Opinion: the most important thing we can do about climate change is to talk about it so here are six tips to start the conversation with friends, family and neighbours

More hot air on climate change might seem like the last thing we need, but renowned US climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe advocates that the most important thing we can do about climate change is to talk about it. According to the US based Centre for Climate Change Communication, seven out of 10 Americans rarely or never discuss climate change with friends or family.

Katharine Hayhoe's TED talk on how the most important thing you can do to fight climate change is to talk about it

As a manager of a university environmental institute I spend a lot of my time talking about climate change with academics, policymakers and environmental NGOs. Sometimes it feels like an echo chamber so moving the conversation beyond a sphere of the converted and committed requires a different approach. Fortunately, we can now draw on a significant body of research from social sciences, humanities and psychology, that provide insights into what works for climate communication (and what we should steer clear of). Here are some useful tips.

Picking your moment

Your potential audience has to be ready to talk, so look for opportunities so inject open-ended and inquisitive questions about climate change in your conversation. Last week, the death of Gay Byrne reminded us that we could just get a slot on The Late, Late Show if we wanted a national conversation on climate change in Ireland in the 1980s. That option may not be available to us now, but RTE's week on climate change gives us the ideal opportunity to kick start our conversation. Failing that, our national obsession with the weather and how bad it is means that we are never short of an opportunity to drop the "climate change" words into daily discussions.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Olivia O'Leary discovers how it feels when climate change hits home

Connect it to everyday life

Climate change is a wicked problem that intersects with just about every other area of life. It traverses critical issues such as energy, diet, transport, inequality, poverty, and foreign policy. People may not necessarily care about climate change, but they might be very concerned about immediate concerns such as their health, job security or the cost of petrol. Climate change can seem too enormous to deal with and too distant to be relevant so making connections to local problems can be very effective. If there are plans to revamp the local park, why not suggest that it could include a facility for flood management or trees for carbon sequestration?

Be a good listener

Greta Thunberg has repeatedly told us to "listen to the science", but it is also important for us listen to each other. We have so much to say it is tempting to begin a conversation by blurting out all the things you know about climate change but nobody likes being upbraided for their lack of knowledge. You already know what you think, but you need to find out what they think. If they ask you what you know or what you think, don’t crowd them with knowledge.

Facts versus engagement

Facts are interesting, but feelings are what compel us to care and to take action. According to the Norwegian psychologist, Per Espen Stoknes, it is not enough for people to know about climate change in order to be engaged; they also need to care about it and be motivated and able to take action. Stoknes contends that engagement has three defining aspects – the cognitive, affective and behavioural. The purpose of climate change communication should not only be to promote understanding but to foster engagement and show people why they should care and motivated to act.

Per Espen Stoknes' TED talk on how to transform apocalypse fatigue into action on global warming

Keep it positive

Keep it specific and focus on the positive. Many of the solutions to climate change have important co-benefits: who doesn’t want cleaner air to breathe, better insulated houses, green spaces to enjoy, energy security, and healthier diets? And yes, those occasional heatwaves in Ireland are not all bad either!

It’s a conversation, not a crusade 

Climate change has been a battleground for activists and campaigners over the years. It can be an emotional journey and feelings can run high but every conversation is not a battle we need to win. Many of us have this idea of the road to Damascus conversion moment for our climate skeptic uncle when, after hearing all our compelling facts presented in a dazzling fashion, will get down on his knees and thank us for showing him the path to a zero carbon future. It’s a nice thought, but unlikely!

Conversations are slowly shifting from international climate change panels to community centres, village pubs and GAA clubs

There is a finally a sense that climate change is imposing itself in the public sphere in Ireland and conversations slowly shifting from international climate change panels to community centres, village pubs and GAA clubs. The individual conversations discussed here are crucial but we also need better ways of engaging with and talking about climate change in communities.

This weekend, the Imagining 2050 project hosted by the Environmental Research Institute at UCC will be holding a weekend workshop with citizens in and around Ballincollig, Co Cork to explore innovative approaches to engage with communities on climate change and co-develop future visions of a low carbon and climate resilient future. As another famous psychologist Dr Frasier Crane might say, "we will be listening".


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ