Is there a right way to talk about climate change?
Q. Dear Umbra,
I’ve heard “tone police” around the internet as a term for somebody who’s criticizing the mood of a writer or communicator instead of their message. I want to approach conversations about climate change with accurate climate information — recognizing how shitty things are and will be, how much better or worse they COULD be, and just what is and isn’t baked into our future at this point — without making people feel like they can’t grieve or feel sad for what we’ve already lost.
So with Jonathan Franzens and Guy McPhersons out there, how do I have accurate, constructive climate conversations without joining the “tone police”?
— Policing Averts Learning
A. Dear PAL,
You’ve touched on something extremely subtle in the current incarnation of the “climate conversation,” but I think it’s an important thing to address. Many wise figures in the climate movement — Katharine Hayhoe, for example — have repeated over and over again that the greatest power that you, as an individual, possess in the offensive against devastating climate change is to talk about it. But there’s also been a huge amount of ink spilled and breath expelled over the proper way to talk about it, to the point that it’s almost paralyzing.
Don’t focus too much on facts, because people don’t respond to them. Don’t be negative, because people lose hope. But don’t misrepresent anything, either, because people won’t trust you. Don’t make it about the planet, because humans care more about humans than they do about trees. Make people aware of the fact that climate change is already worsening the lives of many millions of people in other parts of the world, but don’t make it sound too far away, because then it’s hard to relate to. If you can, try to tie climate change back to something your audience cares about, like, ah, wine or something.
Most of this advice, it should go without saying, assumes that the audience for these conversations is wealthier, privileged people who have been able to ignore climate change up to this point. And it’s easy to disparage those people, because their ignorance or delusion or whatever you want to call it has played no small role in the urgency of the climate situation we have today.
But empathy is a virtue, so let’s give it a shot. If you are in a position where you’ve been able to avoid climate change news until very recently, it’s a lot of very alarming information at a very late hour. Millions of people have been slammed with the understanding that the planet that’s held us for eons is essentially threatening the entire human race with an eviction notice in the form of floods, heat waves, and murderous storms. It’s like you fucked up the whole house and now you have to fix it or get out. And you kind of knew you had fucked up the house, you were peripherally aware that you hadn’t been taking good care of it, but you had no idea how bad it was. Apparently your grandfather broke a water main in the basement that’s never been fixed? The oven has been actively on fire for 25 years? There’s black mold everywhere?
There’s a whole segment of the climate-aware that’s in a frothy panic over how to best capitalize on this new awareness. The rules of how to talk about climate change are unfurled and everyone hems and haws and yells at the people who are doing it wrong because, God forbid, you might scare this new audience away! You might not get them to “act” on climate change as soon as possible!
But there is a lot to be scared about, and “act” is an infuriatingly vague directive. With each passing week, there is a new warning about sea level rise or disappearing species or unsurvivable heat waves. There are many saddening developments that (reasonably!) feel overwhelming and out of our control, and I completely agree with your instinct to give people room to mourn. The thing about rules for talking about climate change is that while humans certainly share some common traits, there are wild differences in how individuals process and act on information. This is why the entire industry of couples’ counseling exists!
I understand the desire for ground rules, and I’ve certainly written in favor of them, but at this point I think that the best way to have a conversation about climate change is to listen to the person you’re talking to. You’re not doing a stand-up routine. If someone shuts down in a conversation about climate change, that’s because climate change is a deeply upsetting existential threat! If you’re chatting about the demise of the planet as we know it and your conversational counterpart says, “Wow, I am absolutely devastated by this,” it would be bizarre to respond, “Don’t be sad — DO SOMETHING!” That’s not how a human exchange of feelings and ideas normally goes.
I know exactly what you’re referring to with “the tone police” and Jonathan Franzen, but many may not. For those unfamiliar with this relative nonevent, the novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen wrote a long essay for the New Yorker last month encouraging his audience to adopt an approach of climate despair, to embrace the worst-case scenario and prepare for it, rather than make any futile attempt to avoid it.
For my part, I criticized Franzen’s essay not for its tone, but for its shallowness; it just seemed to be a completely surface-level engagement with climate calamity, like he had learned about it at a cocktail party and decided in the cab home that everything is doomed, so why not write a few thousand words about it? I don’t believe that Jonathan Franzen is stupid, and he probably knows a good deal about climate change because he has been writing about it on and off for a decade, so this particular work just seemed lazy. The essay struck me as irresponsible, but not because of its tone.
I believe that the “tone police” phenomenon you’re describing applies to a very, very small segment of a particular choir that has been embedded in climate issues for years and years. They’re the ones I mentioned earlier, who are astounded that a seemingly critical mass of people are aware of climate issues, and are desperate to hold their attention. I understand the instinct.
But I don’t think that “the tone police” exists outside of internet commentary; that is to say, in real conversations. If Jonathan Franzen approached you at a bar and started to share the insights of his essay as a conversation, would you start screaming at the rest of the bar that he was being too much of a downer, or would you ask him why he felt that way and try to understand him better? Now that I’m writing this advice to you, I certainly regret not having the opportunity to do that instead of publishing a cheeky listicle. But that is the difference between interacting on the internet and interacting in real life.
I also don’t believe that the current state of climate awareness will ebb away if we don’t attend to it, like abdominal muscle definition. Once you know what is expected on a warming planet, you notice signs of it more and more: out-of-season heat waves, seas bubbling up into the streets, hurricanes that ruin entire islands. Climate change, once you see it, is a very hard thing to unsee.
And sure enough, 57 percent of the country now believes that climate change poses a major threat to the United States, which is an increase of 17 percentage points from 2013. That poll, if you click through to read more of it, points out that that awareness is rising more among Democrats than among Republicans. However, more and more young Republicans support pro-climate legislation, and the majority of Millennials and Gen Z-ers report being deeply concerned about climate change. Outright climate denial is something that this country increasingly sees as antiquated and restrictive, like a corset.
If 43 percent of the country doesn’t think climate change is a big deal or outright denies it, I just don’t really care, because their way of thinking will soon be obsolete. Bless their hearts, as they say. What matters to me is that the 57 percent, once they’ve processed what they need to process, makes climate change a part of their living and voting decisions. And when they’re ready to make those decisions, those are the conversations that you really need to be prepared for. They’re not best had on the internet.
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