it’s opposite to talk with believers and environmental evangelists, but I’ll be writing from the point of view of a climate scientist.

The concept is simple: Listen to your conversational partner and seek to understand where they fall in this spectrum:

  1. It’s Happening: The Earth is getting warmer and the climate is changing.
  2. It’s Us: Human activities cause climate change
  3. It’s Bad: The changing climate will have negative effects for humans and wildlife.
  4. There’s Hope: We can still take meaningful action to prevent and protect against climate change impacts

Once you know where they fit, tailor your responses to address only the specific position in the framework. If you can move them along a stage in the spectrum, you’ve done very well. You don’t need to convince them that the Earth’s viability ends in 12 years to feel like the conversation was productive, instead just try to make headway along the path. This way you know exactly which points will be meaningful to your audience and you don’t take on too much, too fast or have unrealistic expectations for the results of this one conversation.

Success is defined by progress along the spectrum and you don’t need your audience to accept everything you are saying all at once (even though it’s true).

You can ignore the many distracting arguments that will be thrown out about the other stages of the framework. Focus on establishing one stage at a time.

America is polarized. On climate change like everything else, there seem to be two deeply entrenched camps, both focusing on their talking points and allowing little possibility of conversion. Strangely, with climate change, both sides claim science as their ally and this makes conversation difficult when taken all at once. The framework lets you concentrate on one part of the issue and reach agreement before moving on.

I hope you find this a useful tool and keep reading my blogs to learn more details about each stage of the framework, what kinds of arguments will be made in each stage, and what sort of policy decisions become viable at each stage.

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