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What I learned when I talked to strangers about the climate crisis

Climate conversations in the forest

What I learned when I talked to strangers about the climate crisis

Climate conversations in the forest

What I learned when I talked to strangers about the climate crisis

By Howard Kirkham, environmentalist and retired Director of Youth Justice for the Interior Region, BC Public Service

If you have ever attempted to have a conversation with others concerning the nature of the climate crisis, you would have cogently come to understand that it can be more vigorous than discussing sport scores or the latest musical hits. There is something inherent about the climate crisis, and the biodiversity crisis to an extent, that can make it as awkward conversationally as discussing politics or religion. The reason being is that it can hastily engage our world views or our understandings of divinity. Also, most of us have come to realize that the topic does not easily lend itself to a merry chat, such as might occur between two proud grandparents sharing their latest photo collection.

Douglas fir tree sketch
"Douglas Fir Bark", by Leanne Cadden, sketched en plein air

Despite the potential for prickly dialogue, Katherine Hayhoe, a Canadian climatologist, claims that one of the most effective micro responses to the climate crisis is to learn to talk about it with others, without necessarily invoking the science of it all. You can learn all about her approach in this fascinating TEDTalk.

Because I knew that I needed the practise, I heeded the suggestion of Katherine Hayhoe, while on my weekly runs on the grounds of Royal Roads University in Victoria, BC. I simply surveyed strangers by asking them a scaling question involving the climate crisis. I was keenly grateful to have such evocative conversations in the presence of Douglas firs, red cedars, hemlocks, arbutus and other carbon consumers in an old growth forest.

My informal study

My main objective was to practise my conversational skills, primarily through listening, free of any attempts to alter the opinions of respondents. As I carried out my study over a period of time, the sample size of my informal poll came to approximately 90 people.

As I engaged in conversation with respondents, I asked them the following question:

On a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being “climate change is not an important issue in the world” and 10 being “climate change represented the greatest challenge facing the earth today”, what number would you choose?

On some occasions, I would also ask if there was any potential circumstance that might cause them to change their assigned number.

Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash
Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

Climate conversation observations

Only one person declined the opportunity to answer my question, as she was late picking up her children from daycare. A mere few respondents voted with their feet early in the conversational process. However, the majority of people were eager to lodge their feet firmly on the earth and commence our discussion.

The most common responses were #8 or higher, with a healthy number independently exceeding the parameter of the scaling question, by providing an answer of #11 or #12. The respondents at the low end of the scale often cited a mistrust of scientists and politicians, alluded to conspiracy theories, stated that climate has always been changing, or blamed China. One observation I found particularly interesting was when it came to families, children often prompted their parents to select a higher number. And if there was any circumstance that had the potential to increase respondent’s ranking, it was greater evidence of extreme weather events.

Some respondents even chose to expand the conversation by disclosing the following:

– That the ethical dissonance, resulting from their own dependency upon fossil fuels, was a source of personal angst;
– That they made a decision to remain childless, as a result of an uncertain ecological future;
– That the issue creates conflict with family members, particular those who are employed in the Alberta oil patch;
– That it was a challenge becoming a vegetarian while belonging to a family of butchers;
– The climate crisis caused other personal areas of stress in their lives.

Climate protest
Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

What I learned from the experience

I learned many things from this experience as I practised how to talk about the climate crisis. First of all, more people were eager to discuss this topic than I expected. Children also had many views and opinions to share. And overall, the exercise was much easier than I anticipated. This was likely because the respondents were strangers.

When some asked for my own views, there were many instances where we felt we had accomplished something of rare value. This was especially the case when conversations evolved to the point of identifying known solutions. Also, our dialogues always remained respectful. However, I was saddened to hear stories of personal conflict arising from this issue. With the experience I gained from my approximately 90 conversations, I was able to use what I learned to engage family members and friends in climate crisis conversations, which to date have gone well.

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