All I Want for Grandparents Day Is a Climate Conversation

What's one thing you can do to combat climate change? Talk about it.

Posted Sep 05, 2019

“You have a superpower!”

I chose a jarring start for a discussion with a high school environmental club. Thirty students stared at me in disbelief.

“Here’s your superpower: If you ask your parents or grandparents to talk with you, they will. So ask them to talk with you about climate change.”

They still stared, but they were starting to get interested.

“Nana, was the summer THIS hot when you were a kid? And were the winters colder?”

I had previously tried a similar pitch with college students a few months before, and I knew that it worked. Both “ice breakers” generated positive responses by providing a road map for starting a climate conversation with their parents or grandparents. Many of them said it was the first time they’d had a serious conversation with their older family members about the climate crisis. Or, indeed, a serious conversation with their parent or grandparent on any topic.

Many grandparents—like most Americans—have developed a climate avoidance habit. We know that climate change is happening but we don’t know what to do about it, so we avoid talking or thinking about it. But grandparents also have a superpower: if we ask our kids and grandkids to talk with us, they will. 

"Hey kids, instead of driving, let's walk to the playground—we can save energy and get exercise at the same time!"

September 8th is Grandparents’ Day. Whether you’re in high school, a young adult, or a grandparent yourself, it’s also a great time to use your superpower in your own family.

 Photo by Noorulabdeen Ahmad on Unsplash
Grandparents Day is the Perfect TIme for a Climate Conversation
Source: Photo by Noorulabdeen Ahmad on Unsplash

Setting the Stage

It’s always hard to break habits—but when it comes to climate habits, the Norwegian psychologist Per Espen Stoknes has figured out how we can get started. In a TED talk and book, Stoknes outlined simple steps to move from anxiety to action on climate change. Key among them is changing the story we are telling ourselves about the climate crisis and what we can do.

It’s important to change your own story before engaging in a discussion with someone else. How can you do this? Some themes emerge in the work of psychologist Sander van der Linden and his colleagues: To change your climate change story, keep it social, short and positive.

"Social" means focusing your thinking on people and places you care about. Social also means reminding yourself that humans respond to group norms. If we see that we are not in something alone, or that others share our concerns, we are more likely to act.

What if we planted a maple tree right here in the backyard? It would provide shade and we wouldn’t have to use the air conditioner. Where’s a good place to plant it?"

"Shortˆ" means focused on a time frame that you can easily comprehend—like a generation or two—instead of trying to visualize your carbon footprint 10,000 years from now. Short also means attending to the immediate changes you’re seeing around you. Doing so helps avoid the psychological trap of distancing yourself from climate change and its impacts.

"Positive" means highlighting actions that you can take. Framing your opportunities for action, as well as your challenges, increases your chances of acting.  

Why Having a Conversation Is So Important

Once you’ve changed your story, the next step is taking action—and the easiest first action is talking about climate change. 

Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe is often asked, “What’s the most important thing I can do to combat climate change?” Her answer is straight-forward: Talk about it with family members and friends. 

It’s easy to see why this matters. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, roughly 70 percent of Americans rarely or never talk with family members and friends about climate change. But according to psychologist Matthew Goldberg and his colleagues, discussions with family members and friends increase your knowledge of the scientific consensus on climate change and your own belief that climate change is happening and human-caused.  

 Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Source: Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Feinberg, G., & Rosenthal, S. (2015). Climate change in the American mind: October, 2015. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

You might be wondering: How important could it be to just talk with people in your own small circles of influence? “Massively important,” according to Goldberg, for two reasons.

First, the messenger matters and family members and friends are the most effective messengers. People listen to their family members and friends. Secondly, talking with others helps you understand that there is a broader consensus on climate change than you might think.

As Goldberg put it: “The average person estimates that only 54 percent of her fellow Americans believe climate change is happening. In reality, 69 percent do.”  In other words, if you’re concerned about climate change, you’re not alone.

Wondering how you can get a conversation started? Start with common ground, like shared concerns or values. For example, Goldberg suggests starting with an aspect you know your family member cares about: healthcare, economics, national security, or pollution. Need an icebreaker? Try the recent weather patterns!

"Gramps, tell me a story about the hurricanes when you were a little boy. Were they as strong as they are now? Was there as much rain?"

What Does Success Look Like?

It’s critical, too, to know what a successful conversation looks like. It's a two-way street, engaging both younger and older generations.

Greta Thunberg, the teenage founder of School Strike for Climate, may speak for many children and grandchildren:

“I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”

Sue Blythe, a member of Elders Climate Action, put it well:

“I want my six grandchildren to know why I care so passionately about the condition our planet is in. I need for them to know that I believe that we can change climate change.” 

So this Grandparents Day, use your superpower to talk about the climate crisis and what you can do about it—you might be surprised by what a lasting impact you can have.

References

Goldberg, M.H.,  van der Linden,S, Maibach, E. & Leiserowitz, A. (2019). Discussing global warming leads to greater acceptance of climate science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , 116 (30) 14804-14805; DOI:10.1073/pnas.

Maibach, E., Leiserowitz, A., Rosenthal, S., Roser-Renouf, C., & Cutler, M. (2016). Is there a climate "spiral of silence" in America?. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Stoknes, P.E. (2015). What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Climate Change. White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green Publishing

van der Linden, S.  Maibach,E. &  Leiserowitz,A. (2015) Improving Public Engagement With Climate Change: Five “Best Practice” Insights From Psychological Science, Sage, Perspectives on Psychological Science 10:6.  http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1745691615598516