Overview:

Climate change is becoming a common topic of casual conversation. How can you talk about it productively without being a buzz kill?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“The environment is so important but when I listen to the news about climate change it all sounds, well, scary. I mean – is it really that bad?”

Perhaps you’ve heard this question (or variations on them) at a cookout or cocktail party. Perhaps you were the one asking. As a clean energy consultant who often socializes outside of her professional bubble, I am regularly introduced as the friend who works on the environment, or climate change, or even on saving the planet. These intros typically elicit a friendly nod on the way to more benign conversational ground. But in the last two years I’ve noticed a change: people are leaning in on climate over cocktails. Why the change, and what to say without ruining the party?

For many, the ‘why’ may not be hard to parse out. As COVID-19 ripped off the Band-Aids long slapped across numerous social ills, existential crisis has become a regular topic in casual conversation. Around the same time, the symptoms of a changing climate became distinctly more apparent, demanding coverage by any news organization worth its salt. In 2021, stories on climate change featured almost twice as frequently as they did in 2015. They were also told with greater urgency, using terms like climate “catastrophe” or “emergency” more frequently than in 2006.

Meanwhile, news audiences are in a crisis of trust. Since the U.S. 2016 presidential election exposed fact and critical thought as frail, depleted concepts, the practice of consuming news has increasingly been defined by doubt, defense, or both. So it comes as no great surprise that strangers at parties are leaning in for advice on how seriously to take the news on the particular existential crisis of climate change.

As a climate professional, I confess that the turn in attention is thrilling. I also confide that the burden of response is heavy.

There is no soothing summary or calming clarification that justly resolves the question, “is climate change really that bad?”. Of course, misinformation abounds and no, we don’t need to fight Elon Musk for a seat to Mars this decade. But if “that bad” refers to your children and grandchildren being unable to access fresh water, clean air and sufficient nutritious food on the same land that has nourished you, then the hard news is that yes, it is that bad. If it refers to experiencing as many or more extreme seasons and catastrophic natural events as we’ve observed each year since 2018, then again yes, it is that bad. If it refers to the Herculean willpower required to transform our global economy into one a system that can stave off the worst of the modeled and even materializing scenarios, then finally yes, it is that bad.

While 72 percent of American adults think that global warming is happening, only 46 percent believe that they have been impacted by it while 47 percent believe that they will be.

These words would definitely ruin the party. Or at the very least, leave me in the corner drinking alone.

A Yale study recently put some numbers behind the average American’s readiness to recognize global warming, one of the fundamental drivers of what we call “climate change”, as a personal threat. While 72 percent of American adults think that global warming is happening, only 46 percent believe that they have been impacted by it while 47 percent believe that they will be. Meanwhile, the confidence that Americans elsewhere are being impacted now is much higher, at 59 percent. These findings remind us that it is often easier to accept change elsewhere than at home. It also suggests that we have some natural resistance to recognizing slow-building threats. We have roadmaps to take action in immediate crises, such as hurricanes, but not in gradual ones, such as worsening gulf storms. Defining them is a crucial first step, but according to the Yale study only 35 percent of Americans discuss global warming at least occasionally. When the question, “is climate change really that bad?” squeaks through these conditions, it’s important to welcome it and then handle it carefully and thoroughly.

Appreciating the ask is the first and most important response. Keep any surprise, offense or confusion to yourself, and instead comment that it’s an important topic as you lean in for more. More information on the ask will help you focus your answer. What does “bad” mean for the asker? What are they hearing about, and what lifestyle changes are most intimidating? The answers can inform your choice of words and topic so that what you share is familiar, even tangible, to the listener. The question may have been broad – the term “climate change” is – but a focused and locally applicable answer avoids the corner of “good v. bad” and can even move the conversation from the problem to some solutions.

Yes, solutions! Our place on the climate curve isn’t good, but the worst forecasts are based on a business-as-usual scenario. Talking about the ways that you are updating your “usual” is a great way to prompt others without evangelizing a lifestyle reset. Sharing the things you want to do, and why you haven’t yet, moves you from advisor to peer problem solver. Adaptation isn’t easy, but curiosity and community do a lot to build the momentum necessary for lasting change.

Watching climate change news become mainstream has been thrilling and unsettling. Regular and close media coverage is an essential first step to address the changes that are already affecting every person on the planet. It is also long overdue, and at this point in the narrative, the short answer is that climate change really is pretty bad – if we don’t engage. Unless we act on well-informed climate news by engaging with our family, friends, and our friends’ party guests on the topic in a way that is honest and approachable, we will all ruin the party.

Eleanor Johnstone grew up in Rochester, NY and earned her B.A. in Literature and African Studies from Middlebury College. Since graduating she has moved to progressively warmer and sunnier climates, earning...