How to talk to your family about climate change

With the climate crisis making more headlines than ever, difficult conversations about climate change will be hard to avoid this holiday season. So we asked a therapist, a scientist, a policy expert, and a psychologist about how to navigate these conversations with relatives who might not share your point of view. When that uncle breaches the topic this Christmas, how can you respond in a way that could actually change his mind?

“We can’t just stop using fossil fuels. That’s not how the world works! Think of the job losses, economic growth, and our GDP.”‌‌

Answer by Prof. Dr. Volker Quaschning, expert in renewable energy:

Earning money and creating jobs does not necessarily justify one’s actions – take for example the burning of the Amazon, which is also creating jobs. ‌‌

But let’s take a look at how things stand in terms of jobs. In Germany, for instance, 20,000 people work in the brown coal industry – that’s certainly a lot of jobs and livelihoods. On the other hand, over 100,000 people work in wind energy and over 50,000 in solar. ‌‌

In the last two years, we have cut 30,000 jobs in the wind energy sector as the switchover to green energy was largely drawn to a halt. ‌‌

So what we’re seeing is a double standard whereby jobs in the fossil fuel industries are regarded as much more important than jobs in renewable energies. This means that the loss of jobs is simply being used as pretext in favor of justifying one’s own actions.‌‌

Furthermore, we are creating many more on-site jobs in renewable energies than in the importing of oil, coal and gas.‌‌

"But I love meat! Have some!"

Answer by Dr. Melanie Joy, Psychologist:

“I get it; I can relate to loving meat! I used to love it, too. In fact, Christmas ham was one of my favorite meals.” (Or some variation of this.)‌‌

“I’d love to tell you the reason I don’t eat meat. I just don’t want to dominate the dinner conversation, so let’s talk about it after we’re done eating.” (If possible, don’t talk about eating animals when people are eating animals because they’re likely to be more defensive.)‌‌

“The reason I don’t eat meat anymore is because of something that happened to me.” (Here, you share your story. Just keep it short, and avoid graphic descriptions of animal suffering and language that your relative could interpret to mean they are, for example, “immoral” or “ignorant.”) ‌‌

“I saw a video on my Facebook feed about how animals are raised and killed for food – and I was shocked and horrified.” (Or, “I found a vein in the chicken leg I was eating and suddenly felt disgusted by the meat…” etc.) ‌‌

“I then did my own research, and I learned that farmed animals (pigs, chickens, cows, etc.) are intelligent and conscious, just like dogs. And that billions of these animals are brutally slaughtered every year – and that animal agribusinesses work to hide this truth.” (You can add briefly that, on top of this, you learned that animal agriculture is a primary cause of climate change and human health problems.) ‌‌

“And then I could never see meat the same way again. Now when I look at the ham on the table, I don’t see ‘food.’ I see a dead animal, and instead of feeling appetized, I feel disgusted. I guess the best way for you to understand what I’m talking about is to imagine how you might feel if the meat on the table was from a golden retriever – who you knew had suffered terribly before being cooked.” ‌‌

"Climate change is natural. It’s always been like that. The planet gets warmer, then it gets colder. People are exaggerating the dangers. Some scientists agree with me!‌‌‌‌"

Answer by Prof. Dr. Volker Quaschning, expert in renewable energy:

An estimated 0.5% of scientists disagree with the premise that humans are responsible for causing climate change. But there are also a few lung doctors who claim that driving diesel cars isn’t harmful to health. Such claims will always exist. ‌‌

But the facts are actually clear. It is true that the Earth’s climate has always varied. The most recent transition was from the ice age to the warm interglacial period, when the temperature rose by three to four degrees.‌‌

Back then, Berlin was covered by a layer of ice 200 meters thick. The warming of the planet resulted in the ice melting, which caused sea levels to rise by 120 meters. Such radical changes can be triggered by a difference of three to four degrees. ‌‌

The increase in greenhouse gas emissions means that we are currently facing a further temperature rise of three to four degrees. It’s easy to imagine just how different the Earth will look then. ‌‌

We have lived through a relatively stable climate period for around 10,000 years, and this is now coming to an end. The planet will survive. The question is whether humans will be able to cope with these changes, because the changes are coming faster than our ability to adapt.‌‌

"I’m worried about climate change, but I don’t know what to do. The whole thing just distresses me. Isn’t it too late anyway?"

Answer by Rosemary Randall, psychotherapist and co-founder of the Carbon Conversations Project‌‌:

There's no template for replying to someone's climate distress. It's all about listening, empathy and understanding: ‌‌

Acknowledge that they're right to be worried. ("I can see why you're concerned.")

Listen. Encourage them to talk. ("It sounds like this has really shaken you…")

Recognise that painful feelings are appropriate. ("It's normal to be upset/the news about climate change is devastating…")

Empathize. Help find words for the distress. Welcome their tears, grief or anger. ("I want to hear what you have to say./You sound overwhelmed by this./There’s a lot to feel sad about…”)

Be curious. Ask for the story of how they woke up to this issue. ("When did this first hit you…?")

Explore. Ask what climate change may mean for them personally. ("How do you think this is going to impact on your life?/your generation?/your family?/your work?")

Share. If you've gone on a similar journey, share it. (“I've struggled with this too”…) If you haven't, be truthful about the fact that perhaps you should. ("Listening to you, I realize that perhaps there are things I've been refusing to face…")

Encourage action. Help them think about what they can do - politically, in their community, at work and about their own impact. ("Action often helps you feel better/ Working with others can restore a sense of control and efficacy.”)

Challenge despair and apocalyptic thinking. ("We don't know exactly what will happen./ Act because it's the right thing to do./ Everything you do stops it being worse.”)

Don’t offer false reassurances or try to close the conversation.

Do offer your love, support and solidarity.

"So what can I do to help?"

Answer by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, policy expert and founder/CEO of Ocean Collectiv

If you have even a small bit of land, plant trees and grow food. Plant a Climate Victory Garden.

If you can vote, vote in every single election. In the last U.S. presidential election, around 10 million registered environmentalists did not vote, way more than enough to flip the outcome.

If you have special skills put them to use. Make art to inform and inspire, use law to fight for climate justice, create websites to help us organize, cook meals to nourish activists, throw parties to build community.

If you have money or hours to spare, donate it to groups like Youth Climate Strike, Zero Hour, Extinction Rebellion, and Sunrise Movement.

If you eat and feed others, choose foods that are grown regeneratively, restoring carbon to the soil, where it belongs.

And we must show up and raise our voices. We have to transform culture. So, talk about climate change. With your friends, colleagues, neighbors, church, school, sports team, family. We can’t mobilize at the scale we need to, unless we face this existential challenge head on, together, with clarity, grounded in science and empathy, and focused on solutions.

Building community around solutions is the most important thing. We must build a coalition so massive that we shift the status quo and no longer need to march.

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