I didn’t think I’d have to ask myself that question, but I do find that questioning one’s own beliefs is the first step towards being able to communicate them to others. And here in Guatemala it’s become obvious to me that I need to have a good answer to the question “what’s the big deal with Climate Change?”, just as I’ve had to refine my answer to the question “why are you vegetarian?“.

Not that most people of course have even asked me that question. Normally I’ll realise the need to explain myself simply by a sceptical look or a blank stare or a feeling that I’m being humoured in a conversation. And in case you think this is something to do with Guatemalans, it’s a situation I’ve encountered with Brits, Europeans and Americans when I’ve mentioned climate change, even casually or in passing.

Part of my failure to always communicate effectively with people is no doubt due to my own beliefs and convinctions. I do understand that almost everybody will not feel as strongly about climate change as I do, although I assume most people – especially Westerners – will have a basic understanding of the issues through newspapers and TV news. Unfortunately, to me the existence of people-created climate change is virtually a rock-solid hard fact: have a look at the amazing website The Discovery of Global Warming for an explanation of the 100-year history of climate change science. In a nutshell, the existence of people-created climate change, hypothesised and documented over more than 100 years, is so scientifically unquestionable to me that to do so would be practically to reject science itself. Which is even more curious how – in a global society that looks up so much to science and technology –  so few people feel the same way I do about this scientific fact. Of course, we know through the work of scientists George Lakoff, Drew Westen and others that the human brain does not function essentially on reason, it functions on patterns, emotions and preconceptions. But I just want to be able to communicate to the people I meet, in a few sentences, why climate change is important, and to justify to them why I personally place such importance on fighting it.

And I do place a lot of importance on it. While some self-styled “climate sceptics” muddle the issue by admitting to the existence of climate change but contesting that humans are creating it, in contrast I would bet my life that climate change is being caused by us. What’s more, if all I had to do was to sacrifice my own life in order to magically stop climate change from happening, I would do that, with a sigh of relief. To many this would seem an extreme position, but it’s really not when you understand the stakes:  the stakes are very clearly (in this (sadly theoretical) example) one life versus literally billions of lives. And that’s just human lives. Add into that the extinction of thousands of species (not individual animals or plants, but all the millions or billions of individuals in thousands of species). And to that, the disappearance of the diverse habitats that they live in. Add to that the disapperance of human civilisation as we know it (no more TV (oh no), no more internet, no more movies, no more electricity, no more Facebook, no more Mars bars, no more holidays to Spain. And very little art, music, literature, architecture, education, culture or history. In the “worst case scenario” given by the (in fact rather conservative) International Panel on Climate Change, human beings will be almost wiped off the planet within 100 years. And here’s the thing: the worst case scenario (6 or more degrees Celsius of global temperature rise) is far more likely than the best case scenario. As you can imagine, the middle scenario (which is now almost certain to happen), is not as bad, but halfway to absolute wipe-out is still pretty bad.

Or am I just scare-mongering, or believing my own hype? Because I know a bit about how the human brain works according to scientists like Lakoff and Westen, I know that I am pre-disposed to believe the worst about climate change, whether it’s true or not. All the “facts” I hear about climate change interract with all my “liberal” and “left-wing” and green beliefs & preconceptions to form a tightly-knit and self-reinforcing web that would pre-dispose me to believe the facts even if they were not true. And that is indeed how some people have treated me on my journey down the Americas. As someone convinced of their own quaint little beliefs in their own head who has to be humoured or avoided, defended against, or at least treated with a pinch of salt. I watched a Mexican girl tease a German traveller with the taunt “ecoloco!” (a mix of ecólogo [ecologist] and loco [crazy]. And that wasn’t because he was an ecologist or had said anything at all environmental – he just had slightly-longer than usual hair. She evidently found this name-calling hilarious. I, an ecologist with short hair, kept my mouth shut.

My friend, a smart and expensively-educated human rights activist in New York City, asked me whether there wasn’t lots of doubt about climate change being caused by human activity. And another American human rights activist here in Guatemala got offended when I included climate change in a conversation about human rights. A Brit, soon to graduate into the field of “global economic development” told me that there is “no way” we can ever ask people to consume less, or to stop new people consuming more. While advocating this “development” he admitted to having no idea what the (inevitably catastrophic) impact on this planet might be.

So there is clearly a lack of real knowledge of the realities of climate change. I can certainly say that very very few people I’ve met have anything like a commitment to fighting climate change. I’m talking about any commitment at all. Only a few people even have the language of thinking that there is a vaguely a problem and that they occasionally have a role to play in countering it, for example by watching what they buy, driving or flying less, boycotting extreme products or corporations, and casually sharing that view with others. But even among well-educated, politically progressive and “liberal”, young and well-off Westerners, this view is not at universal, it is definitely a minority.

So. How I can communicate to people like this, and people with even less experience of the issue, my perspective, my truths, my motivations and my urgency about climate change? I need something that is short, to the point, not overly scientific and that reaches across values-systems and experiences.

I guess I need to remember the core ways I would communicate anything difficult: keep a sympathetic connection, talk on a personal everyday level, talk in terms of needs not of “musts” or “shoulds”, don’t assume a superior role, keep it believable and bite-sized, be aware of the feelings I’m creating, concentrate on creating empathy and motivation not imparting a volume of information.

With that in mind, perhaps something like “I’m really worried though about climate change and global warming. A book I was reading recently was showing how where I live in Britain won’t exist by the end of my lifetime because it’ll be completely under the sea, and the country’s going to be changed completely because we won’t be able to import or grow enough food. It’s going to be horrible, I just wish there wasn’t so much propaganda in the way from the powers-that-be, because I think there are ways to avoid the worst happening”.

This is only one possible paragraph out of hundreds, but I’m hoping it serves several purposes: it sincerely and personally communicates my concern, it is sympathetic, and it will hopefully make people think. Nobody wants to be put in a horrible position or see bits of Britain go underwater. And crucially it pre-empts any climate-change-as-conspiracy nonsense by reframing the powers-that-be (and they, in detail, will be different for everyone) as the people causing the problem, not the scientists. It allows the discussion to then spring off with a question about who the powers-that-be are, what the scientific findings are, how I feel, what might happen, what I’m thinking of doing to handle it, and so.

And for the record, “much of Britain made uninhabitable by severe flooding” is exactly what we’re in store for with even a middle-case scenario of global warming, as Mark Lynas (interviewed here in The Times newspaper) showed in his dramatic but sadly completely factually-based book 6 Degrees.

I’ve tried innudating people with information, I’ve tried scaring the shit out of them with the factual projections. I’ve come to the conclusion neither approaches produces action. If anyone has more experiences and ideas about how to communicate climate change to people not familiar with it, and to make them act on it, I really want to know.

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