Prove your humanity

Originally published:  November 18, 2017

Sometimes what’s on the holiday table isn’t nearly as exciting as the conversation, especially when it comes to hot topics like climate change. And for a lot of people, the idea of talking about it with family is a little nerve-racking. A couple of years ago, Kara Holsopple spoke with psychologist Mary Beth Mannarino to learn how to navigate a family gathering where there might be lots of different views on environmental issues and climate change. A lot has changed since then. President Trump, who has said he doesn’t even know if climate change is real, is dialing back the climate policies of Obama. At the same time, we’re hearing dire warnings from climate scientists. So we asked Mary Beth Mannarino for a refresher. Here are some of the highlights: 

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On why things might feel different this year:

I think what I’m finding now is that people who are involved in fighting climate change or other environmental issues, is that there is a sense of urgency that has increased. And so that potentially brings more energy to the conversation, often on both sides, which can either make it go even better or can really cause it to blow up. So, yes, meet them where they are, but I would also go a little deeper and take some risks. Talk a little more deeply about it with them. 

On how to talk to a climate change skeptic: 

If you meet someone who really doesn’t buy into the reality of climate change, you can just simply ask what about that concerns you the most? And many times you’ll find out that there’s just a misunderstanding of facts, or even a level of avoidance of finding information. So taking the risk to not just accept what the person is saying, but really asking them what is it about this that concerns you, is something that might take the conversation further.

On honoring your passion:

If you are passionate about this, find a way to communicate that passion in a positive way. There’s a way to do that without denigrating people who don’t buy in. But just by example showing them that you have learned so much and you have so much still to learn, but you’re really in it for the long haul because it matters so much to the future of our grandchildren and even our current lives. I think I would honor that passion that you carry if you are an activist, and not just try to soften that.

On how to talk beyond the facts:

Most of us have very personal stories that we can draw on to tell people about this. For example, my family is from the mountains of eastern Kentucky where mining was the major industry. And I have learned a lot about how mountaintop removal has devastated communities and people’s health. And so when I talk about that from a personal perspective, I can also invite somebody else to talk about experiences that they’ve had with nature. One of the things I have found in teaching graduate students about these issues is that we can’t just launch the semester with the facts about these things. And what we do is spend a couple of weeks looking at our personal relationships with nature, and people are invited to think about places that were very special to them for one reason or another. And to go back to remembering the sensory experience of being there, and then also to imagine if those places are still intact and thriving —  what would it feel like to have that place be devastated by some kind of environmental disaster or cumulative effects of toxins and climate change — and people often have a powerful reaction to that when they can personalize it.

On bring a bridge builder: 

There’s an opportunity to reach across the aisle so to speak, and to really take it on yourself to be one of the people who builds bridges rather than stays in your own silo and tries to maintain your position regardless of where the other person is. It’s one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever seen. And the impact on this country through that divisiveness is profound.


Mary Beth Mannarino is a professor of psychology at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. Check out her blog here.