Warnings from scientists and environment agencies about what’s happening to our climate aren’t in short supply. Still, we’ve ended up at a point where we now have less than 12 years to change course — to curb our carbon emissions enough to prevent the Earth’s temperature from rising more than 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Beyond that point, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we’ll see even more catastrophic impacts in the form of extreme temperatures, droughts and more intense storms.
The problem is that even people who express concern about our changing climate don’t necessarily connect with messages like that and automatically feel compelled to change how they live and make sacrifices to lessen their own impact on our climate.
Keep climate action simple (to start)
Engaging people takes a more simple approach, according to Dr. Jessica Thompson.
“I think that we’ve been assuming that information transfer, knowledge, will help people. If we just give them the science, they will miraculously be aware of the impacts and start changing their behaviour,” says Thompson, an associate professor of environmental communication at Northern Michigan University.
She explains people can “feel paralyzed by all of the information” because they can’t possibly take it all in and then they just “check out.”
What tips the balance for a lot of people is communication with those around us and the power of influence — social shifts like in years past with rise of recycling or the decline in smoking.
“As a child in the 90s,” Thompson recalled, “I taught my parents how to recycle. I learned how to recycle at school, I brought it home and I literally guilt-tripped them into making the changes.”
But it’s small actions like recycling, something that becomes a habit when everyone around us is doing it, that serve as a starting point for someone who may be inactive or complacent about climate-conscious behaviour.
“If we start to give people little things that help them self-identify as someone who cares — someone who cares about the planet, who cares about their community, who cares about the impacts of what we’re witnessing — then they’ll start to develop bigger questions,” Thompson says.
Climate change over coffee
But if you wonder just how big a difference small steps like that can make, just look at Tomás Regalado. He’s the former Republican mayor of Miami, and he has his youngest son to thank for his climate change awareness — and it all started with a father-son cup of coffee at 4:30 in the morning.
Regalado took office in 2009, on the heels of the real estate crash and the great recession. He was by no means a climate change denier, but it wasn’t a priority at a time when many Miami residents were just trying to survive the economic turmoil in the U.S.
Plus, he thought climate change wouldn’t really be a concern anytime soon.
“I was one of those Americans… that used to believe that this is not going to happen in my lifetime, that this is something that not even my children or my grandchildren will have to suffer,” he told Global News.
But his son, Jose, was incredibly concerned. As an underwater photographer, he was noticing the impact of climate change below the sea’s surface. So, Jose started waking up in the wee hours and driving home.
“My son would wake up too and say, ‘Listen. I read this report. I want to you to read this report. I’m going to tell you about this. You know the scientists are saying this,” Regalado recounts.
“He kept pounding and pounding and pounding.”
When the younger Regalado travelled to the Paris Climate Conference in 2015, he saw a presentation explaining how Miami would be one of the cities worst affected by sea level rise — something the city was already experiencing with coastal neighbourhoods flooding every time there was a king tide. It was time for another early morning discussion with dad.
Reglado’s climate awakening may not have happened overnight in the figurative sense (it sort of did in the literal sense), but he soon became a climate change activist for the city of Miami.
He went up against his “pro-development” city council, which he says wasn’t too keen on spending money on addressing climate change and sea-level rise. It took him about two years, but by the time he left office in 2017, he rallied the voters of Miami to approve a $200 million plan for the city to prepare and adapt for the climate reality it’s facing.
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Changing the channel on climate change
The Regalados’ morning coffee climate change chats exemplify the importance and efficacy of person-to-person communication, but the reality is that many of us learn about the issue through the media.
The news bridges the gap between climate scientists and the public, but Dr. Genevieve Guenther says there’s room for improvement when it comes to the message being delivered.
She started the organization EndClimateSilence.org to push media organizations to keep climate change front and centre on a daily basis.
She says climate change should be seen as a topic that transcends news beats.
“Climate change is really on everyone’s beat at this point, unfortunately,” she says.
“All journalists — political journalists, local journalists, anchors who are going to be interviewing politicians — everybody has to have a basic understanding of climate change, the science and the arguments against denialism,” she says. “Because those arguments are still getting circulated.”
WATCH: Changing how we talk about climate change in daily life