Winning the Climate Change Conversation

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When I stepped onto the hotel shuttle in Chicago, the first question I was asked by an exuberant woman from Ohio was, “Are you going to the Climate Reality Training with Al Gore?” I responded that I was, but a hard-faced man in front of me answered for he and his wife, “NO! I don’t believe in that! Even if it is happening, there is nothing we can do about it. What’s going to happen, is going to happen.” Listening to him made me realize the climate conversation had shifted. With the devastating severe weather we have had recently including, droughts, fires, hurricanes, terrifying and catastrophic super-storms, almost no community has been left unfazed. It’s become impossible to deny the severe implications of our rising temperatures and some people, like the man in the front seat, have chosen to go from denial to despair.

I have to give the woman from Ohio credit. She immediately recognized that she wasn’t going to win over this curmudgeon by throwing facts and figures at him, so instead she completely disarmed him by changing the conversation to “something we can both agree on.” Eventually, he told his tale of how the couple lived in Florida, but had to leave for the winter because the heat was unbearable. They traveled to Montana, but ended up with eight days close to 100 degrees – with no air conditioning. They were now heading to Chicago in hopes of finding cooler weather. This couple was living the very real implications of a changing climate. Fortunately, they have the resources to try to escape the oppressive heat. Many other “climate change refugees” will not fair so well with sea level rise and little access to food and water. With the Ohio woman, hope sprang eternal as she ended our ride with the inspiration that we all could do something about climate change – and must if we are to avoid the most severe implications.

The first of the three-day Climate Reality Training was spent learning how to tell your story. The understanding, as aptly demonstrated by our shuttle ride, is that we will not win the conversation on climate change by reciting facts; no matter how accurate or scientifically-based these are. People can find any number of ways to disagree, but they can’t deny your story.

I still remember when I first heard Will Steger speak in 2006. It was compelling not just from the startling images of ice loss, but, from the personal experience Will had in these awe-inspiring polar-regions and with the people who called them home.

We each have our story of how our sense of place is being re-written by a changing climate. We have to be willing to share these stories and be open to finding some agreement. Just like other deeply held beliefs during the civil rights struggle, apartheid, women’s rights and the recent Minnesota Freedom to Marry Act, the conversation is slowly shifting, person by person, across political lines.

I am proud of the work we do at Will Steger Foundation: helping young people and educators find their voice and tell their important stories. We need to keep the momentum and the conversation going. Because, the reality is that we can’t win on climate change solutions until we win the climate change conversation.

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