Climate Conversations

In November, Dr. Joseph Silverman, a Florence psychologist, spoke to an audience at the Western Mass. Green Consortium's free, monthly Green Night held at the Platform Sports Bar in Northampton. Silverman discussed psychological barriers that keep people from talking about climate change.
In November, Dr. Joseph Silverman, a Florence psychologist, spoke to an audience at the Western Mass. Green Consortium's free, monthly Green Night held at the Platform Sports Bar in Northampton. Silverman discussed psychological barriers that keep people from talking about climate change.

Special to Going Green

You don’t have to be a psychologist to initiate positive, productive conversation about climate change, but it might help to think like one.

On Nov. 13, Florence psychologist Joseph Silverman presented “Communicating about Climate Change: Talking to Those Who are Concerned (but Passive), Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful, or Dismissive” to an engaged audience at the Western Mass Green Consortium’s monthly “Green Night.” Green Nights are free, environmentally-focused, educational events open to the public and held from 5 to 7 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month. Meetings are held at the Platform Sports Bar on Pleasant Street in Northampton.

For many reasons — most due to human psychology — our nation’s conversation about climate change has been sporadic, despite statistics indicating a majority of people now accept it as both real and requiring action.

“Climate change is what has been referred to as the perfect storm of miscommunication. We need to talk about it,” Silverman said. To spur public discourse, Silverman, a climate activist, applied his psychological training to explain why more people don’t engage around climate change, and what concerned citizens can do to keep the conversation going.

Why don’t more people take an urgent stance against change?

“After a big event, surveys (show) concern about climate change tends to go up, but then it goes back to baseline fairly quickly,” Silverman said, explaining the public psychology as, “‘It’s happening to other people. It’s happening in other places. The Bahamas got destroyed but, you know, that’s way over there.’”

“It’s invisible,” Silverman said. “It’s not apparent to most people on most days.”

Another reason people may not talk about climate change more is that they don’t fully grasp the details. “Scientists are not particularly good communicators,” Silverman said. “The language they use is pretty technical and climate research tends to be really specific. It’s complex. It’s abstract. It’s described in terms of parts per million, which doesn’t make sense to a lot of people, and one degree doesn’t seem significant.”

(If one degree doesn’t seem significant, Silverman said, take stock of how you feel the next time you have a fever. Like the human body, earth is a sensitive, homeostatic system).

Silverman also noted that talking about climate change can be psychologically paralyzing. “If you’re not really anxious about what’s going on, you’re not paying attention,” he said. “But as a psychologist I know what people do with anxiety. They avoid. It’s common sense. If you’re afraid of flying, you don’t fly. For a lot of people, I think when this gets to why there isn’t more communication about climate change.”

“The communication, by and large, has been, ‘If we don’t act, terrible things are going to happen.’ But people avoid news they don’t want to hear. They don’t want to think about losses,” Silverman said, adding that talking about climate change “… can also cause feelings of depression, knowing there’s this catastrophe unfolding in front of our very eyes. And a reaction to depression is often the sense of helplessness; that there’s nothing they can do.”

One more reason people don’t talk about climate change, Silverman said, “There’s been some habituation. What I [read] on the internet is, ‘We’ve been hearing that the earth is going to end for 20 years now and it hasn’t happened yet. I don’t believe it’s ever going to happen.’”

Last, he said, “There are people who are real deniers.”

Climate deniers are often loud and absolute, but polls show they represent less than 10 percent of the population. And, though conspiracy theories abound, “The theme that comes out most is that this is a plot by the left to crash the economy so that socialists can take over. That comes across [on social media] over and over,” Silverman said.

How not to start a climate conversation

Psychologically speaking, people don’t react well when a messenger rebuts everything they say. “People are reluctant to relearn information they’ve already integrated. If they’ve been exposed to ‘it’s a hoax’ and they build that into their world view, it’s very resistant to change,” Silverman said. “You’re not going to get the satisfaction of someone saying, ‘Oh, wow, you’re right. I really need to think differently about that.’ Instead, maybe you plant a little seed by saying something that they’ll think about later.”

People also don’t like being made to feel guilty or inferior, so taking a priggish stance against their SUV or home heating choice isn’t going to win any eager listeners. “We all drive cars. We all put heat in our house. There’s no way to avoid it. If people are made to feel guilty about what they’re doing, then they’re going to avoid those feelings [by disengaging],” Silverman said.

Finally, Silverman suggested, consider avoiding the words “climate change.” Since the topic is emotionally and politically charged, rather than taunting the elephant in the room, talk neutrally about common values such as preserving nature, protecting children’s health, energy freedom, investing in new businesses and supporting local ones, and slowing down the pace of daily life. Climate change or not, these are things most of us agree on.

A winning approach

The most important step in starting a climate conversation is establishing rapport with the person you’re speaking to. “Find some way to connect with the person you’re talking with, because unless there’s some sense of rapport, they’re probably not going to listen to anything you have to say,” Silverman said. “The first step might be to ask questions. Find out where the person is coming from, what are their values, what are their concerns?”

“And make sure the conversation doesn’t start to sound like an argument or a debate,” he said. “One way to start is with validation.” Examples of validating statements include “Yes, it’s hard to know what to believe,” or “There has been a lot of conflicting information about this issue”, or perhaps “Yes, it really is horrifying to think about, but there are things we can do.”

Silverman offered yet another approach. “There’s something in psychology called ‘motivational interviewing,’ where you basically just ask questions,” he said. “You’re not offering your own opinions or assertions, you’re just using questions to tease out what they think; sort of make the person aware that maybe there’s some internal inconsistency in terms of what they’re saying. Then you could express things as a general observation, not as an attempt to change their position. ‘I’ve heard or there’s this idea out there,’ or ‘What other people are saying is…’”

Silverman also suggested enlisting trusted messengers to keep climate conversations going. Teachers, religious leaders, medical professionals, local meteorologists, and museum docents are already people who interact personally with large groups of people. Inspiring them to talk about climate issues can have an exponential effect.

When listeners back away out of fear, Silverman said, “As a psychologist, when I’m dealing with someone who has anxiety I say, ‘Well, it’s not going to change until you face what you’re anxious about. And if you’re depressed about things, you need to get active. You need to try to change things.’ That’s the positive way to deal with these feelings.”

“What’s very effective is to present solutions,” he said. “And most of the solutions will not come from government but from local communities pulling together to figure out how do we deal with this. The solution to climate change really is supporting individuals and supporting communities to do things in a healthier way.”

For more strategies you can take to ignite action against climate change, visit Dr. Silverman’s web site at


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