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These students are taking our future into their own hands
02:15 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT as well as a CNN contributor and a National Geographic Explorer. He is director of the forthcoming BASELINE series, which is visiting four locations on the front lines of the climate crisis every five years until 2050. Visit the project’s website. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

I’ve ended up in plenty of awkward climate-change conversations over the years I’ve spent covering the issue as a journalist.

John D. Sutter

There was the farmer in Oklahoma who pulled charts from his jacket pocket – literal clippings from agricultural publications – to try to prove to me that the climate isn’t warming (it is) and that humans aren’t to blame (we are).

A couple of years ago, a retired coal miner, who’s since become a friend, walked me to the edge of a canyon in Utah to marvel at the millions of years of geologic history visible in the pink-and-orange layers of sedimentation. The Earth is big and old and awesome and always changing, he told me. People are too small – and our time too short – to really alter the planet.


In moments like these, I don’t think there’s much to say. I trust my instincts. I try to understand – to ask questions, to relate. I don’t want to convince anyone of anything; I just want to be present and listen. That can be painfully difficult, though, when it comes to issues of science – like Covid-19 and the climate crisis.

There is only one set of scientific facts, but not all of us acknowledge them as such. That can lead to “fact war” exchanges – conversational versions of Reddit threads or Facebook comments – that no one enjoys. Engaging with each other across these lines of difference can be exhausting, especially amid a pandemic and on the heels of a way-beyond-tense election season. No wonder that – even though it affects everyone’s lives – only 35% of Americans talk about climate change at least occasionally, according to estimates from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

I’m trying to nudge that number just a bit with this series of conversations about the climate emergency – conversations that start with listening to CNN readers.

Several of you asked through CNN’s online form about how best to engage with climate skeptics in your lives – about how to have these difficult conversations and about how to be persuasive when you do end up chatting with someone who doesn’t accept the fact that humans are warming the planet dangerously, primarily by burning fossil fuels.

I recently put a few of your questions to Karin Kirk, a geologist and writer for Yale Climate Connections, an initiative of the Yale Center for Environmental Communication.

Kirk lives in Montana and she’s had almost 500 conversations, as she wrote in Scientific American, with voters about environmental issues. In those conversations, she aimed to persuade voters that climate change is real and worth voting on. I thought we all might learn from her experiences.

The following is an edited transcript of our conversation:

John Sutter: I want to start with a question from a reader, Ryan, in Florida, who asks, “How do I convince my normally otherwise rational friends that climate change is real” and worth paying attention to? How would you respond?

Karin Kirk: The first question (to ask yourself) is easy because it’s just self reflective. It doesn’t involve your friends. And that is, “Why are you needing to have a conversation?” Like, what’s your personal angle? Are you feeling like you need to be right and they need to be wrong? Are you feeling like they need to join you in particular action? Do you need to convince them of something?

Understanding your own motives up front can be a little yucky – because we all want to be righteous. But I think getting (your own motives) straight in your mind is going to make your mission much clearer. Even though I spent my whole life – like since (I was an) undergraduate – working on the science of climate change, I’m quick to abandon that in conversations because it’s often a dead end.

You can make a very nimble sidestep if you know what your overall goal is. For me – I can’t even tell Ryan what his motives are – I want clean energy and I want it in Montana. I want it for our town. I want it for our ski area. I want it for me, personally. And I know that clean energy is the biggest solution to climate change.

Sutter: Of course, there is a right and wrong answer in this case because of the science – we’re causing climate change – but you’re saying, just kind of abandon that? Let that go in a conversation with someone who denies it?

Kirk: Yes. Let’s say you spend hours talking about ice cores and Earth’s cycles and all that – and at the end, you agree. Then what? The then-what is “let’s solve it,” right? So just start with that. You’re going to waste a lot less energy.

Sutter: Is persuasion the right goal in these conversations?

Kirk: The answer’s definitely no. In a really artful conversation, persuasion is a side effect. Once the person trusts you and once you’re saying, “Oh, I’m learning from you, I’m appreciating you, I’m benefiting from this conversation,” then you’ll be masterfully persuasive. If you go in like, “OK, I’m going to change your mind and show you graphs and talk about volcanoes,” that’s not going to work.

One easy way to frame it is to say (to a skeptic), “OK, all my friends agree with me, so there’s nothing that I can learn from them. But you are different, and I appreciate this opportunity to have a more interesting conversation than I have with people who already agree with me. So, explain it to me! I’m curious. I’m genuinely open to learn more about your point of view.”

Sutter: Another question is from Leslie in Ottawa. She asks, “How do I convince a religious person who does not want to believe that humans could be powerful enough to be destroying the world that God gave them?”

Kirk: I love that question. I got that exact question on the campaign trail, and it was actually one of the most memorable. The idea is that it’s hubristic to think that humans can change the grand scheme of things. I think (the best approach is) backing up a couple of steps and presenting it not as climate change but, really, as this idea of pollution.

It’s easy for someone to say, “I don’t care about polar bears and I don’t trust ice cores” and dismiss that. But like, really, can anyone actually think about their lived experience and think that we are not polluting every part of the planet? Do you look at a river or across your sky or – everything – the parking lot, do you really look at that and say, “We’re doing a perfect job!”

Everybody knows intuitively that we are polluting the planet. Then you can relate that to various religious frames, depending on what the angle is: It’s our charge to take care of this planet. God made a perfect planet, and we are the day-to-day keepers of the planet. Look around, how are we doing?

Sutter: Are there any key “don’ts” that you have learned from engaging in these conversations about climate change?

Kirk: The key “don’t” is don’t spend too much time arguing with people that you’re never going to change their mind. Your time is going to be much better spent working with people who are motivated, but not sure where to put that motivation. You could spend years arguing with your uncle-in-law and never get anywhere.

Sutter: Todd in Ohio asked, “Why has this become politicized?”

Kirk: Unfortunately, a lot of it is because of the oil companies. I don’t like to be too aggressive about placing blame. But that’s clear when you look at their track record of how they’ve spent money on public disinformation campaigns, their specific messages, what they’re still doing on social media and in other places. It’s very clear that that they have invested billions of dollars to put the brakes on climate messaging and climate progress, and they’re still doing it.

Sutter: This is another one from Leslie in Canada. She asks whether it’s possible for us to address the climate crisis without the help of people who won’t accept the scientific realities. Is that possible, or even desirable?

Kirk: All we need is maybe 51%. We need enough to win elections. That counts at the local scale all the way up through the president. And so it’s certainly easier the more support you have. But no, you don’t need every person.

Sutter: What is the trend in terms of public opinion on the climate crisis?

Kirk: The trend is up, but disappointingly slow on the way it’s going up. It’s very rare anymore that you find someone who doesn’t agree that it’s getting warmer. More and more people are agreeing that we should do something – that we should pollute less.

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    Sutter: Any closing thoughts?

    Kirk: This has never mattered more. We are at this pinnacle of our inability to understand each other. The people on the opposite side from you feel the exact same way as you do. They are equally distressed about this. Nobody is having fun right now with our national conversation. Nobody. And so that gives you this immediate, profound common ground: “Hey, I am as miserable as you are. Hey, you know what? The two of us can buck that trend.”