Communicating Climate Change and How We Should Convert the Unconverted

I started my climate activism nine months ago. I was passionate because nature mattered so much to me, and I was furious because I thought no one cared as much as I did. But right after the first climate strike happened, I realized I was wrong. People did care, and I wasn’t alone in the journey.

Climate Strike

Months went by as I got to know more people in the environmental field in Thailand and worldwide—ranging from beach cleanup and tree-planting volunteers, vegan restaurant and eco- tourism agency owners, to biologists and conservationists, sustainability professors and indigenous rights activists. The bigger my circle grew, the better I felt about my own role in the society, and about the outlook of our world amidst the climate crisis.

But as my Facebook friends list fills up with posts from owners of sustainable businesses, innovators of climate solutions, and volunteers of conservation groups, my feed began eroding with repetitive posts of complaints about clear cutting, Greta Thunberg, the burning Amazon Rainforest, Trump’s hunger for fossil fuels, and Thailand’s dead dugongs.

Everyone seemed to agree with what everyone said: “The oceans are rising and so are we!”, “Thailand should just ban plastic,” “Renewable energy is the way to go.” If only it worked that way in real life… The truth is, we are entering the very dangerous territories of “groupthink”.

Groupthink is exactly what happens when you get a group of nature enthusiasts, or any sort of enthusiasts, and you put them in the same room and leave them to talk. Like it is at a party, they’ll probably talk about what they care most deeply about or what they think their conservational partners would find most interesting. Except at this party, it’s just people who think the same way.

With our networking tendencies and social media algorithms, we’ve trapped ourselves in a “filter bubble”, a term coined by internet activist Eli Pariser, who defines it as “a state of intellectual isolation”. I began writing environment-related articles in my freshman year of university, hoping to plant a seed of love and care for nature into the internet and into friends and family members. I thought it worked for a while—and maybe it did in a way, but that I’ll never know—until it hit me: whoever was going to click on article called “The key to solving Thailand’s plastic crisis” on a Greenpeace website was probably going to be someone who cared about the environment.

This happens outside of the internet as well. I remember attending a day of the UN Asia-Pacific Climate Week—I must have heard “We need climate justice NOW!” at least a couple dozen times that day. But who are we trying to convince? A room full of people who already agree with us? Do we even deserve an applause for trying?

Don’t get me wrong—forming a group of like-minded and supportive group is extremely important to inspire, motivate and replenish hope. I’ve been writing about the environment since I was a freshman, and now a senior, it was seeing the big turnout at my climate strike this year that boosted my morale. Praise from hundreds of strangers can make you feel good. It can make you feel like a significant speck in the big world we live in, one that’s creating big changes to come.

But as we build up our support groups and collaborative platforms, it’s vital to make sure you’re not just preaching to the converted. It’s important to remember: not everyone cares. Whether you’re a climate activist, a vegan, a Christian or Muslim, a Democrat or Republican, an

Alzheimer’s advocate, an animal rights campaigner, or a petitioner for a hot dog emoji, always remember: not everyone cares.

Scientists, for a long time now, have been warning us—by that, I particularly mean executives of fossil fuel companies and the politicians who endorsed them back in the 1980s—with supported evidence that climate change is an extremely serious threat to our existence and civilization, one that could wipe all of us out in a sixth mass extinction. And yet, there are still many of us who choose to sit still, and others who deny it all.

To me, that means 1) we can’t make everyone think the same as us and also, 2) perhaps we must have been communicating ineffectively and still continue to do so today.

Despite warnings from their own researchers since 1977, Exxon continued to burn more fossil fuels even after forecasting its detrimental consequences to humans and climate change. They were given the numbers, the data and the facts, and they must have understood the science (they commissioned the study after all). I can’t tell you why they did that, and I’m too tired to figure it   out but here are some ideas to keep in mind the next time you talk to someone who doesn’t know or care about climate change, or really any other topic you feel deeply for:

  1. Different people have different priorities. For you, it might be climate change and your stakes in the impending doom of a warming planet. But for others—both those who are aware and unaware of the climate crisis—say, the street vendor who sells noodles, the top priority might be how much rent has increased and how much she can earn today. For a businessman, that might be fluctuations on the stock market and the currency exchange. For a high school student, it might be impressing her parents with good grades or impressing her friends with new clothes. The effects of climate change have already begun to take shape across the world,  affecting the poorest and most vulnerable communities first. But for others, the impacts of climate change can remain irrelevant, since our human brains find it difficult to process the future. Even though climate change will affect us all sooner or later, to most people, if it hasn’t happened already, it may seem like it wouldn’t. Show people why they need to care.
  2. Understand what someone cares about and learn to empathize. After all, you’d want someone who you know has an interest in what matters to you, before they try to  persuade you into taking an interest in what matters for them. Understand what your conversation partner enjoys doing as a hobby, what he or she struggles with at work.  Learn about their problems, their cultural ethics, their awareness of environmental science, their lifetime goal, their friends. Use that information to your advantage (and as a good human being) to find out what sort of help you can offer, linking it to solutions you might have for climate action. Offer benefits and rewards to areas which impact them directly and personally, rather than emphasizing on the importance the environment. Show them how you can help them help you.
  3. Don’t force your ideas onto people. When you have a belief you hold dear to your heart, it sucks when someone tells you what you believe is invalid or untrue. Instead of changing their minds, you might actually make them stand stronger on their point, producing what psychologists call a backfiring effect. Because of a confirmation bias we humans have, we often take what we’d like to be true, and make it what we think to be true.
  1. Use emotion before reason. What sparked the climate movement of millions of strikers worldwide wasn’t one scientist coming out with graph outlining the spike in carbon emissions in relation to global temperatures in the last century—it was one young girl who was depressed and frustrated, and decided to speak up about it.  Humans are social animals that have evolved by telling stories. Stories inspire, motivate and challenge us, not numbers. When you illicit emotions, you attune yourself and your listener, and your logic transfers over easier on the same state of mind. We relate to other humans, and if you can make someone relate to you, when you can assure them you care for their well-being and make it known you are have feelings that are vulnerable too, you gain their trust. So who would a climate-denier believe more, someone they trust, or a random person on the internet telling them they’re stupid?
  1. Give hope over fear. As President Snow from the Hunger Games once said, “Hope is the only thing stronger than fear.” Now with stories of doom-and-gloom about the climate crisis all over our news feed, some days it can be hard to remain positive and keep fighting for our future and planet.  According to neuroscientist Tali Sharot, we are more susceptible to fear when we’re already stressed. But panic actually makes us less willing to act, and rather hope is what inspires real action. Warning someone about climate impacts may suppress their motivation. Meanwhile, illustrating to them our progress in climate action positively reinforces them to take the first step and contribute.
  1. Lastly, speak human language. Carbon offset, greenhouse gases, transboundary air pollution. These are terms many of us might know, but they still don’t ring a bell to many. Keep it simple.

This blog post is part of What Climate Activist Say <> by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Southeast Asia - 2020.