Climate Nudges, Level 2: Community

After checking in with myself on the five best ways to reduce my personal carbon footprint, I figured the next step was to reach out into the community — maybe to spread the word, or maybe to see what other people were thinking or doing to help stoke the green, clean, renewable engine. Either way, I needed to reassure myself that I wasn’t alone.

This is, I think, a common problem. We all have a stake in the game, but a lot of the time it feels as if we are all playing solitaire. I blame the media, which is to say, I blame the parent corporations who control both fossil fuel interests and the media. They don’t benefit from putting climate reform on the front page; even when it’s obvious to everyone but Trump that global warming is contributing to wildfires, extreme weather, and other lethal events, the media tends to “silo” climate change, tucking it away as a niche-interest story instead of stitching it into their main coverage.

As a result, both the problem and the many grassroots solutions get eclipsed, and we’re left shouting into a void. After spending the better part of 2018 researching global warming, I needed to share some of my observations. I was especially interested in testing some hypotheses about how we tend to talk about climate change — or, more often, how (and why) we don’t talk about it.

I started small, by visiting other people’s events. Last month, the Antigonish Community Energy Co-op held a seminar at the Sydney public library about solar panels. It was not only tremendously informative, but it also let me observe climate-conscious locals in their natural habitat. A couple of weeks later, the library held another eco-centric event: a screening of the short documentary Climate Change and the Human Prospect, which reported on a 2017 “thinkers’ summit” in Pugwash, Nova Scotia. Again, the most interesting part was the discussion afterwards.

When community members talk about climate change with like-minded activists, the tone is often frustrated and desperate — we know what’s going on, and what needs to be done, so why isn’t everybody else on board? — but there is also an element of catharsis. It’s a tough subject, both logistically and emotionally, and it’s clearly a relief when citizens can articulate what’s been weighing upon them, without fear of dismissal or reprisal. In this way, we can have conversations whose content is mostly depressing, but walk away feeling relieved, or even uplifted.

It’s not enough, though. Each of those events had about a dozen people in attendance, and I’m pretty sure that everyone present already knew the score. We need to boost the signal, so that the majority of community members — people for whom climate change is a distant, abstract problem; people who rarely talk or even think about it, much less act upon it — start to feel the same catharsis. If activists can reach non-activists, and especially if we can give them the same mini-boosts of optimism that we periodically exchange amongst ourselves, then the momentum might ultimately reach governments.

So, I ran my own event, and I tried to make it feel accessible to laypeople. I held my Climate Café on a Saturday night in my favourite downtown coffee shop (the library would have been cheaper, but I wanted to start in a venue where I’d feel more confident. Plus the coffee is better). In promoting the event, I tried to stress that anyone could come, even if they didn’t know the first thing about global warming… but I also invited a couple of local activists to seed the conversation. Finally, I invited a city councilor, in the hopes that whatever we discussed that night did not go unnoticed by policymakers.

I didn’t really know how it would go. I wanted the event to feel like a conversation, not a lecture, but I knew there needed to be some structure. Fortunately, event planning is one of my fortés. I wrote up a list of questions: “How often do you think about climate change? What does it make you feel?” “With whom do you talk about climate change?” etc.. I prepared a sheet of links and resources. I even had a door prize. And I put my personal objective front-and-centre: let’s figure out how to make this topic less political, less fraught, and more accessible.

The turnout was small, but in some ways encouraging. Of the nine people (not including me), three were middle aged, two were retirees, and three were university students — a great demographic spread. Nearly everyone was already “woke” as the millennials would say, although I think of the three university students, only one was a serious activist (she dragged the other two along for support). And I was right, having the city councilor present helped add both an official air and also a sense of potential to the evening.

We met for two hours. The first was spent in groups of 3 or 4, answering the questions I’d prepared. Then I introduced the group to the findings of Per E. Stoknes, a Norwegian economist and psychologist. In his book What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming (and in his TED Talk), Stoknes lists 5 psychological obstacles to having open and productive discussions about climate change:

    1. Distance
    2. Doom
    3. Dissonance
    4. Denial
    5. Identity

…as well as 5 techniques for overcoming those barriers:

  1. Social
  2. Supportive
  3. Simple
  4. Signal
  5. Stories

The attendees liked these lists a lot, as it led to some more concrete ideas about how to change the way we talk.

Many participants agreed that compartmentalizing the problem, and especially celebrating small steps towards reducing carbon emissions, made for more productive conversations. Participants also agreed that regional pride could be a motivator towards meaningful action. I pointed out that social conformity could be harnessed for positive change, as when residents in a neighbourhood invest in solar panel after/because another resident has done so.

Some participants celebrated the optimisim of children and the idea of involving kids in climate reform actions. However, it was also pointed out that parents—who in some respects have the greatest stake in reversing climate change—are among the busiest citizens, and may therefore need help or advocacy.

Among the most frequently mentioned obstacles to productive discussion were: feelings of despair (“why bother”), complaints about cost, passing the buck (“they’re gonna fix the problem eventually”), and the effects of regionalism (especially as conservatives pit region against region).

My personal takeaway: the participants want to engage others, in order to feel solidarity and a sense of community instead of solitary hopelessness. They need positive, specific, and ideally local stories to introduce into conversations, reflecting Stoknes’s recommended solutions (social, supportive, and simple).

So even though the turnout was a bit disappointing, I think I got what I wanted: a direction and focus for my own community climate work. I’ll keep going to other people’s events, of course, and I may volunteer for the local environmental organization (once they get settled in their new location, and choose a new executive director). But for now, I think I’ll focus my research on finding feel-good climate facts and stories, and broadcasting them through whatever media I can get my hands on.

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