How to Talk About Climate Change at Thanksgiving: Recipes for Good Conversations

, , former science communication officer | November 24, 2014, 11:10 am EST
Bookmark and Share

My mother’s family is politically diverse. And opinionated. As my grandmother tells it, the last time she and my grandfather voted for the same president was Eisenhower. Like a lot of families, our discussions around the holidays can veer into national issues and politics. Sometimes those discussions are enlightening, but they can also devolve into arguments.

Some people love it; others dread it, but make no mistake: Thanksgiving is as American as apple pie and it’s one of the few chances we have to come together as families. (Norman Rockwell's Freedom from Want, via Wikipedia.)

Some people love it; others dread it, but make no mistake: Thanksgiving is as American as apple pie and it’s one of the few chances we have to come together as families. (Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want, via Wikipedia.)

I know many families ban political discussions around the dinner table. While that’s not how I grew up, I understand why people want to avoid raised voices and hurt feelings, especially while they’re digging into stuffing. Unfortunately, many people would consider a discussion about climate change political, too. That sentiment can create a spiral of silence, according to George Marshall, who wrote a masterful guide to how we talk about climate change.

So if you care about climate issues, should you march into Thanksgiving dinner with some graphs, charts, and talking points? I sure hope not. For one thing, those aren’t edible (except pie charts, which are delicious). But even if you’re not trying to talk about climate change, it can and does come up.

It’s easy to have a normal, friendly conversation about climate issues with most people. But if you have a friend or relative who has very strong opinions about climate science or policy, the discussion can get more heated than the atmosphere. In those cases, you should think a little differently about how you approach the conversation.

Course one: serve up questions, not arguments

If someone tells you the Earth isn’t really warming, it’s an invitation to argue about temperature data and scientific authority. Further, some folks who don’t accept the science can raise a surprisingly large number of misleading points because there’s so much misinformation out there from which to draw.

Ever “win” an argument? Yeah, me neither. Save the arguments for daytime television shouting matches; when it comes to family, it’s far more effective to have discussions. (Arguing birds, via Wikipedia.)

Ever “win” an argument? Yeah, me neither. Save the arguments for daytime television shouting matches; when it comes to family, it’s far more effective to have discussions. (Arguing birds, via Wikipedia.)

Instead of having an argument, ask them where they read or heard a given point. Tell them you heard something different somewhere else. Don’t be defensive or aggressive about it. This isn’t about proving you’re right. It’s about sharing perspectives. Keep asking questions. You’ll probably find that someone’s skepticism toward climate science stems from a negative attitude about climate policy and politics rather than substantive objections to the science.

Similarly, a lot of people who accept the science are depressed about our prospects for dealing with climate change. They might feel like we’re already doomed, when, in fact, climate science presents us with a range of risks. It’s worth looking at what those risks — and our climate choices — really look like. The National Climate Assessment is the richest and most accessible resource on this topic for the United States.

Course two: served by people who share someone’s values

In his forthcoming book from Stanford University Press, How Culture Shapes the Climate Debate, the University of Michigan’s Andrew Hoffman argues that we can easily get caught up in the culture war when we talk about climate change. “Certainly, Al Gore and Rush Limbaugh evoke visceral responses from individuals on either side of the political divide while also resonating strongly with those who agree with their ideology,” Hoffman writes. “But individuals with credibility on both sides of the debate can act as ‘climate brokers.’”

Hoffman recommends pointing to people who share an audience’s values when it comes to climate and energy issues.

Andrew Hoffman’s book will be out in March from Stanford University Press. It has a ton of great advice and I’m sure I’ll be adding it to my recommending reading list for climate communicators.

Andrew Hoffman’s book will be out in March from Stanford University Press. It has a ton of great advice and I’m sure I’ll be adding it to my recommending reading list for climate communicators.

For instance, some people are uncomfortable with climate change because it feels like it’s in conflict with their religious views. You can point them to researchers like Katharine Hayhoe and religious leaders like Richard Cizik.

If someone’s objections are rooted in conservative politics, it’s worth learning about Bob Inglis and the R Street Institute. They have sensible ideas for addressing climate change based on conservative values and they have good-faith criticisms of liberal policies, too.

If you have a friend or relative who thinks addressing climate change will harm the economy, look to CERES and CDP, two groups that illuminate the business case for responding to climate change. Broad coalitions of businesses accept climate science, too.

These people and groups are also useful to highlight for people who are despondent about climate change. Efforts to respond to climate risks are bigger and more diverse than most people know; that should give us hope.

Course three: clear the table and bring the solutions

After you’ve tried the steps above, a discussion might still devolve into an argument. The good news is, you can always talk about solutions.

Indeed, even people who think climate change is a scientific conspiracy are interested in saving money on their electricity bills and visiting the gas station less often. Generally, Americans are in stronger agreement with one another about national and personal energy choices than they are about climate science. Spending more time focusing on what we agree on can be incredibly productive.

A Chevy Volt drive-train. Climate solutions can be cool. And they’re not theoretical or hard to imagine or tied to our political values. They are right here; right now. (via Wikipedia)

A Chevy Volt drive-train. Climate solutions can be cool. And they’re not theoretical or hard to imagine or tied to our political values. They are right here; right now. (via Wikipedia)

Some people who work in climate communication are uncomfortable with the idea of skipping over the science, but it can absolutely be the right approach for some audiences. If you face a choice between having a fifteen minute argument about the polar vortex or packing a few folks in Uncle Bob’s Chevy Volt for a test drive, the choice should be clear.

Mmmm….pie

Persuasion doesn’t happen right away. Sometimes the most you can do is encourage someone to be a little more open minded. After a conversation, you can follow up with an email or a Facebook message pointing to whatever (or whoever) you talked about earlier. Maybe your friend or relative will be singing a slightly different tune next time you see them.

Regardless, at some point, you’ll want to stop talking about climate change. National political figures and interest groups have done a lot to polarize these conversations and pushing too hard can polarize someone’s views even more. More importantly, you don’t want a discussion about climate change to distract from your valuable family time, or delicious, delicious pie.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Have you had difficult conversations about climate change with a friend or relative? Did climate change come up at your family dinner? Let us know how it went below.

Posted in: Global Warming, Science and Democracy, Science Communication Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.

Show Comments


Comment Policy

UCS welcomes comments that foster civil conversation and debate. To help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion, please focus comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand, and refrain from personal attacks. Posts that are commercial, self-promotional, obscene, rude, or disruptive will be removed.

Please note that comments are open for two weeks following each blog post. UCS respects your privacy and will not display, lend, or sell your email address for any reason.

  • Greg Perterson

    Discuss life expectancy and the correlation between a country’s access to cheap, life enhancing fossil fuels. There – that should be enough to talk about…..

  • Greg Perterson

    Discuss the fact the the U.S. uses 29 Petawatts of energy a year. Advise your guests that the most expensive solar panel produces 12 watts of energy in mid-day sun. With a generous figure of 12 hours of sun a day and a very conservative estimate of only 70% more land needed for panel access, transmission lines and battery storage, we would need a plot of land larger than the state of Kentucky to provide the U.S. with power.

  • Greg Perterson

    Discuss the fact that the highest temperature EVER recorded on the face of the earth was near Death Valley California in 1912.

  • Greg Perterson

    Be sure to mention the fact that 21 U.S. had their highest temperatures EVER in the 30’s. And that in the 80s, 90s, 2000s and 2010’s only a total of 11 states had their highest ever recorded temps.

  • Greg Perterson

    Be sure to talk about the fact the the earths temps haven’t risen for 17 years despite the fact that China and India are pumping out about 2 times the level of CO2 since 1990. Discuss the FACT that the ocean levels are where there were 30 years ago when we were all told that New York would be under water by 2015.

  • Mark

    I find the very term “climate change” in a public forum, is diverting the lay public from considering what I think is the more urgent issue of too much toxic pollution of air and water and a lack of understanding regarding the benefits of efficiency and passive solar design. NASA has released a dynamic graphic of the Northern Hemisphere that dramatically shows the seasonal variations and distribution patterns of CO2. It is very evident the majority of the CO2 is evolved from home heating. Not to dismiss impacts from transportation or agriculture but the easiest way to reduce CO2 (and toxic pollution) is to reduce heating loads through better insulation, appliance efficiency, fenestration and architecture. Regardless if one believes in anthropogenic global warming or not, natural forces can superimpose more warming or more cooling. With present energy utilities, more cooling wold mean more pollution. UCS claims support for “practical solutions”. But I rarely see them mentioned by UCS or numerous “environmental” groups. Here is an extreme example: Nevada Casinos may use led lit slot machines but where is the solar water heating for the millions of gallons of hot water for hotel dish washing and laundry????

  • RD

    Whatever “the union of concerned scientists are concerned with it’s not truth.
    http://plancktime.blogspot.com/2009/01/650-top-climatologists-dismiss-global.html
    http://www.globalwarminghoax.com/news.php
    http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2010/10/027369.php

    Power Line – The Global Warming Hoax: A Summary Power Line Blog:
    John Hinderaker, Scott Johnson, Paul Mirengoff
    October 3, 2010
    Global warming alarmism is not science. It is a toxic combination of
    pseudo-religion and totalitarian politics. To the extent that there is any
    debate over climate science–the alarmists run from debate like vampires fleeing
    garlic–the “skeptics” always win. If you want to follow climate science
    controversies in a rigorous but accessible fashion, check out the Science and
    Environmental Policy Project’s web site.

    • DoRightThing

      The lidless eye of the Kochtopus ensures that no forum is ever left untrolled.
      Shove your fake-science blogs up where the sun doesn’t shine.

    • I always find it interesting when science deniers provide “evidence” of their claims, it’s always sources that are unscientific. I don’t understand why they put the future of the world in the hands of politicians, bloggers and others?

    • Greg Perterson

      I was in the “Union of Concerned Scientist” when I was in engineering school in the early 90’s. All I had to do to get in was sign a paper saying I was studying and taking science courses.

    • Dano2

      It linked to disinformation sites!

      Drink!

      Best,

      D

  • RD

    Whatever “the union of concerned scientists” is concerned with, it’s not the truth, something to which they’re clearly allergic, like those who tell fools they can keep their policy or their doctor if they like it, Figures don’t lie, but liars can sure figure, the same scam when the laughable, groundless, indefensible evolution fraud for fools overthrew the only rational and true science of creation, http://www.creation.com.
    http://plancktime.blogspot.com/2009/01/650-top-climatologists-dismiss-global.html
    http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2010/10/027369.php
    “Global warming alarmism is not science. It is a toxic combination of
    pseudo-religion and totalitarian politics. To the extent that there is any
    debate over climate science–the alarmists run from debate like vampires fleeing
    garlic–the “skeptics” always win.”

  • Linda Gaines

    Include nuclear power in the mix of low-C energy sources. Scientific data confirm low emissions and low health/environmental impacts.

    • Additionally, social science research has found that some people who are predisposed to be skeptical about climate change also support nuclear power, so there can be some common ground there.

      • Greg Perterson

        “predisposed”? You mean like after having taken 5 years of science and engineering courses, including meteorology, fluid mechanics, heat transfer, thermodynamics, statistics, differential equations and several chemistry, biology and physics courses? That type of “predisposed”?

      • Dano2

        Thanks injuneer. No one can figger out why you are in denial either, unless it is all about the solutions.

        Best,

        D

  • Seana

    Thanks so much! This is really well written and I’ve shared it. As a Volt driver, it’s nice to have that solution potential to share in the driveway 🙂

    • Glad you liked it. The first time I test-drove a Volt, I was so blown away. The switch from battery to gas power was so incredibly smooth. I definitely was not thinking about climate change in the moment; it’s just a fun ride.

    • Greg Perterson

      The Volt is a great fossil fuel car.

  • Jack Wolf

    Sorry, but I resent those relatives who actively promoted denial when there was still time to do something about it. And I’m not convinced that changing their minds will matter much now, if indeed it could be done. If its ok with you, if it’s brought up, I’m going to be a dickhead and tell them exactly what I think of them. I hope it will play out like Fred Astaire’s party scene in the movie “On The Beach”.

    • Just looked up the scene. Indeed, I wouldn’t recommend it, but you know your family better than me. Like I said above, even folks who don’t accept the science tend to agree with a lot of solutions that would reduce emissions (sometimes for other reasons). I’d also add that we’re usually only around our extended families once or twice a year, so that time pales in comparison to how often someone might be listening to or watching a partisan media outlet, for instance. I sympathize with folks who have seen nothing but misinformation on the topic; it’s easy to get hit with a lot of it unless you’re taking the time to look up reliable information, which most of us don’t do. (And I save most of my frustration for the outlets and politicians that spread misinformation rather than their audiences.)

      A few of my own relatives subscribe to media outlets that do a remarkable job of offering polarizing climate coverage. But we’ve talked about it a lot in the course of discussing my work and now their attitude is more along the lines of, ‘I really can’t see why anyone would deny the science. I wish politicians would knock it off and figure out a way to deal with it.’

      For what it’s worth, the other fictional example I really like in this field is An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen.

  • billchris

    If you find yourself in agreement that climate change is happening and we need to do something about it, don’t forget to mention that eating meat and other animal products are among the biggest contributors to climate change.

    • Thanks. I think that’s a good point, though depending on who you’re talking to, some folks might hear that as “don’t eat meat” and get turned off by it. One thing I’ve found interesting on that topic is that the USDA nutrition guidelines call for a deck-of-cards size portion of meat, which also seems small to most people (me included). Similarly, sharing a very good vegetarian recipe (I’m thinking lentil-based curry, which is a personal favorite) might be more effective than talking about the outsize carbon footprint associated with meat production.

      • Dwight Quilt

        Or pointing out that some meats are worse from a carbon standpoint than others (beef is substantially worse than pork/poultry). That gives folks some tasty alternatives without requiring a radical diet shift (eat less beef as opposed to eat no meat).

      • Yeah; it’s surprising how much more energy goes into producing beef. I’m partial to chicken myself and could probably stand to eat more fish, too. Good idea to put it in context!

      • Rosie

        Not all beef production is equal tho’. Cows that are raised on pasture for all their life (with no grain supplements) can be argued to be creating food through converting sunlight energy through grass into high quality protein without the need for any extra energy in-puts. And properly managed pasture locks away the carbon in the soil, more than counteracting the methane from the cows. Well explained in the book The Carbon Fields by Graham Harvey….. well referenced and well worth a read.

      • tawnybill

        How about this … producing fruit and vegetables out of land fill destined organic food waste …
        – producing 100% organic vegies
        – year round productive and meaningful work for ‘street people’ [in a building right up from or just above the street]
        https://www.facebook.com/pages/Growing-Hope-for-Humanity/347828952057138?ref=hl

      • Jack Wolf

        You might want to check out the paper published this weekend attributing certain crops as contributors to global warming. Scientists were able to detect the signature in the seasonal swings of CO2 levels. I believe corn was the worst offender. Keep in mind that 90 percent of the corn raised in the US is fed to animals, so its another black mark against current Ag practices.