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November 28, 2019
How to Really Talk About Climate Change by Hanna Araza

Consider this: according to journalist and environmental activist Bill McKibben, almost everything we needed to know about climate change has been in the public domain since 1989. Vancouver’s recent Climate Strike – with a turnout of over 80,000 people – illustrates that climate change might finally be getting its due urgency. I painted my sign and geared up to take the streets with my peers, more than ready to show strength in numbers and press our leaders into action. I also asked a close friend about meeting up to march together. His answer? He wasn’t coming. He was busy, but he also didn’t feel like he was really going to make a difference.

Surprise, followed by defensiveness, were the first emotions I felt in response. Then came understanding and reflection.

Without a doubt, my friend cares about the environment. People show up in different ways. However, climate change is such a wicked problem. It’s highly complex, a policy minefield, and touches every part of our lives, whether feel it or not. Needless to say, an issue of this scale is profoundly overwhelming. Facing an uncertain future and a ticking clock, it seems even more imperative to act now. But like my friend, it’s hard not to feel so small in the face of such a massive challenge. It’s tempting to just shut myself off entirely.

When I think about why this might be, I really do think that communication plays a key role in our climate crisis. Hear me out.

Academia: Who knows? Who cares?

There’s a common perception that academia is terrible at sharing wisdom. I’ve spent the last few months as a student at Simon Fraser University’s Semester in Dialogue program. Our focus is on Climate Futures so I’m exposed to many different angles around climate change everyday. Even then, I come from a non-science background. When highly technical terms and processes are thrown around in our discussions, I blank.

If there can be disconnect within a program wholly dedicated to climate change, how much wider could the gap be outside the classroom?

Publications and other ground-breaking research can be really exciting to those in that field. But I’ll say it: it can be pretty dry. I’ve had my own painful experiences of logging through pages upon pages of wordy arguments and obscure references. Not everyone will have the time, energy, or prior knowledge to unpack all of that. I often contemplate where we would be if we had acted sooner – say, 1989. If we had communicated the science better, would we be further along?

The trouble with climate alarmism

You don’t have to get into the nitty-gritty of climate science to have a foundational understanding of the problem at hand. In addition to academia, we get our information from other sources. The problem is that climate narratives tend to make alarmist appeals. We hear it in the news constantly: rising sea levels, mass extinction, or extreme weather wreaking havoc globally. David Wallace-Wells published a popular piece in New York magazine titled, “The Uninhabitable Earth.” From heat death and famine to economic collapse, it’s safe to say that his tour of all climate apocalypse scenarios has me terrified. One of my own childhood heroes, Bill Nye the “Science Guy,” made his point by blowtorching a model of our planet and cussing like I’ve never heard him do before. Catastrophe and these doom-and-gloom depictions of our future make for good soundbites. It’s click-worthy.

But it’s also isolating.

All these moving parts of climate change – economics, social justice, environmental impacts – are already difficult to scale. Intensified with fear, it feels insurmountable to the likes of a single person. As much as I care about my future, it’s even easier to just tune it all out.

Communication lies at the crux of knowledge and action. Clearly, fact and fear are not conducive to engagement and can make us feel powerless i.e. “I’m not an expert, and will my contribution really matter? Someone else can do it.”

So, let’s change the way we talk about it.

Assuming that people will act if they’re equipped with the facts is not proving to be true, and neither is hoping that terrifying people will instigate action alone. What then? What kind of climate communication is effective? One way we can combat this feeling of helplessness is by using a different framing – shifting the perspective from one of isolation, to one of community.

I saw the power of this at the climate strike. The feeling of being surrounded by likeminded and driven people emboldens me. I remember seeing a small child claiming her space, her homemade sign proudly raised, chanting with conviction as her guardian walked behind her. My voice joined hers, and the thousands there, to become one unified call to action. I see it in my dialogue class every day. The intelligence and passion that my peers bring into our discussions challenges and inspires me. When solitary becomes communal, I renew my sense of hope.

By championing this, I can combat the insecurity that my contributions don’t matter. We all wield collective power. Likewise, the social ripple effects of every person recognizing this and normalizing the change we want to see aids the structural changes that need to occur. I also try to be kind to myself. Balancing staying informed and knowing when to step back is tricky but vital. I try to resist the urge to despair and finding support in my community makes it a lot easier. We’re not in this alone.

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