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How to have more productive climate conversations
Leading environmental psychologist Renee Lertzman shares her compassion-based approach
Hello and welcome back to Gen Dread!
It’s been stomach turning to watch what continues to happen in the war in Ukraine, as innocent people’s lives are ruined in a humanitarian catastrophe made possible by fossil fuel profits. I hope you’ve been taking care while taking it in.
Today’s Gen Dread is testing out a new format in response to several readers who wrote in to share stories of difficult climate conversations they’ve had (there was a strong theme of mother-daughter conversations, interestingly). I promised I would raise these stories with an expert on climate communication in order to surface insights about how those interactions could have been handled in more productive ways. I’m thrilled to finally be able to share the results of that mission with you, and very grateful that one of the world’s pioneering environmental psychologists, Dr Renee Lertzman, was up for being our “climate comms advice columnist”.
image courtesy of Renee Lertzman
Renee is a superstar in the climate psych world. Her body of work demonstrates why human psychology is a dangerously overlooked and vital leverage point for environmental action – a line of inquiry that commenced for her in the 90s and has been going strong ever since. Key to this is paying attention to the way people get into conversations about the climate and uphold them with respect for each other’s different perspectives, even in urgent and tense situations. Her initiative Project InsideOut, supported by the KR Foundation, is focused on helping organizations (and people generally) cultivate better (more productive, more empathetic, more impactful) conversations about climate and environmental problems, which is why many corporations seek out her work. (Politico recently wrote about what her approach brings to the tech and private sector industry).
Something that is key to know for all of Renee’s advice below is that her approach to climate conversations is heavily influenced by a modality known as motivational interviewing. I’ve written about motivational interviewing before on Gen Dread (check it out here - it will give you the tools you need to get the most out of this post). In a nutshell, motivational interviewing is a technique for driving behavior change that operates from the belief that attempts to convince or persuade others to take any specific action actually thwart change, because that gives rise to defensive reactions in the other person. People rarely feel only one way about an issue. Rather, they feel ambivalent and hold conflicting aspirations that are loyal to different parts of themselves, i.e. one part wants to keep their high paying job in a polluting industry, another part wants to feel more at ease with the state of the natural world that their kid is inheriting. (Renee recommends this podcast for more information on the research behind ambivalence).
Motivational interviewing honours these mixed feelings and takes a deep listening approach that is rooted in respect for the other person’s ambivalence. Paradoxically, by guiding a person to talk about all sides of their ambivalence (rather than defend one specific part of themselves), openings for self-directed change – that is, change that the other person authors for themselves – become more quickly available than if we’d spent all that time trying to convince them of our agenda. (And by the way, this can work in a policy speech, a massive campaign, a classroom or just about any human context, not just 1:1).
Alright, with all that background in mind, let’s get into the tricky climate conversations that readers wrote in with, and wrap our heads around Renee’s responses.
Gen Dread readers’ climate convos up close
The hardest climate conversation I’ve had to have was with my mom. She considers herself an environmentalist, but she spent most of her career working in finance, for one of the biggest funders of fossil fuels in our country. She isn’t able to reconcile that she can disagree with what this bank is doing and still feel proud of the work she did for them. I’ve asked her about either divesting from the bank, or using her position as an investor to push them to divest from fossil fuels, and she doesn’t seem to want to do either of these things, and refuses to see that it’s antithetical to her views about how important the climate crisis is. I’m not sure how to talk to her without her getting defensive about her long career with a fossil fuel funder.
The first thing that comes to mind for me when going into these conversations is that it is really important to notice what feelings, attitudes, and even judgment you might be having towards the other person's relationship with the issue. So, starting with taking stock and checking in with questions like, am I feeling judgmental? Am I feeling frustrated? Am I feeling angry? And just notice those feelings, recognizing that that is going to absolutely inform and influence any kind of interaction or conversation you have. And it will, almost at an energetic level, put people on their back heels. If you feel angry or frustrated, that’s okay too, just know that’s the kind of interaction you’ll have. So what I advise if you want an actual dialogue (again this works at scale, too) always is to start with whatever we need to do to get to a place of having true empathy and compassion for how complicated these issues are; and the fact that most of us are feeling pulled in different directions, whether it's feeling loyal to one's employer, but also having deep concerns about the impact of their practices on the environment. Unfortunately, it's very rarely as black and white and cut and dry as we want to think it is.
I can’t overstate how important it is to go in with that compassion for wow, this is really hard stuff and we're all navigating really complicated dilemmas and conflicts and contradictions. What I like to do is literally put my hand on my heart and just breathe into it and feel that oh, this is such hard stuff. If you can just put your hand on your heart, and breathe into this hard stuff, and then go into the interaction from that place, things might open up. Say something like I get it, and I would like to understand where you are coming from and what your actual experiences are first, before coming in with any kind of suggestion, recommendation, or trying to persuade people of something, as attempts to convince will never lead to very constructive or productive outcomes.
Then there’s what I call showing up as a guide. Showing up as a guide means that you invite the other person to think with you and to talk with you about what is possible, or what solutions or ways forward there might be. Importantly though, you're not the one who's giving voice to that. You're creating a context and the conditions for the other person to by sharing your own truth, and asking good questions.
For example, in this case, it could look like Hey, you know what? I just realized I've been coming into these conversations with some attitude. And if I'm completely honest, I've been judging. I'm really sorry that I've been coming in with that. I'm just feeling really frustrated. I'm feeling a lot of urgency and I generally have a lot of feelings around this stuff, so I'd like to hit the reset and I'd like to have this conversation again with you. Help me understand what you're seeing, what you're feeling, what you’re experiencing. Let's start there. And then I'd like to be a partner with you and navigate what the next steps might be around this. And if at any point you don't want to have this conversation or you're not feeling comfortable, I want to invite you to let me know. In other words, you're letting the other person be in control and determine what feels right and what doesn't.
What stands out to me about this conversation is that I would want to understand and have curiosity about why Rose’s mother doesn't seem to want to do either of these things. I would also question this language around, “refuses to see”. Yes, it is antithetical to her own views but that's very judgmental, right? As humans we're having to confront issues and impacts that have both given us tremendous benefits and have caused irreparable damage. So that's powerful, a profound moment to be in. After recognizing that then the immediate next step is curiosity, and coming from a place of How can I best serve right now? That is the lens. How can I serve you and how can I serve the bigger whole here?
So when I see that she asked her mother about either divesting or using her position, and clearly she doesn't want to do that, she's not comfortable with that, then I would want to find out why. “Tell me more, tell me more, tell me more”, like the song from Grease. Because telling more leads to openings, it leads to people hearing themselves. When people hear themselves this gives voice to their own ambivalence. You're not the one giving voice to it, you're allowing the other person to. It means that you have to suppress that desire to tell people what to do. From there, change can more easily happen, as per what motivational interviewing teaches.
One of the first days I was home over winter break, I absolutely broke down about climate change in front of my mom. I normally try to be "a good climate communicator" or whatever and think about effects and affect and all of that (which I think is a lot of stress, honestly, on conversations about scary things) but I just told her all of my absolute worst fears for the future and how it's just impossible to figure out a way forward in ~unprecedented times~. I was sobbing at the kitchen table for an hour, and then all my mom had to say was that she was sorry that "her generation" "left mine" a world such as this.
I don't know what else could have possibly said that wouldn't have felt inadequate, but I guess some acknowledgement of the immediacy of the crisis, or of the fact that nothing is inevitable? It of course felt good to talk about my fears, but then it felt like I had hit a brick wall at the end. So I guess my question is, and pardon me for potential climate comms blasphemy, but is there any evidence towards "talking about climate" being a meaningful avenue for change? There's a lot of anecdotal stuff, of course, and obviously talking about things is meaningful on a personal level, but I've seen climate conversations billed as "the number one thing you can do about climate change," which I don't feel can possibly be true. I worry that it's another extension of the whole "if people only knew --> if people only cared --> if people only acted" paradigm of climate action which, um, is complete nonsense but there's still the idea that we just need to feed more facts/fear to "the public" and then change will happen. But I know a lot of info and I have a lot of fear and I bring up climate change hamfistedly in at least every other conversation, but I don't feel like I'm making much of a difference at all.
Kaela makes a good point because most climate conversations don't go very well. I feel really strongly that it depends on what the conversation is and how it's approached. I think the reality is that the number one thing we can do about climate change is have conversations that are compassionate.
In my book, being a good climate communicator (and leader) is to be authentic, to have humility and curiosity. I want to just acknowledge here that there is some expectation about what kind of response someone is supposed to have.
We have our experience, which for Kaela is that she was in a lot of pain. She was crying. She was talking about her worst fears for the future. She was hoping for more empathy from her mother and her mother was not able to provide that empathy. So a way of relating to this dynamic is to, again, just really honour where people are and give people permission to be exactly where they are. And it's okay if they're not where we are. That is a good climate conversation.
The expectation that she had of her mother, that there should be some sort of response, that part doesn't feel quite right. What I would advise her is to share with her mother what her experience was like talking to her, tell her how it felt for her to have that kind of response and basically say, You know, I'm wondering if you'd be open to considering responding in a different way, because this is what I'm really needing right now. What I'm really needing is acknowledgement from you that what I'm feeling is legitimate and you're really hearing me. It's reasonable to make requests of people. Then they may or may not be able to do it or may or may not agree to do it. But it’s making a request versus having an expectation.
I (67) had a difficult conversation with my daughter (34), about her feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and her fears for the future, as well as about her anger at my generation for the world her generation is inheriting. I spoke about sharing many of her feelings, and also about holding a space for hope, while we are not seeming to move forward at the level of our current discussion, that we are in the middle of a paradigm shift that will open new possibilities for constructive collective understanding and action. She initially expressed anger at me for what she saw as my being critical of her for not having hope, which I assured her was not what I meant to convey. She later apologized for this.
For Christmas, I gave her a copy of Charles Eisenstein's The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible. I am hoping that she may read it and that it may open up a the possibility of our having a different conversation.
It sounds like Michele did the right thing. The only thing I would again encourage is to notice the expectations that we have about how other people are feeling and what their relationship is with these issues. It’s really important to honor the integrity and sanctity of one's way of relating because it's overwhelming and difficult. And so when I read that she gave her a copy of the book, there's some hope there that's attached to an outcome. But the best thing we can do is just show up and be present and make these offerings. And that's all it is. It's an offering. But to make the offering and then have attached expectation or hope is not letting someone just have their own space with it.
I find that as I work in climate action, the climate crisis gets brought up whether I want it to or not! It's an odd phenomenon usually triggered by hearing that I'm vegan or an activist, where people start explaining how they're trying to be more sustainable - but then start explaining all the reasons they can't do XYZ.
I feel like I'm being put in the position of some kind of judge, expected to either validate or criticize other people's life choices. It's lose-lose whatever I say! I wonder if anyone else in the climate movement has this experience?
This is happening to Cass because she's representing to people their own ambivalence, their own issues. Someone who's vegan doesn't have to say a single word. They already are getting all the projection onto them. Oh, she must be judging me. But really what's happening is they are judging themselves, it's their own internal stuff. Judging themselves because the person who is vegan, the person who cycles, the person who uses solar, the person who's chosen not to fly anymore, they represent a different way of being and they are reminders of that. You could be the most amazing communicator and you will still get people's projections onto you. Right?
I wish this could just be blasted this to the world: the most powerful thing we can do is to just acknowledge. To acknowledge, give voice to, and to name what is there, what is happening, which is, I bet you think I'm going to be judging all over you and guess what? I'm not. I bet that you think that I have some attitude about you. Well, guess what? I don't. You want to give voice to and acknowledge what people are already thinking.
If you can anticipate that and head that off at the bat, that's extremely disarming. It's very neutralizing. It puts people at ease and it actually helps create the conditions for a constructive interaction. You want to be able to acknowledge the elephant in the room.
I've seen this over the decades, for example with people who started getting really into cycling, and the kind of hostility they would generate. Drivers who were frightened would drive them off the road. People would put stuff on their cars that would blow pollution in their face. So hostile. And all of that is unconscious defenses against people's own feelings of shame. It really goes back to shame and guilt and feeling a lot of cognitive dissonance.
A friend of my landlord and housemate is staying with us for a few days, and I’m drawn into a distressing and familiar pattern. He, a 58-year-old tech veteran now thrilled at the money he’s making in property management, continues to ask me about my work (as an environmental program manager at a research institution) just to try to poke holes in it. I’ve been trying to be as accommodating and generous as possible, thinking about where he’s coming from, trying to see his humanity, questioning my own assumptions, etc. — which maybe would be less the case if it didn’t feel so rude and wildly inappropriate to light up a guest my father’s age (and a friend of the man who controls my living situation, especially in an impossible housing market).
But at the end of the day I still have engaged in the conversation enough to be backed into infuriating corners. Yesterday, for example, I couldn’t remember the chemical structure of ozone and how it specifically harms health, and our houseguest looked smug and satisfied: “I knew this girl was full of it.” I’ve had to restrain myself from going into full animal mode when he tells me, first thing in the morning, “Good luck today with making policy recommendations BASED ON REAL SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE,” assuming from an earlier conversation (and his lack of understanding) that I maybe had never heard of the most elementary statistics concept of causation vs. correlation. I'm wondering why he even bothers asking if he already thinks he knows all the answers, and if it's fun for him to make me feel uncomfortable and disrespected, and how I could better diffuse his combativeness and wriggle out of a defensive position.
The whole thing has me reflecting on power dynamics — and how those in lower-power situations (here, being young, being female, feeling indebted after an expensive dinner, being at the mercy of the scarcity of rental units in my region — which ironically is partially thanks to companies like his that swoop up housing to AirBnB it to rich tourists) have to be encyclopedias just to tread water, while those in higher power, who uphold the status quo, can toss around the occasional anecdote and insert their smug chuckle as the final word.
I am enraged and discouraged and frustrated and full of self-doubt, kicking myself for forgetting critical statistics or the mechanisms of chemical reactions on the spot, and, in a spiral of catastrophizing, wondering how, if I can’t hold my own with this sort of character, I stand a chance of exerting any sort of positive change in the world. All I can think of is marketing theory — where you don’t worry about the laggards and instead focus your attention on the innovators, early adopters, and early majority, and how engaging with these narrow-minded, stubborn, and aggressively misinformed types is a complete waste of time. (Not an easy thing to remember when you think about the disproportionate destruction they stand to wield.)
Still, I am reflecting on power dynamics and how difficult it is to change the status quo — and how the disregard of those in disempowered positions is central to the whole climate crisis in the first place. In other words, there’s a reason why Indigenous voices, communities of color, and even scientists have been dismissed and ridiculed — given that they stand in opposition to the current world order and those in charge. But even so, interactions like these still do fuel this sneaky voice that says — “But maybe if you weren’t such an idiot..." Am I somehow inviting or permitting others to steamroll me? Were the hours diving into ambient air pollution literature last night well spent, or is it ultimately a case of whack-a-mole, where even the most well-reasoned arguments are still subject to dismissal in low-power situations? How can I command more authority and respect? What would the Tao say?
What would the Tao say? That's exactly where I would pick up! The Tao would say, do not be attached, do not be attached to the outcome of your conversations and interactions. It sounds counterintuitive but that’s exactly what enables change to take place.
I think the question is not about commanding more authority and respect. The question is about going into these interactions from a place of equanimity, which is really hard to do. And so my encouragement to Erika, as well as the others who wrote in, is to think about how we can go into these interactions with as much equanimity and openness and receptivity and compassion as possible, even when we're triggered.
That’s where this is related to the Inner Development Goals versus the outer development goals, the SDGs. What we're talking about here is cultivating internal capability to manage our own high stakes, urgency, frustration, triggers and trauma.
We have to be able to work with that in skillful ways and to use a Buddhist term skillful means. And so there's many ways to do that. There's all kinds of mindfulness practices. There's venting to your friends where it's safe to do that. There's a metta practice of loving kindness where you're just like, may I be happy…and wishing metta for others. There's many, many practices to bring us into that state, but basically the energy that you have going into these interactions is what's going to ultimately inform whether they go well or not. If you're feeling frustrated, anxious, little, patronized, powerless, helpless, and if you go in with that energy you're just going to attract more of it. It's a law of attraction. A thing begetting more of itself.
Whew, that was a lot! Glad you’re still reading if you made it this far. Again, I’d like to extend huge thanks to Renee for sharing her wisdom with us, and gratitude for my readers who wrote in with synopses of their confusing, upsetting, or disappointing climate conversations. It can be really powerful to think about examples from others’ lives in order to compare them to one’s own stories and experiences, and I genuinely hope you got something out of this experimental “advice columnist” post. Let us know what you thought about the perspective given, and if it sparked any new questions, in the comments below.
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That’s all for this edition