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.

Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash

So What the Hell is Climate Change Anyways?

Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash
Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash

You’ve heard about climate change on the news, in devastating social media posts, and as a hot topic in major political debates. You’ve witnessed the wildfires in California, hurricanes in Puerto Rico, and flooding in Nebraska in real life or on TV. You know that fossil fuels are bad and are the main cause of climate change. But, have you ever wondered HOW climate change is causing crazy weather events and WHY fossil fuels are contributing to these disasters? 

It’s all about carbon, the element that makes up most of you and me. Carbon is essential to life, but can also be detrimental to all living beings. That’s extremely confusing, so let’s break it down.

Fossil fuels. There are three main types of fossil fuels you may have heard of: coal, oil and natural gas. All of these are primarily made of carbon from algae and plants that have been pressurized underground for millions of years (like a mega instant pot). During the industrial revolution, we found that digging up fossil fuels and heating them up releases a BUNCH of energy, which we now use to move our cars, turn the lights on in our homes, heat our water, make our clothes, package our food, and manufacture our bikes, skis and hiking boots. We use fossil fuels to make our morning coffee and our afternoon beers, we use it to make roads and fly to awesome places. Fossil fuels allow us to use computers, call our moms, and facetime our siblings. The list could legit go on forever and ever, but the main point is that we use fossil fuels for EVERYTHING.

Oh, and plastic is made of fossil fuels too.

The Problem. Although fossil fuels have made the Western World possible, paved the path for globalization, and make our lives 876,587,364 times more convenient, they also have a dark side. You’ve probably heard of it too: Carbon Dioxide (aka CO2). It’s what you, me, and all other living animals exhale. But when we burn fossil fuels, a GIGANTIC amount of CO2 is released into the atmosphere, which creates a thick layer of gas that doesn’t allow heat to escape into space. Atmospheric gasses that trap heat are called greenhouse gases and if you remember how Frosty the Snowman died in the classic holiday cartoon, you remember that greenhouses are fab at making things hot. 

Greenhouse gasses ultimately cause higher global temperatures (emphasis on global because excess CO2 doesn’t necessarily mean that temperatures in your particular city will rise). Overall increases in temperature allow more clouds to form because warmer air holds more water, and more clouds change weather patterns. This is why we can have gnarly polar vortexes in one place and record low snowfall in another. It’s also why we can have crazy rain and hurricanes in one area and extremely hot, dry, and wildfire-prone weather in another. 

Our weather is changing for the worse and our fossil fuel consumption is to blame.

Other factors. There are other greenhouse gasses besides CO2. Methane (CH4), which is also termed the nice and pretty name of “Natural Gas”, traps heat in our atmosphere 30 times better than CO2. There are benefits of Natural Gas, but it regularly leaks out of storage facilities and pipelines into the atmosphere.  Nitrous Oxides (NOx) are produced when nitrogen from the air is heated up in our car engines and it traps 290 times more heat than CO2. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are chemicals that we’ve invented to keep our refrigerators cold, the AC on in the house, and to make our pots and pans “non-stick” (aka Teflon). CFC’s get into our oceans and atmosphere and traps heat a whopping 1,000 – 10,000 times more heat than CO2.

If you’re thinking, “Well, crap!”, you’re not alone. I’m right there with ya, along with 99.9% of all other scientists.

Some good & bad news. When it comes to CO2, plants use it to grow. This means that we could potentially reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by planting trees and conserving open green spaces because the plants will turn it into sugar and incorporate it into their leaves, roots, branches, and trunks (aka photosynthesis). Scientists often call this carbon storage because CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and collected in the plant. BUT, we don’t have enough time, money, people power, or land to plant the number of trees needed to reduce an adequate amount of CO2 that will reverse climate change (source). 

So… what can we do? This is the question of the century (and probably the next few centuries). As of now, science points to a few solutions:

  1. Stop using so many damn fossil fuels. This is the BEST way we can prevent climate change from getting worse. We can do this individually, but VOTING for government officials and laws that will regulate the industrial use of fossil fuels will help even more. (Fun fact: 100 companies are responsible for 71% of total greenhouse gas emissions)
  2. Plant trees & preserve green spaces. Although planting trees won’t solve all of our climate change problems, it will still help. Especially since clear-cutting forests and destroying natural landscapes actually releases CO2 (source). Restoring forests and other ecosystems won’t just reduce CO2, but will also increase biodiversity, air quality, and water quality, along with overall human health. To put this together, planting native trees in your backyard and advocating for the protection of places like Bears Ears National Monument and the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area are essential to fighting climate change.
  3. Invent carbon capture and storage technologies. Honestly, this climate change solution is the one we should have the least hope in. Carbon capture and storage is essentially a way of taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and storing it underground. There have been recent advances in this technology, but since we don’t have a way to implement it around the world, it’s an unreliable solution and we don’t have the time to wait around for it.

Thoughts to take with you. You CAN make a difference. Although big industry is the biggest contributor to climate change, you can educate yourself, you can vote, you can change your consumer habits, and you can talk to your family and friends. TOGETHER we can create a movement of change.

Let’s do this fam. We’re all in this together (cue the High School Musical soundtrack). 

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.

<strong>Savannah Adkins</strong>
Savannah Adkins

During some daylight hours, Savannah is a climate change scientist studying how dirt makes all of our lives possible. But her real profession is as a house plant addict, mountain biker, & attempter of skiing down mountains. In her free time, Savannah enjoys dancing around the house, drinking wine, and listening to the Grateful Dead. Oh, and making poop jokes… always making poop jokes.