Growing up in Minnesota, the scariest thing about “Mother Nature” was that she could send tornadoes to blow our home on the prairie off the face of the earth. I’ve never lived any farther than 5 miles from a body of water and believed that our state has plenty of it, all clean and clear. For most of my life, I felt that Minnesotans, state and city governments placed protecting our environment as one of its most cherished values and that would be enough safeguard. I thought we, as a state, based on location and biodiversity, would be buffered from a lot of the effects of climate change.
I’m more knowledgeable and less naive now. So what made me want to attend a Climate Change and Water workshop, one whose audience is clearly made up of Master Water Stewards? I lack the “Master” status of the attendees, (sometimes I feel like I’m crashing the party), however, I’m a curious human and a concerned citizen. I wanted to understand how to constructively-productively talk about climate change without sounding preachy, talk over people’s heads or be all gloom and doom. I also want to be the best advocate possible for environmental organizations using what skill-sets and services I bring to the table. This happens by understanding their mission, diving deep into their subject matter, and supporting their efforts.
I wanted a non-combative, effective way to respond to climate change statements like this:
“Climate change is not man-made, it’s caused by space weather and other factors out of our earthy control like the Sun. There’s been massive climate change on all planets in our solar system — this is backed by NASA photos taken over many, many years. There are no human beings on Venus or Pluto, etc.”
Wow. There are people who believe this. I’ll have to look up the occurrence of space weather. I’m not sure “weather” can happen in a vacuum. Regardless, I think this is just one example that keeps us from talking about climate change. We don’t want to fight with our neighbors, upset our family members or get into a blazing argument on social media.
My wanting to know “how to talk climate change” started when I read and heard what specialists’ studies had to reveal about the impacts of climate change to Minnesota, presented to the Minnesota House of Representatives last week (January 15 and 17, 2019). The overarching message: The pace of climate change that Minnesota is experiencing is unprecedented.
Climate experts led by Dr. Mark Selley presented to the Minnesota House of Representatives, House Energy and Climate Finance and Policy Division January 15th and 17th, 2019)
While our summers are not getting as warm as fast, our winters are warming 13 times more and faster than our summers. Minnesota is one of the fastest warming states in the country with Minneapolis and Mankato its two fastest warming cities.
Minnesota is also getting wetter. We will be experiencing winters with more rain than snow — a condition that seems to be playing out this winter, at least in the southern counties. Flooding will become more of an issue followed by drought creating a double whammy for farmers. 2012 marked the first time that a series of Minnesota counties sought both drought and flood disaster assistance from federal agencies.
Photo courtesy of Ely Outfitting Company
Minnesota is halfway between the equator and the south pole. With our geographical position, we are blessed with many biomes but those biomes are shifting. For example, in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) our boreal forests will begin to disappear, replaced by grasslands to prairie within a couple of decades.
Making Talking Climate Change Normal
The consensus is that 97% of the world’s scientists know that climate change is real and that 7 out of 10 Americans believe climate change exists with 43% of those in favor of action.
So how do we talk about climate change that moves the needle towards more and meaningful action? How do we create self-efficacy in people, show them ways that they, as individuals, can make a difference? How do we gently change the hearts and minds of people who have been fed weird science logic like the example above?
The man-made contributors to climate change and its effects are complex and interconnected, but for the purpose of the workshop, we would frame a conversation about climate change focusing on water, a resource every living being needs to live and thrive.
What is key to making a difference is that we, not just as individuals, but as a collective, have to be willing to take steps around two values: protection and responsible management of our water.
It means creating our own story that makes talking about climate change “normal.” We talk about the weather all the time in Minnesota perhaps we can engage in conversations around climate change with the same amount of ease through storytelling.
Protection and responsible management of our water isn’t a solo effort, it’s a collective one. If you, as an individual, are doing all you can to protect and responsibly manage water, your efforts are diluted unless your neighbors are willing to do the same. Photo credit: Ian Stauffer via Unsplash.com
Framing A Universally Understood Story
To help us craft our stories around protecting and responsible management of our water, Climate Generation employes language researched and tested by FrameWorks Institute. FrameWorks studies how people respond to language around complex and controversial issues and develops a dialogue that is proven to work universally to bring about change in people’s attitudes, perceptions, and actions.
An Example of Framing:
Explain the mechanism for climate change through the “heat-trapping blanket” metaphor. When fossil fuels are burned for energy, more and more carbon dioxide is added to the atmosphere. This buildup acts like a blanket, trapping heat around the earth, which disrupts the climate. This has been proven to have a more powerful effect on people than other metaphors like greenhouse gases and carbon pollution.
We did have one Master Water Steward who vehemently opposed the “heat-trapping blanket” metaphor. Blankets are beneficial, protective, as well as something that could easily be shrugged off. I’m sure the FrameWorks Institute encountered such reactions. Still, they work to bring the most universally accepted terms to facilitate positive social change. I have to trust what they are doing, even if we don’t all agree.
In the second half of the workshop (and in groups), we began drafting our stories starting with “Why should we care?” and orientate the narrative to the idea we can all participate in actions that protect the environment and our water through protection or responsible management. Most everyone cares about their kids and grandkids having access to safe drinking water and clean lakes to swim in. Most people care about their homes and want to protect them from flooding and wildfires. Common concerns create a common reason for caring.
Next, we added “How Does It Work?” linking the heat-trapping blanket mechanism of climate change and the impact this has on our water. When heat is trapped in our atmosphere (heat-trapping blanket), more water vapor builds up. It’s like how your bathroom mirror steams up with water vapor while you take a hot shower, only on a massive scale. More water vapor in the atmosphere means more extreme rain events and increase flooding. Heavy downpours don’t allow for water to seep deep into the soil. Much of the water from flooding results in dirty runoff washing into our waterways and damage to our infrastructure, field crops, and homes.
The best part of the evening was that the Master Water Stewards had plenty of action steps that anyone could take to round out our story — as in “How Do We Improve the Situation?”
Some people are wired for direct action. That can mean picking out one thing you care about and follow the bread crumbs back to legislation and policymakers, followed by writing, calling, and lobbying legislators to change laws and policies that reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Other people are more comfortable changing how people think about climate change and what they can do through education. I tend to be in that camp. The best teachable moments are taught by example and telling others what you are up to and why it’s important. Examples* can be:
• Plant a raingarden to filter rainwater, stabilize and improve soil health, and provide food for pollinators
• Install a rain barrel(s) to collect rainwater
• Adopt a storm drain near you. Keep it clean from grass clippings, leaves, and other debris that would otherwise end up in lakes and rivers.
• Plant low-mow, low-maintenance turfgrasses. Less lawn care means more time for doing fun stuff.
• Open up spaces in your yard to include diversity and create resiliency, e.g. introduce clover to make it bee-friendly
• Plant a climate-victory garden. During WWII, people planted a victory garden to feed their families. By planting a climate-victory garden, you’ll have carbon-absorbing plants, improved soil health, and local food for your table.
Other ideas floated around water conservation, how we as consumers use water. Learning how to conserve water at the household level translates to a lower water utility bill. I found out just how varied water bill amounts can be depending on where you live. Living in Apple Valley, Minnesota, my water bill gave me sticker shock. It was all the motivation I needed to conserve water and change showerheads, faucets, toilets, washer, and dishwasher to more efficient models.
To get a handle on your own water use here is an educational tool to estimate your personal water footprint. It’s super fun with insights about household water use, the electricity that powers water-using appliances, to virtual water use in terms of recycling, shopping, and dietary habits. The Water Calculator website also has boatloads of tips on how to reduce your water consumption and ways to conserve water. Another website resource a Master Water Steward brought up at the workshop is Water Footprint which has tons of information and a network you can network with.
Ultimately talking climate change starts by knowing your audience.
Approach the conversation with a shared value you both care about and what climate change is doing to effect that value, be it access to clean water, feeding ourselves, or protecting our homes, our health and well-being. Share how climate change works — for real. Then open it up to ideas for positive impact and be willing and able to commit to taking action steps. There’s plenty of resources, local and online to tap into. Good ideas could be found just by talking climate change with your next door neighbor. We’re in this together. Let’s all take action together.
One final note: If you own a dog and you feel there is nothing else in your bandwidth to help protect our waterways, please make your four-footed family member a good citizen by always picking up after your pooch. We all thank you. If picking up is part of your walk-the-dog ritual, bravo!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kristin Maija Peterson is passionate about the environment, promoting positive action in light of climate change, and serving as an advocate on behalf of environmental non-profits. She creates compelling, educational, visual campaigns and communications for environmental organizations.