Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

7 Dec 2018

How should we talk about change?

Posted by Michael Keating

We know the climate is changing. It’s clear that if we don’t stop pouring greenhouse gases into the air we will have more and worse fires, floods, storms, droughts and disruptions to our lives. People also know that we need change how we travel, heat our buildings. Many of our jobs will be different. What most are not sure about is how to move to a sustainable lifestyle without giving up many things they take for granted. People are looking for clear messages about a transition that won’t leave them unemployed and bankrupt. Governments traditionally provide leadership to guide societies through periods of change. Some have started to impose controls on greenhouse gases, but many hesitate to order the major changes needed to stop runaway climate change.

Politicians understand that we can’t get the big changes needed for sustainability without a social consensus. We can’t achieve such consensus without discussions that include everyone. Too often the discussion about climate change amounts to people shouting at each other. So, how do we move from isolation to agreement? I had the chance to listen to experts on communicating climate change issues. They and other commentators say that too often the messages about climate are still about the threats. They need to move spelling out practical solutions, and they need to be led by a range of highly respected leaders.

According to George Marshall of Climate Outreach those trying to promote climate action have to connect with people’s values and concerns. That means starting a conversation not by trying to sell solutions right away but by listening. The discussions need to be about how climate change will affect people, their families and the things they care about. The goal should be to find common ground. Although climate change is rapidly worsening, the discussions cannot be rushed. It will take time for people to change attitudes.

How you hold such a conversation? One example is the Alberta Narratives Project, part of an international movement to hold discussions about climate change. Earlier this year the project team held 55 meetings with a wide range of people, including farmers, oil sands workers, energy leaders, senior business people, youth and environmental activists. Not surprisingly, it found “…marked differences in opinion between different occupation groups, different parts of the province and, especially between people holding different political values. These divisions make it increasingly difficult for Albertans to discuss climate change and energy with each other, to conduct a civil debate around options for the future, or to form a coherent and sustained vision of the future.” The narratives project aim is not to advocate or even educate but “…to replace a combative and acrimonious debate with a constructive conversation based on shared values.” People running the project found an openness to renewable energy, but most felt that fossil fuel production in the province will continue for many years, even generations. They found 39 per cent of those surveyed wanted to see more oil production and 35 per cent wanted a decrease.

The message to politicians is clear. A transition to a sustainable future cannot be dealt with in one or even two election cycles. It’s hard for people to accept that many of the ways we have been using fossil fuels for generations, even centuries, are no longer sustainable. It’s even harder to figure out how we can make a smooth and relatively painless transition to a clean, green economy and lifestyle. It will take many years. Now is the time to engage people in a discussion about what is important to them and how to preserve that during one of the greatest transitions in modern human history.

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