12 Dec 2022

How to talk about climate change with 'that' uncle at Christmas

12:43 pm on 12 December 2022
Most of New Zealand can expect a warm and dry Christmas Day.

File photo. Photo: 123RF

Holidays mean time with family - including some who you may not see eye-to-eye with.

The topic of climate change can be divisive in Emma's family, and things can get heated.

"We've ... had to say 'no more of these discussions at family gatherings'," she said.

"But I think that ... is quite sad and I'm wondering how actually to not pretend like there's nothing wrong, but actually address it together [but] not to ruin Christmas."

It's not a debate to be won

Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw has researched how to talk to people about climate change and has some practical suggestions.

Firstly, lose the mindset it is a debate to be won: brain research shows that is not effective in changing minds and can make people double down.

"Think about this as an exercise in deepening people's understanding, and persuasion over a longer term relationship," she said.

"If you can't keep that connection going you've kind of lost ... anyway."

She said climate change can make people worry that they may need to take action to reduce emissions that may make their life harder.

Instead, she said, focus on your shared values and listen to the other person's point of view.

Cyclists, motorists can find common ground

A perennial battlefield topic pits motorists and cyclists against each other, but Berentson-Shaw said that it was a false division as most people were both.

She said instead emphasise that not everyone can and must ride or walk to work, but that it should be safer and easier for those that do.

"Most people, in a kind of common sense and pragmatic way, want their kids to be able to get places.

"Not just to school but to after-school events and all of those things in an independent way that doesn't require their parents putting them in a car and driving them everywhere.

"And that's actually something we can achieve through opening our streets."

Farmers and city folk alike love the land

Another doozy is the rural/city divide - but love and care for the land is an important value for farmers and city folk alike.

Berentson-Shaw said it hurt farmers deeply when urban dwellers imply rural people do not care about the environment, when they were stewards of their land and nearly all wanted the best for it.

She said it is worth remembering that over decades, government policy and economic incentives have encouraged farmers to invest in intensive farming methods, and they deserve to be helped with the shift to low emissions.

"All of us are engaging in different activities around climate, and farming activities need to shift in one way, activities that happen in cities need to shift in another way - so we're all playing our part."

'We are collective problem solvers'

Then there are those who say the problem is so vast, or that New Zealand is so small, what's the point in doing anything?

A really powerful narrative - pushed by vested interests - is that the onus for climate action is on individuals when overwhelmingly emissions will drop from systemic change: for example from better public transport, and housing around transport corridors near that public transport.

The biggest changes will come when the easiest and cheapest consumer choices available are those which are also the least polluting.

Berentson-Shaw said people can instinctively sniff falsehoods: that using a reusable shopping bag or riding a bike is going to save the planet.

"Human beings as a species are problem solvers, but more than that we are collective problem solvers and we can solve these problems collectively."

Victoria University senior political science lecturer Dr Emily Beausoleil.

Victoria University senior political science lecturer Dr Emily Beausoleil. Photo: Supplied

Listening a 'beautifully disarming' art

Victoria University senior political science lecturer Dr Emily Beausoleil has done extensive research into how to get people to listen and engage with structural issues facing society.

She said the best results did not come from applying pressure, coming off as an expert, or rushing to solve a problem.

"Listening so others open [and because they feel heard they listen in return] - that's such a beautifully disarming, diffusing art."

She said it was worth remembering that listening or having empathy for someone does not mean you are endorsing their view.

Beausoleil said sharing some of your own vulnerability can be effective - for example a mistake you have made - and can soften and disarm.

And she said painting an optimistic picture of the future was a good way to combat people's despair or nihilism.

Berentson-Shaw said pick your battles, and with outright climate change deniers it could best to save your time and energy.

Here's hoping the climate of your family Christmas will be more clement.

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