How to Talk to Your Family about Climate Change

We’ve all experienced it. Maybe you’re in an Uber making small talk with your driver, out at a bar talking to new friends, or at the dinner table with your family. The conversation is running smoothly, and then they say that they don’t believe in climate change. As someone who understands the realities of climate change, what do you do next?

First, and most importantly, remember that you need to have a conversation with this person rather than direct your best monologue at them. Take a breath and prepare to actively listen. Remember that you have other things in common with them and that you both have reasons to hold the opinions you do. Going on a tirade that makes the other person feel steamrolled, misunderstood, or patronized will not be productive. Research shows that people typically stick with the common opinion of their social group, so to reach someone, it’s important to maintain a positive relationship with them. Treat them with respect and kindness and show gratitude when they are willing to engage in a conversation with you. 

Now that we’ve gotten that jargon and gibberish out of the way, here are some ways to respond to common misconceptions about climate change with scientific accuracy: 

They say: “Climate change models are possibilities, not realities.”

You say: 

Some models you may know (besides Kylie Jenner) are the Netflix algorithm that helps you find your new binge favorite, the weather app on your phone, and the distance that Google Maps calculates to help you find the ice cream store that’s open the latest. 

Here’s how climate models are created and why we can trust them:

  1. Data on factors like CO2 and temperature can be related to one another mathematically – you’ve done this with equations like the Pythagorean theorem (a2 + b2 = c2) when you relate the sides of a triangle to each other.
  2. These mathematical relationships can be used to build a model that describes complex situations between things like human population growth, land use, economics, and atmospheric conditions. Each factor used in a model has been created and refined by groups of informed scientists; they are very much not wild guesses.
  3. After a new model is created, scientists test it by first using it to “predict” the past. The results of the new model are then compared to previously collected data. If the model results are pretty dang close to the actual historical data, then we can assume that the model will be pretty dang accurate predicting the future.
  4. After checking that we can trust it, the model can then be used to describe *big booming movie voice here* the future
  5. Models, and results from these models, are sent to multiple scientists (who are not related to the project) who then anonymously evaluate whether the model is accurate.

And it works–models from as long as 50 years ago accurately predicted today’s climate!

They say: “There’s no consensus among scientists that climate change is human-caused.”

You say: 

97% of publishing (that is, actively working) climate scientists agree that climate change is being caused by humans. Additionally, scientists with more climate expertise are more likely to agree that climate change is human-caused. Those with low expertise (i.e. non-scientists or scientists who don’t typically publish on climate research) are less likely to agree. Also, just saying, 97% of people who are all trained to constantly say “it depends” agreeing is pretty damn high.

They say: “The climate is cooling.”

You say: 

This comes down to the distinction between climate and weather. The simplest way to describe this difference is that the climate is like your closet and the weather is your clothes that make up that closet. Weather refers to short term events, like cold snaps, hurricanes, and monsoons. Weather events vary by location, and different areas have features that alter how the weather is experienced there. For example, morning fogs in the Bay Area of California would never occur in the plains of Wyoming because of the unique topographic/ecological features that cause the fog to be generated and trapped. 

Climate, on the other hand, refers to overall trends and patterns. Therefore, climate change describes increases in global temperature. So, while your city may have a cold snap or not be experiencing as dramatic of temperature increases, the global average temperature is increasing. The ocean is also soaking up a lot of the heat that’s being trapped by greenhouse gases, which means that air temperatures aren’t reacting as quickly as we might expect – but this is still a huge issue as warmer oceans will lead to ocean acidification and sea-level rise.

They say: “Animals and plants can adapt so why does it matter?”

You say:

Resilience is rad, and there are definitely animals and plants that can adapt. A lot can’t though. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. Adaptation takes a lot of time. Adaptation requires many generations, because it is driven by the survival (and reproduction, wink wink – pass down those traits honey) of individuals that live through harsh conditions. Climate change is happening very quickly, and changes are more dramatic than populations have experienced before. If individuals of a given species have a long life span, that species is going to take a very long time to adapt to global change because makin’ those babies take a hot minute. 
  2. Climate change has both speed and scale on its side. If harsh conditions are only occurring on a local scale, then populations can migrate to buffer the effects on total species survival. For example, trees might move to cooler places (higher latitudes and elevations) to escape warming, but this takes decades and they are in a race against climate change. While there are areas that will experience less climate change that will hopefully provide safe spots for species, the pace and scale of climate change would require species to adapt at a rate that is not possible for most species.
  3. Warmer temperatures aren’t the only thing stressing out plants and animals. Species are up against a whole host of tough new conditions. These include rising temperatures, habitat loss, and habitat fragmentation, invasive species, overexploitation, and pollution. These threats play off of one another and make it extremely difficult for species to move or adapt. If you only have one problem, it’s easier to find a solution than if you’re inundated with multiple problems that all exacerbate each other. 

They say: “We don’t know that climate change is human caused.”

You say:

This is getting to a key scientific concept that is completely fair to bring up: causation versus correlation. For example, you can often find a relationship (correlation) between unrelated factors, like rock music quality and US oil production – we can all agree that these two factors are not related, but they show extremely similar trends over time. We don’t have another planet where we’re not adding CO2 at unprecedented rates to see if it affects the climate, so how do we know for sure that COis what’s causing temperatures to rise?

The amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is tightly related to increasing temperatures and has been for a very long time. We also understand on a fundamental level how the two are intertwined physically and chemically. There is no question that we are pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere, and there is no question that this will cause the Earth to warm. 

Lastly, other factors, like energy from the sun, have been ruled out as driving factors of temperature increases here on Earth. The energy coming from the sun has remained constant since 1750, and warming is happening only in the lower parts of the atmosphere and at the Earth’s surface – both pointing to the fact that changes in solar radiation cannot explain rising temperatures. 

They say: “The climate has changed before.”

You say:

Totally! The difference is that the climate is now changing much more, and much more quickly. The fluctuations that have occurred over the past 1,000 years were much slower and far less dramatic than the fluctuations we see now. We are now seeing the highest temperatures and atmospheric concentrations of CO2 that we have ever seen. So, while the climate has changed before, it is truly incomparable in scale and magnitude to the changes we are now seeing.

Rapid climate change is already happening in multiple ways

  1. Global temperature rises – almost 2 degrees F since the late 19th century, with most warming occurring in only the past 35 years, and the warmest 5 years on record happening since 2010.
  2. Warming oceans – oceans are trapping the heat that’s bounced back by greenhouse gases, which has resulted in a 0.4 degrees F increase since 1969. This has caused the global sea level to rise 8 inches in the last century. The rate of sea-level rise has nearly doubled over the last two decades, with that rate becoming faster each year.
  3. Ocean acidification – CO2 emitted by humans is being absorbed by the upper layers of oceans which causes acidification, in turn negatively impacting ocean life.
  4. Shrinking ice sheets – the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased significantly in mass, with the rates of Antarctic ice mass loss tripling in the last decade alone.
  5. Decreased snow cover – the amount of snow in the Northern Hemisphere is decreasing, and it’s melting earlier in many locations.
  6. Extreme events – there have been a rising number of extremely hot days and of intense rainfall events.

They say: “The climate is changing, but it won’t be as bad as scientists say it will be.”

I say:

Scientists don’t like to be wrong. Because it’s a scientist’s actual worst nightmare to publish something that is later found to be incorrect, we are very conservative in what we state to be true. For example, reports published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been found to actually underestimate how bad the effects of climate change will be. Further, there is a high degree of agreement among climate change models created and tested by multiple independent researchers, leading to a high degree of certainty among the scientific community.

Now that you’ve got science to back up your next challenging climate conversation, let’s revisit those basics. Remember this:

You need to have a conversation with this person rather than direct your best monologue at them. Take a breath and prepare to actively listen. Remember that you have other things in common with them and that you both have reasons to hold the opinions you do. Treat them with respect and kindness and show gratitude when they are willing to engage in a climate conversation with you. 

Chiara Forrester
Chiara Forrester

Chiara is happiest when she’s in the mountains on skis, a bike, or running. She also loves Ariana Grande (117 hours this year, thanks Spotify), making dinner with friends, and laughing too loudly at her own jokes. An ecologist who’s passionate about science communication and increasing diversity in STEM, Chiara is currently a PhD candidate in Boulder, CO, studying alpine plant ecology, undergraduate education, and the use of science in federal land management.

NOTE: THIS IS A LIVING RESOURCE! As with all resources on Outdoor Advocacy Project, there is always room to continue the conversation, add a new perspective, bolster the resources, and share new findings. Got something you want to add, change, challenge or amplify? Let us know in the comments, or e-mail to write your own.

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