Zimmerman: How to talk about climate change
San Jose youth at a climate action strike in front of City Hall on Earth Day, April 22. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    The single biggest contribution you can make to combat climate change is to talk about it. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication poll shows 72% of people think the climate is changing, and that the consequence will likely be negative on plants, animals and future generations.

    Despite this, an even larger number of people—up to 80%—said they haven’t talked about climate change in the last year. Talking about it is essential to raising the profile of the issue, identifying common concerns and taking action.

    It isn’t about fact, it’s about identity

    People don’t talk about climate change because it is uncomfortable. Why? Because, how people perceive climate change is based more deeply on their political ideology and identity than on science.

    In her well-received TED talk, atmospheric scientist Katherine Hayhoe noted the leading predictor of if someone is a climate denialist isn’t their scientific literacy, but where they fall on the political spectrum.

    “Denial in many cases doesn’t start with what people believe about the science per se, but what they believe about themselves and who they are,” Hayhoe said.

    More importantly for conversations, Hayhoe notes, “If people have built their identity on rejecting a certain set of facts, then arguing over those facts is a personal attack. It causes them to dig in deeper.”

    Tips to talk to a climate denialist

    Here are a few tips on how to keep a climate conversation productive and on track:

    1. Listen. Understand their concerns and meet them where they are.
    2. Share your story. Discuss why climate change matters to you. Stories have the power to change minds much more easily than pure facts.
    3. Identify the link between what someone values and a changing climate. Climate change is a ‘threat multiplier’ which often takes issues people do care about and makes them worse.


    Say you are having a conversation with someone who identifies as a patriot and prioritizes national security. This is one topic where the environmental movement and the defense industry align.

    The U.S. Department of Defense recently stated, “Climate change will affect the Department of Defense’s ability to defend the nation and poses immediate risks to U.S. national security.” In fact, the United States military has become an unexpected ally in the fight against climate change, specifically because its concerns overlap with the concerns of environmentalists.

    Hayhoe often connects to people through her evangelical Christian faith. And she is not alone, as many other environmentalists have used their faith both as inspiration for climate action and as a starting point for climate conversations.

    Opportunities for local conversations

    Particularly relevant for San Jose and California, let’s talk about the drought. Over 70% of people in California think global warming is harmful. But only 54% think it will harm them personally. The current drought—part of a mega drought which started in 2000 and the worst in 1,200 years—is an opportunity to challenge this belief. 2022 has had the driest beginning of the year on record and Santa Clara County residents may soon face fines of up to $500 for wasting water. Despite education efforts, water usage has actually gone up.

    Another important thing to note is guilt doesn’t work. Neither do fear appeals and doomsday prophesies. While these tactics may work for a little while, they often backfire as they leave people feeling helpless, overwhelmed or persecuted.

    Remember, it’s not personal. No matter how strongly you may feel about a topic, don’t resort to personal attacks and don’t let the other person get away with it either.

    Last, know when to leave a conversation. I have had climate deniers insist it’s my responsibility to convince them climate change is real. If the overwhelming scientific consensus can’t convince them, then a conversation won’t either. Demanding it’s your job to educate them is an abdication of responsibility and, honestly, a tactic to waste your valuable time. Save your energy for more useful pursuits.

    Talk about climate change, especially to your friends and family. The vast majority of conversations will be positive and, most often, people will share similar concerns and you will both feel less alone. Bring the issue into the open where creative problem solving can happen.

    San José Spotlight columnist Erin Zimmerman is a climate reality leader with the Climate Reality Project’s Silicon Valley chapter. Erin, a long-time environmental and political activist, holds a PhD in political science. Her column appears every third Wednesday of the month. Contact Erin at [email protected].

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