Merciless heat is scorching much of Europe this month, with temperatures also hitting dangerous levels in parts of Asia and the Americas. It’s one of those times when global warming feels as undeniable as it feels scary.
So everyone is having a lot of conversations about climate change, right?
Probably not, in fact. According to a recent survey by researchers at Yale, only 35 percent of Americans say they talk about global warming occasionally. This newsletter is going to explain why that is, and how you can talk about it effectively.
Many people tend to keep quiet about climate change because they fear getting into nasty arguments. But, it turns out, the topic might not be very controversial after all. Research shows that outright climate denialists are fewer than most people think, and even people with questions and doubts tend to have nuanced positions.
“We shouldn’t be scared to have these discussions,” Matthew Houser, a former research fellow at Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute, told me. “We should just be strategic, thoughtful and careful about how we enter them.”
I asked him and his former colleagues at the Environmental Resilience Institute, who have been researching public opinion about climate in Indiana for years, exactly what that means.
“Listen first, and then talk,” said Molly Burhans, a student researcher at the institute. “Climate change means something different to everyone, and everyone is affected by it differently.”
Tailoring the message, she said, is key.
Burhans said it might be a good idea to start the conversation by talking about weather events and how the landscape might be changing. In situations where you’re unsure about how people might react, that could lead to a discussion about climate change even if the phrase never actually comes up.
Discussing local policies, such as adaptation projects to protect communities from disasters, is another approach that can engage people from all ideological colors in a conversation about climate.
A recent Yale study came to similar conclusions.
“You don’t need to enter into a broader discussion about changing the global reliance on petroleum,” said Houser, who’s now a fellow at The Nature Conservancy. Talking about local solutions to local problems you can see in your own community, he said, is often more productive.
Another thing that makes talking about global warming hard is that a lot of climate-minded people don’t realize that they’re in the majority. Surveys in the United States, China and Australia show that people tend to underestimate how many of their peers accept the reality of climate change.
People in Indiana, a moderately conservative state, for instance, estimated in a recent survey that only about 60 percent of their neighbors accepted the basic facts about global warming. In fact, the survey found, the true number was around 80 percent.
Worldwide, a large majority of people say that warming is happening, according to a survey published last month by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. A slightly smaller majority also agree that addressing it should be a high priority for governments.
That means it’s very likely that your neighbors are on board with the science of climate change to some degree, even in conservative places.
Why do people misread the situation? Industry disinformation has played a role in politicizing science. Another answer researchers have found is that the lack of communication becomes a vicious cycle.
“If most people who are concerned about climate change aren’t talking about it,” said Nathaniel Geiger, a professor at the Indiana University institute, then other people who may share their concerns won’t know about their opinions and will “falsely assume that other people aren’t concerned.”
Geiger also said that some people don’t talk about climate change because they are scared of losing the respect of others. And, he said, it’s common, for people to think they don’t know enough about climate change to have a conversation about it, even when they do.
“There is some evidence suggesting that a lot of people see this as a scientific topic,” he told me, “that it’s a topic you need to have a lot of expertise to talk about.” (If you’re nervous about that, here are some great resources from the Climate Forward archives.)
But researchers at Indiana University say that when we do talk about climate change, we help make addressing it more of a priority in people’s minds, increasing support for action.
Geiger cited a 2019 study in the journal Environment and Behavior that said people who know their friends and family care about climate change are more likely to support policies that address the problem.
So, don’t be afraid to talk about it. According the research, it could make a big difference.
Essential news from The Times
Not in Dalí’s backyard: Residents of the Spanish region where the Surrealist painter once worked are protesting an offshore wind farm. Similar debates are playing out across Europe.
A country not built for warming: Much of Britain ground to a halt on Monday as the country, normally known for its damp and gray weather, faced a brutal heat wave.
A heat wave hot spot: Periods of extreme heat in Europe are increasing in frequency and intensity at a faster rate than almost any other part of the planet. Here’s why.
The Covid ‘anthropause’: Did nature really heal during the pandemic shutdowns? Some species thrived, but others struggled without human protection or resources.
Australia’s floods: Storms followed by flooding are becoming a familiar routine for thousands of people. Some have experienced four in 16 months.
Who should address warming? When asked which elected officials should do more on climate, Americans point to Congress. See it in maps.
Broken pledges: Your Climate Forward host, Somini Sengupta, talked to The Daily about the state of global cooperation on climate.
Before you go: Our obsession with economic growth
Growth is the be-all and end-all of mainstream economic and political thinking. But what about the possibility that our current pursuit of growth, rabid as it is and causing such great ecological harm, might be incurring more costs than gains? That possibility, that prioritizing growth is ultimately a losing game, is one that the lauded economist Herman Daly has been exploring for more than 50 years. He spoke with our colleagues at The New York Times Magazine.
Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Friday.
Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.
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