We Need to Talk—About Climate Change

Experts say recreationists are ideal climate communicators. Here's how to broach the topic.

Eric Fine’s journey from mountaineer to climate communicator began on the slopes of Cerro Tronador, an 11,453-foot-high peak in the Argentinian Andes, where he led expeditions for Outward Bound from 2005 to 2014. It was there that he witnessed firsthand the rapid melting of Tronador’s glaciers, and “saw with my own eyes the big changes year after year.”

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Those experiences on the front lines of climate change led Fine to alter his career path, move back to the United States and earn a graduate degree focusing on the growing field of climate communications, which seeks to educate and inform people about this problem. Now, working as a project manager for the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, a leading center for research on Americans’ attitudes about climate change, Fine could be called the climate whisperer to the outdoor recreation community.

Fine has worked with groups including Protect Our Winters, the American Alpine Club and the National Audubon Society, designing surveys that help the organizations better understand their members’ beliefs about climate change. “We are trying to understand how perceptions of climate change vary across society, and which messages and messengers most effectively engage with those various segments of society,” he says.

Fine says the solutions to lessening the impact of the climate crisis are well-known—a transition to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels, green building, sustainable agriculture, better forestry practices—but Americans’ wariness of talking about the issue is blocking progress.

Sixty-three percent of Americans say they rarely or never discuss global warming with family and friends, according to Climate Change in the American Mind,” a report published twice-yearly by Yale and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

Unfortunately, many Americans who want action on climate think they are in the minority, Fine says. “When people think they are in the minority it creates a silence and they don’t speak up,” he notes, referring to a social science theory known as the “spiral of silence” that causes individuals to clam up out of fear of rejection.

The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication places Americans in six categories: Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful and Dismissive. And contrary to common perception, “the Alarmed are way more numerous than the Dismissive,” Fine says. “If you are alarmed, talk about it, and understand that a majority of people are worried, too.”  

As lovers of wild spaces, and with millions of participants nationwide, “outdoor enthusiasts are one of the greatest untapped constituencies that could help drive progress on climate change,” says Jamie Henn, strategic communications director for 350.org.

Recreationists in full rain gear chat with each other inside a shelter

Ready to become a climate communicator? Consider following these steps recommended by Henn, Fine and a range of experts interviewed by the Co-op Journal for this article. Their primary piece of advice? Listen.

“When talking to people on the trail or the chairlift or the skintrack the same rules of effective communication apply,” says Henn, an avid skier who lives in Salt Lake City. “Ask questions and find common ground.” Nobody wants to be bombarded by facts when they’re trying to enjoy the outdoors. “But people are eager to talk about the snow, or how their season is going,” Henn says. “That can open opportunities to talk about how this winter was great but last year was terrible, and how the snowpack is changing.”

Once you’ve established a rapport, “bring it into the here and now,” Henn says. “Connect the dots that the climate emergency is happening right now as we speak, with drier summers, reduced snowpack, more catastrophic wildfires. It’s not a future scenario.”

Also, make it local and relevant. Most Americans worry that extreme weather events—heat waves, droughts, floods, water shortages—will harm their local area, according to the Yale and George Mason survey, so focus on local impacts and things your audience cares about.

“Share a commonality, establish a relationship, listen and talk, don’t lecture,” says Aaron Kindle, senior manager for sporting campaigns for the National Wildlife Federation. He frequently meets with hunters and anglers and finds himself talking about his own experiences hunting and fly-fishing—and how warmer temperatures are impacting those activities.

In some regions, more frequent and larger wildfires are canceling elk hunts, and wildlife managers are increasingly discussing whether to close certain rivers to fishing during hot summer afternoons because the cold-water-reliant trout are heat-stressed and likely to die if caught and released. “That has never happened before, so you ask, ‘Why do you think that is?’ which opens the opportunity to discuss that the last five years were the hottest on record globally,” Kindle says.

Talk about the birds and the bees, the flowers and the trees—all of which are being impacted. “Birds are great messengers about climate change,” says David Ringer, chief network officer at the National Audubon Society, who works with the group’s 450 grassroots chapters. Birds are nesting in places they never did before, the timing of their migrations has changed, and some species are disappearing from places where they were once common. Ringer recalls traveling out of state to see a Mississippi kite when he was growing up in Missouri. Now the birds are nesting in his parents’ backyard.

“Opening a climate discussion with an observation about a bird can ground that difficult conversation and move someone toward a willingness to act, because you are talking about something they can see, in their backyards and in their neighborhoods, right there in front of them,” Ringer says.

Do your homework, 350.org and other climate communicators say. Read up on the science of climate change from trusted sources. Learn some examples of how climate change is impacting your region, and how the climate crisis is accelerating. Talk about feedback loops: The polar caps, for example, help regulate the Earth’s temperature by reflecting the sun’s rays back into space; as the caps melt, they cause the ocean to absorb rather than reflect the sun’s rays, causing our waterways to grow warmer.  

At the same time, don’t exaggerate. It’s not accurate to say a hurricane or drought was caused by climate change. Rather, it is correct to say that climate change is worsening droughts and hurricanes, and that the increasingly disastrous floods and heat waves we are seeing will become the norm, says Auden Schendler, senior vice president of sustainability for Aspen Skiing Company and a board member of Protect Our Winters.

Most importantly, provide hope. “Talk about both the threat and the opportunity, the worry and the hope,” says Joy Hassol, an award-winning author and public speaker who specializes in climate communication. “While this is the greatest challenge we’ve ever faced, it also presents great opportunities to improve our health, economy and communities at the same time as we address the climate crisis.”

Hikers walk by a wooden structure

And focus on solutions. “A clean energy economy powered by wind and solar means better air quality and less pollution, which everyone supports,” Henn says. “Talk about how better mass transit means less traffic congestion, which everyone hates. ”

“Avoid ideological battles,” says Schendler. Visiting Capitol Hill as part of a climate change delegation several years ago, Schendler and his colleagues had a disastrous meeting with a lawmaker after asserting that the science of climate change was settled. “They got furious and all but kicked us out of the office.”

At their next meeting, the group instead focused on solutions—specifically how more funding for renewable energy can create jobs. “They said, ‘Great, where do we start?’” Schendler recalls.  “The economic argument is increasingly powerful. Wind power is now cheaper than coal power. That is an economic case for ramping up renewable energy production that avoids ideology.” Indeed, the Yale and George Mason survey data shows that 85 percent of registered voters surveyed support requiring utilities to produce 100 percent of their electricity from clean, renewable sources by 2050.

But don’t bombard people with facts, especially if they are dismissive of climate change, Schendler says. Though no one responds positively to a deluge of information, “people can change their minds if you help them discover the facts on their own.” Schendler had an acquaintance who believed that volcanoes emit as much carbon dioxide as humans. “When he found that wasn’t true, he came around and now believes the science.”

Provide an avenue for action. Whether you are a skier, runner, climber or mountain biker, you probably have a network of friends and like-minded individuals with whom you share common values. Encourage your friends to get involved, whether that’s joining a Citizens’ Climate Lobby event with a local elected official or attending a climate strike. A large percentage of Americans who are alarmed and concerned about climate have not become activists because nobody has ever asked them, Fine says.

For those who are ready to become involved in climate actions or protests, Henn says, “the skills of an outdoor enthusiast directly apply to climate activism. Planning a trip or expedition is like planning a protest.” Henn notes the rise of “kayaktivists” who have used their kayaks to block and protest drilling rigs and pipeline proposals. “Encourage your friends to put their climbing and hiking and biking skills to work in the form of creative protest.”

Share stories of the change you’ve seen personally in your outdoor playgrounds, advised many of the activists interviewed for this article. The American Alpine Club launched its Climbers for Climate campaign last spring in part to encourage members to share their stories about deteriorating ice and increasingly dangerous conditions in the mountains. 

While the campaign is still new, as this article went to press the group had already posted 22 stories in its AAC Climate Story Collection. “They are worried and looking for ways to engage,” says Taylor Luneau, policy manager for the club. “We want to turn that alarm into action.”

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Editor’s note: Protect Our Winters, the American Alpine Club and the Audubon Society are nonprofit partners of REI. In just the last three years, REI has awarded POW with $75,000 in grants. The American Alpine Club has been the beneficiary of more than $150,000 in giving from REI since 2004. And, since 2003, REI has supported local chapters of the Audubon Society with nearly $750,000 in giving.