Show and Tell: It’s time to stop hiding our support for climate action

People snowshoewing and talking, possible about climate change, need to talk about it, and climate action
Climate and Energy

Earlier this month, an all-star lineup in the United States endorsed a plan for a carbon tax. Signed by 45 economists from across the political spectrum, the list included former Federal Reserve chairs and Nobel Prize winners. If that’s not carbon pricing going mainstream, I don’t know what is. Yet despite the growing consensus and support among experts, the public seems less eager to participate in the discussion on climate action. But why? Why can talking about climate change, climate policies—and carbon pricing in particular—be so difficult?

We don’t talk enough about climate change

Canadian climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe recently gave a TED talk titled “The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: talk about it.” In it, she cites the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which finds that two-thirds of Americans never talk about climate change even though 70% believe it is a real problem. This “spiral of silence” is itself a big problem: “People concerned about the climate avoid voicing their worry because they rarely hear others discussing the topic, and thus the spiral continues.”

But collective silence is dangerous, especially for a problem as large and urgent as climate change. How do we pull out of this spiral? According to Hayhoe, we have to talk about it. But that can be hard to do.

Why it’s hard to talk about climate change

Humans are social creatures. Belonging is a fundamental and universal human need, and as a result, we often choose to conform to our group. That’s why our friends and family have far more influence on our view than do experts. Research suggests that the silencing effect is most powerful when talking to family, friends, or neighbours about obtrusive issues. So, the need for belonging makes overcoming the spiral of silence with friends and family even harder.

But in fact, we have much more common ground on climate change than expected: in a research project using dialogue between people of opposing views, participants agreed on key points, and in each case there was at least one topic where the two took positions contrary to what they predicted of the other.

How to talk about climate change

Even when we do talk about climate change, our instinct on what to talk about is typically unhelpful. Rather than starting with the science and facts as we’re apt to do, Hayhoe suggests that we find that common ground by looking for shared values. For example, maybe you’re both parents, or maybe you both have the same hobby. Second, don’t use fear, but rather rational hope. Talk about solutions that are “practical, viable, accessible and attractive”.

A November Angus Reid poll showed that 61% of Canadians say they feel they can personally help to reduce climate change. Clearly many regular citizens are thinking about acting, even if they’re not yet talking about it. But maybe they’re ready? You can always show them your behaviour change, and then ask them a curious question to see if they want to talk about it. Then listen. Start with someone you trust.

Don’t forget policy

Speaking up for good policy is a key part of this game of climate show and tell. Given the need for climate policy to take us through this low-carbon transition in the coming decades, debating what good policy looks like right now is more important than ever. Opponents are raising their voices, supporters should too.

Abacus Data polling from November showed that 59% of Canadians think that the national carbon price is a step in the right direction. Could the spiral of silence also be affecting Canada? Are some people more on board than they dare say? If so, what can we do about it?

Going first, and going second

Disagreeing with our friends and family is hard. Recent research shows that some will choose non-environmental behaviours to fit in with their group, despite caring about the environment.

Going first is hard, but important. In any given group—of coworkers, friends or family—someone has to be the first one to stand alone and talk about how carbon pricing actually makes pretty good economic sense.

But going second matters too. It’s risky to lead. So, it’s equally important to have a person who supports the initiative of another as the first follower. That means supporting others when they speak up for climate action. Voice your agreement rather than staying silent. And of course, voice your concerns as well! Join the discussion rather than avoiding it, even if it’s hard.

Tell us how you’re speaking up

Here at the Ecofiscal Commission, you’ve heard our position many times: do as much as you can with carbon pricing, and support it with policies that do things carbon pricing cannot.

What is your position on climate policy? What conversations are you having in your communities? We’d love to hear in the comments below your stories of action and efforts to end climate silence; and how you’ve followed someone else’s lead too! Let’s start a conversation.

Resources to Support you in Talking about Climate Action

7 comments

  1. Avatar
    Doug Sanden

    Yes I’ve got the disgruntled and hoax responses from relatives, but stood firmly in favor of doing something. A few things that helped bridge the gap: I’m a cheapskate. I want the cheapest way to decarbonize. And economists agree broad based carbon pricing -like the carbon tax or cap & trade- is the cheapest way to accelerate decarbonization, as measured in $/tonne abated. Every other way will cost more for less. If you want to do less you should ask your grandchildren for permission as us older people will be 6 feet under when the worst hits.
    And signalling now about the carbon price going up to 100 – 300/tonne in 2030 will avoid another cost: stranded assets -both capital/capex and human- by helping people make wise decisions now when buying long-lifespan equipment and making major career choices.
    What about business? Everyone wants a good economy. I explain public companies have a duty to shareholders to maximize shareholder value within laws and regulations, so unless they have a marketing angle, they can’t abate at net cost. So in general they are waiting for regulations / carbon pricing to trigger plans they have ready. For small biz often in a dogfight with near competitors, they might not be able to abate at net cost without passing on the cost as price increases and losing business to dirtier competitors. Carbon pricing makes it fair again.

  2. Avatar
    Stephen B McClellan

    I am strongly supportive of more discussion on climate change. That said, I fear that the only discussion that is tolerated is one that accepts our current understanding of the causes of climate change as fact; i.e. that climate change (global warming) is being predominately caused by human emissions of CO2.

    But since this site is more about our policy response, let us assume that the science is a given. I am of the view that we need to have a broader discussion of the extent to which any social engineering to reduce emissions is an efficient allocation of scarce resources in view of the enormous real costs relative to the more uncertain benefits — and in light of the many other social and environmental problems to which that money might be better used. For example, we might want to have the kind of discussion that draws on the work of the Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg who argues that there are bigger problems that climate change. Or does that cross the line into the forbidden land of the skeptics.

    • Annette Dubreuil
      Annette Dubreuil

      There certainly are other problems. Those typically fall outside of the Ecofiscal Commission’s work, other than making sure policy changes are fair (don’t decrease purchasing power). I’ll also offer that many of these other problems are also interconnected with climate change (e.g. food shortages and droughts), so sometimes I think it should “yes, and” rather than “but.”

    • Avatar
      Doug Sanden

      1. economic costs: piecing together a few sources -parliamentary budget office, and US report- it sounded like for every 100/tonne c-tax for a decade, the economy would be 1% smaller. 1mm on a meter stick. Meanwhile annual growth fluctuates a lot more than that due to business cycles. I conclude its not costless but you need a magnifying glass to see the difference.
      2. jobs: report from ILO international labor organization found more jobs result. That’s because renewable energy and energy efficiency are both more labor intensive than the fossil fuels they replace, with energy efficiency being 68% of the net gain in jobs.
      3. stranded assets – by waffling, it will cost us more by confusing everyday folk who have to make purchasing decisions on long-lasting equipment and business scenarios. And as a result may end up with equipment that is un-usable before end of life, at cost to the economy. When economists say ‘start early and gradually ramp up’ that’s why. If you delay and try and catch up later, you’ll have more stranded assets at greater cost to the economy.
      Summary: Stephan – in my extensive reading on it, I didn’t find the risk or costs to the economy you’re talking about in going for it, but I do see higher risk / cost to the economy in waffling or delaying.

  3. Avatar
    Bonnie Denhaan

    Fully agree with Mr.Sanden’s analysis. Climate change has become so obvious in the past decade or so it is hard to figure why there is so much denial, or ignoring the facts. Possibly we need more clear, positive actions demonstrated and publicized, to encourage doubters to get on board. EG – the drop in your power bill when you turn off the lights more often! Seems like a very small action, but if it is multiplied by lots of people doing it, the results will be obvious. Gotta START somewhere!

  4. Avatar
    Christopher Barry

    It is worth noting that there are roles for ocean carbon sequestration, particularly via enhancing existing biological processes.

    These are not a magic bullet, or the only answer, but the most recent IPPC report notes that negative emissions will be required.

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