talking Climate Change with Rebecca Nestor

An interactive workshop hosted by Low Carbon Hub during Great Big Green Week 21 September 10.30am.

The climate crisis is an emotional subject and discussions in our everyday lives with family members, friends, colleagues and strangers, who all have different opinions on climate change can sometimes be difficult to initiate and sustain. As a result we may avoid those conversations, leading to a silence on the subject but talking about climate change is important as for many it is the first step towards creating a debate about how much the climate crisis matters.

As part of Great Big Green Week, Low Carbon Hub were delighted to invite Rebecca Nestor, Chair of Low Carbon Oxford North, to hold an interactive workshop on how to start and open up conversations about climate change. Rebecca is an experienced climate psychologist and board member of the Climate Psychology Alliance, with a special interest in approaching conversations on climate change in a thoughtful and sensitive way. The workshop proved to be both popular and timely and we were joined by members of our 36 community groups and participants from around the UK inspired by Great Big Green Week.

The workshop involved interactive role playing in small groups to help participants to understand and respect different points of view and different levels of knowledge. The idea was to create a space for future conversations where people could feel confident to discuss aspects of climate change without being made to feel that they were ignorant or misinformed.

Rebecca used materials developed by Climate Outreach, an Oxford based charity with a focus on communicating climate change, and Rosemary Randall, a long standing expert on climate psychology. One of the key messages was the importance of listening and allowing space for other people’s feelings by making them the focus of the discussion. Rebecca reinforced this approach by discussing how the climate movement tends to rely on the ‘Information Deficit Theory’, which aims to challenge the assumption that if only everyone had the right information they wouldn’t hesitate to take action. The simple, yet sometimes difficult to implement advice, was to listen, resist the urge to interrupt and try to acknowledge other people’s opinions.

The approach is explained in this friendly video: ‘The Secret to Talking About Climate Change’:

The climate crisis brings into question many aspects of the way we live now and conversations often feature the prospect of changing  behaviour which can make many of us feel defensive. The message here was don’t attempt to batter down people’s defences but try to earn their trust by allowing plenty of time for them to share their perspective. When people feel comfortable to open up about their feelings it’s helpful to express empathy and ask lots of questions, which might make a two-way discussion more likely to flourish with emotion but without conflict.

Rebecca used the image of an iceberg to illustrate what may be going on under the surface of a conversation: the current mood of the people involved, and our sometimes unacknowledged agenda and perceptions about the other person, as well as our natural psychological defences against the difficult feelings that the climate crisis evokes.

She suggested we ‘flip the iceberg’ by paying attention to what might be going on under the surface. For example, being clear for yourself what your purpose is in having a climate change conversation so that you are clear in what you say and how you express yourself. Is it to convert people to your cause, or share and feel less alone, or persuade them to change their behaviour?

One of the most important things to remember when talking about climate change with those who don’t share your views is that people may find it difficult to communicate effectively when they feel threatened. We all have defences against the difficult feelings associated with the climate crisis and we’re likely to feel threatened if those defences are openly attacked.

Most of the participants at the workshop felt reassured that they were not alone in finding conversations emotionally difficult to start and sustain and felt positive about trying out the techniques suggested in the role playing activity. Rebecca left us with one often overlooked piece of advice – try to enjoy the conversation!


Climate Outreach:

26,000 Climate Conversations