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Climate and Environment

How To Talk About The Climate Emergency At Your Thanksgiving Dinner

A cornucopia of Thanksgiving food.
(Brad West/Unsplash)
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With the Santa Ana winds and dry, warm weather upping fire danger in southern California this week, there’s a chance the climate emergency will come up at your family’s Thanksgiving dinner table. No one wants their holiday meal to devolve into a bitter argument, so we’re here to help you navigate this potentially tricky conversation.

Here are some tips:

Know Thy Audience

To effectively communicate, you’ve gotta know your audience. You may think there are only climate deniers and climate believers, but we’re all a little more complicated than that. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication puts Americans into six categories: alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful and dismissive.

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Research shows that while the majority of Americans are concerned or alarmed about the climate crisis, they underestimate how many people feel similarly.

A screenshot of a chart that shows Yale Climate Change Communication's "Six Americas" of climate concern. Image shows circles of percentages of Americans who are alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, or dismissive about climate change.
Yale's Six Americas of climate concern
(Yale Program on Climate Change Communication/George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication)

Which isn’t surprising, given how little they discuss it with others. Only about a third say they talk with friends and family about the issue at least occasionally.

These statistics mean it’s pretty likely there’s someone at your dinner table who is thinking about the climate emergency. So don’t be afraid to bring up the topic.

But first, some strategies on how to bring it up.

Pick The Right Person

Maybe don’t strike up your first climate conversation with your uncle who thinks it’s all a hoax. But don’t assume that your politically conservative relatives all have extreme opinions about the climate crisis—denial of the climate crisis is actually much less common than you might think (take another look at that chart above).

For example, there’s a surprising number of things Democrats and Republicans agree on, like the belief in good stewardship of the planet and the need to shift to cleaner energy sources. The differences lie primarily in policy disagreements and the role of government in addressing the issue.

So start with the things you have some common ground on — maybe that’s investing in renewable energy, or tax incentives to make buildings more energy efficient. You can see a rundown of some of the policies most voters agree on here.

Know (A Little) Science

There is no shortage of misinformation these days. In just the last two years, conspiracy theories have fueled the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and political violence in our nation’s capital, showing us how dangerous it can be when false information spreads.

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We see the same issues playing out with the climate crisis. When talking about the climate emergency, you don’t need to be armed with the knowledge of a climate scientist, but a basic handle on the information can be helpful.

So how do you respond when your climate crisis-denying uncle proclaims the earth’s climate has always changed and we’ve got nothing to do with it?

A graph of temperature records set between 1870 and 2010 in Los Angeles, Calif.
A graph of temperature records set between 1870 and 2010 in Los Angeles
(Climate Central)

Yale Climate Connections has a helpful series of articles on how to respond to these kinds of commonly-held misbeliefs.

One fact to keep in your back pocket: 97% of publishing climate scientists agree that humans are causing the changes in the earth’s climate that we’re experiencing today.

For that uncle, you may want to rely more on talking about how the climate crisis has personally affected you or loved ones. Some research trials have found that communicating on an emotional level is a way to reach people with strongly held beliefs. Talking about the recent extreme weather we’ve experienced is another way in.

Stay Calm

Try to remember this is supposed to be a conversation, not an argument. If stress levels and tensions are already high (we all know how family gatherings can be), maybe it’s not the best time for a chat about climate change.

So focus on keeping calm and not putting undue pressure on yourself to “win” someone over (and remember—it’s supposed to be a conversation, not an argument). In fact, you’ll probably turn family members off even more if you start preaching about the climate emergency.

British charity Climate Outreach also has some good resources on keeping these conversations civil and productive.

You’ll learn how to get better at these conversations by having them—you don’t have to get it all right the first try!

Focus On Action

One way to avoid getting stuck in climate science arguments is to focus on what we all can actually do about it.

It’s important to remember that individual action isn’t just about your choices as a consumer. It’s also about what you can do as a citizen to accelerate systemic change. That means things like voting, calling your elected officials to voice your concerns, or joining a climate action group.

There are already a ton of people working together to push for meaningful action on climate change, so try talking to your family members about how to get involved. Not all climate action groups fit into the stereotype of tree-hugging environmentalist.

Maybe your cousin is skeptical of climate change, but loves to hunt and doesn’t realize the climate crisis will impact his favorite game species. He might be interested in learning from and joining other hunters fighting the climate crisis.

Or your church-going aunt is more motivated by the issue’s moral implications and could push for her congregation to become better stewards of the earth. Or your sister is especially concerned about equity and justice and could look for a local group focused on that.

There are endless spaces to find your fit.

Feel — And Talk About — Your Feelings

Sometimes we don’t talk about the climate crisis for the simple reason that it’s, well, terrifying. But talking about it can actually help alleviate those feelings of anxiety and grief around the changes we’re seeing in our world. Processing those emotions can also help us become more motivated to take action.

So if you feel that overwhelm, and you feel comfortable, express it. Maybe you’ll be surprised that others in your family wanted to get the same worries off their chests.

Get Outside

If things get heated or that grief hits hard, maybe get everybody outside for a breather. Enjoying the beauty in your backyard or at your local park will not only help relieve stress, but remind you why this is all worth fighting for in the first place.

Here are some additional resources for coping with climate grief:

Climate Emergency Questions
Fires. Mudslides. Heat waves. What questions do you need answered as you prepare for the effects of the climate emergency?

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