Communicating Climate Change

The Moosewood Consulting Blog

Thinking Like a Non-Environmentalist
An exercise for environmentalists using principles of cognitive functioning

Perspective-taking can be a good exercise to develop clarity in persuasive arguments, as well as communicating a show of respect when talking to an audience about potentially sensitive issues.

Hello, I’m an average person. Sure, I’m concerned about global warming, but it doesn’t keep me up at night. It seems like more of a thing that concerns scientists or tree-huggers, not a layperson like me. Frankly, I don’t completely understand the issues, and everything I hear helps convince me there’s little I can do.

Since you seem interested, I’ll tell you more about some experiences that led me to think this way:
  • My exceptionally bright niece is majoring in environmental studies at her college. Recently we had some time to catch up and we talked awhile about her classes. Despite her elaboration, most of what she said went right over my head. I ended up feeling more confused than before.
  • An environmental canvasser stopped me on the street, asking for a donation. When I asked how I could help in other ways, I was told that I needed to do things like consume fewer resources, cut my carbon emissions, and stop endorsing factory farming. Sounds good, I said, but how? He seemed bothered that I would ask such a question, as if the answers were absurdly simple.
So I hope you can better understand why I’ve been steering clear of environmental issues:
  • A lack of clarity feels painful, something people naturally try to avoid. When the consequences of personal choices seem big and unclear, one can feel guilty and helpless.
  • When trying to explain complex issues, more information can sometimes make things worse.
  • Perhaps if these well-meaning people could explain what such notions as “cutting your carbon emissions” specifically entail—in a way that regular folks can understand—they might have better success. Not only do they seem to be asking us to do a lot and to sacrifice a lot, but they leave it up to us to figure out both: 1) exactly what’s going on; and 2) what we should be doing about it.
If I’m starting to sound like an all-around dullard, let me tell you about a time I did feel enlightened by complex new information:
  • I didn’t understand my first computer well and hired a consultant. He started by asking me questions about what I knew, what felt unclear, and tailored his responses accordingly, connecting new information to my existing knowledge.
  • With care, he dispelled misleading notions I’d made about how things worked. His explanations were coherent and vivid, allowing me to comfortably explore further on my own.
Obviously computers and global warming are leagues apart. But they share common traits, such as how easily they can be confusing, and consequently, why many people avoid them. Some computer experts know how to help regular people understand. Environmentalists could do the same: take the time to understand laypeople before helping them understand the issues.

Why’s that so important? Because the message I’ve been getting is: to avoid destroying the planet, we’ll basically have to give up driving, stop eating meat, and spend the winter shivering in the dark. Embracing environmentalism can easily mean rejecting one’s identity. That’s something most people aren’t likely to do.

I was taught the complexity of computers in a way that felt connected who I was. So I ask those of you who are “in the know” about the complex solutions for protecting our planet:
  • Explain the issues respectfully and in a way that the average person can relate to.
  • Give concrete examples of how we can each do our part without sacrificing who we essentially are.