One side of empowering people to respond to climate change is to offer insights and understanding about how the climate system works. This is necessary, even critical, as much an art as a science, and often the subject of this blog.
But, when it comes to helping people find their strength and power for responding to climate change, the facts and figures can only carry you so far.
Effective conversations about climate change, in my experience, depend upon a willingness to pose questions, as much as they do on having answers.
And so, this week, I offer four questions that I've found helpful in climate change conversations. Use them as I've posed them, or create your own variations. Ask them of yourself, or at the dinner table, or after you show An Inconvenient Truth to your church group, or in whatever way seems right to you.
Question # 1: How Are You Feeling About Climate Change?
This is a question that is easy to gloss over, especially if you are feeling compelled to lead a group away from the bad news about the climate situation and straight to all the wonderful possibilities for addressing it.
But to rush past acknowledging the reality of how climate change make us feel is to loose valuable information. These feelings may be difficult, or strong, or uncomfortable, but they also serve us, inform us, and strengthen us, as long as we don’t deny them.
When the facts about climate change sink in with the groups I've lead, fear is a common reaction. People fear for the people they love who are going to have live through the coming decades, and also for the delicate natural places they love, and often for the world's poor and powerless who will have the fewest resources for coping with climate change. Will there be more terrible storms? Droughts? Extinctions? Your impulse, whether you are a leader of a group or talking to your children, may not be to acknowledge these fears, but they do have a purpose. Fear reminds us to us pay attention. Just as fear helped our ancestors pay closer attention to their surroundings after a glimpse of a predator crouched behind a tree, our fear of what might happen if we don't address climate change can keep us focused and energized.
Where some feel fear, others fear anger. Anger tells us that there is something that needs our protection. The integrity of the atmosphere and the future prospects of our children are at risk, and our leaders can’t – or won’t – respond to that risk. Under the circumstances anger is a healthy, survival-promoting response.
Sadness allows us to recognize what is. Already there are losses as a result of climate change. We’ve seen the images of New Orleans, we know the coral reefs are dying. We know that priceless, unique, irreplaceable elements Earth’s life have already been lost forever. And we know that there will be more losses, as the decades of carbon dioxide pollution we have already released continue to impact ecosystems and weather patterns. Our sadness allows us to recognize these changes, and our own contributions to them.
Our culture doesn’t approve of the emotions most likely to triggered by an understanding of climate change: anger, sadness, and fear. We are raised to be hopeful, optimistic go-getters. But our life support system is crumbling and we don’t have a clear plan for restoring it, or even easing off some of the pressure on it. Under the circumstances, anger, sadness, and fear are normal, healthy emotions. Suppressing them requires energy that could be better spent on bringing ourselves into balance with the Earth.
Expect to hear about fear, sadness, and anger, when you ask people how they are felling about climate change, but make room for happiness and excitement, too. In my living room talks, excitement and a sense of hopeful expectation aren’t as rare as you might think. In the words of one woman, in one audience, “This is the chance we finally have to find out what kind of people we can be. If it weren’t for this I might have gone through my whole life as an ordinary person, but now, in figuring out how to respond to this challenge, I must expand what I am capable of.”
It takes some bravery to ask another person, or a roomful of them, how climate change makes them feel. But if you are willing to bring forward the topic, you offer people the chance to discover that they are not alone in the intensity of their feeling, but are in fact normal people in a dangerous situation, passionate about the future of their world.