Let’s Talk Climate, But How and Where?

In a recently published column written for the SE Examiner in Portland, one of our steering committee makes the case for creating spaces for public conversations about the complexities of climate change. Here's the text:

by Stephanie Kaza

Flooding in Louisiana, wildfires in California, permafrost melt in Alaska -- the list of events made more extreme by climate change is growing rapidly.  There is no shortage of news articles, books, films, and blogs on what’s happening with the planet’s climate.  Emotions and opinions run strong, making it tough to have a thoughtful conversation among friends. One of the most frustrating and common phenomena is “climate denial.”  It’s too big! I can’t deal with it!  Weather always changes! Technology will fix it!   All these common reactions reflect the complex social and communication challenges embedded in addressing climate change.

It is tempting to get caught in arguments on this difficult topic, but it seems we’re stuck with  the messiness of it all.  Psychologists explain climate denial as an example of the human capacity for cognitive dissonance.  People are quite capable of holding two completely different viewpoints in their minds without having this disrupt everyday activity.  In one part of the brain we respond to weather changes by adapting our clothing or thermostats, making personal self-care choices that are sensible day to day.  Meanwhile, we park climate concerns in another part of the brain where they can be conveniently ignored. Our brains are wired to be able to do this for our own survival.

Climate denial is also about avoiding difficult feelings and mind states. Psychologists who specialize in the study of emotions observe that predictions of climate change impacts make people feel fearful and anxious, despairing and discouraged, and a lot of other uncomfortable feelings. Such difficult emotions are hard to manage.  No one really likes to have these feelings, especially when you have little sense of personal control.  

A few years ago, University of Oregon sociologist Kari Norgaard spent a year living in Norway, talking with neighbors in towns and cities not unlike Portland, where people were generally well educated, civic minded, and informed on current issues.  They were highly engaged in their local communities and quite politically active, yet climate change was not a common topic.  Her study showed that climate denial was actively being reinforced through everyday cultural norms and activity patterns.  One thing caught her attention: the absence of appropriate social settings for talking about climate change.  

Hmm, maybe that is also true here in the United States?  Norgaard found that Norwegian political meetings tended to focus on governance concerns related to local budget or policy issues. Recreation spots such as parks, gyms, and bars were seen as places to recover from life’s stresses and not talk about hard things. In school settings, teachers felt they needed to stay optimistic for future generations and not bring up the scarier aspects of climate change uncertainty. 

This made me wonder, where are such spaces to talk about climate in our own neighborhoods?  Or, for that matter, where do we engage any big and complicated subjects that need in-depth, thoughtful community reflection? Typically our everyday conversations are brief and in passing, made even shorter by social media.  Talking about climate change requires spaces that are neutral and inviting, protected places for thoughtful investigation of the challenging economic, ethical, political, emotional, and social issues stemming from climate change.

Seeking such a place to talk climate locally, a few neighbors (including me) collaborated last winter to offer monthly conversations at TaborSpace Commons, a warm community meeting space for just this sort of thing.  We were glad for the chance to address this common concern looming over us and to look at some of the conundrums associated with taking action here in Portland and the local bioregion.  We will be offering another “Let’s Talk Climate” series in January-April 2017 and look forward to hearing your feelings and ideas about these complicated topics.  For more information, check out the other pages on this site and/or ask to join the mailing list at contact@letstalkclimatepdx.com.

Stephanie Kaza is professor emerita of University of Vermont where she taught for 24 years and most recently served as Director of the Environmental Program. A native Portlander, she has returned home in retirement to add her voice to local climate and sustainability actions.

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