Dear Umbra,

I need a good stick-it-to-ya comeback to friends who, while they acknowledge global warming and hear me rattle off all that is bad about it, are liking the direct effects, which right now are sunnier and warmer days. What can I do or say to get them to snap back into reality, especially when some of these folks are addicted to tanning and the sun?

Kate Semmens
Perkiomenville, Pa.

Dearest Kate,

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What about hitting them on the head with a stick?

Just kidding. Violence is never the answer.

Oh Betty, isn’t climate change tan-tastic?

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Photo: iStockphoto.

I’ve been puzzling myself over the problem of how to talk about climate change, and I don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere. Part of it is my own experience being driven crazy by zealot friends who are more farsighted and more annoying than I. Face facts: your friends are sunbathing, and that is, in some locales, an excellent side effect of experiencing five record-hot years since 1998. If they are enjoying themselves, and you make some buzzkill comment, what’s the point? It is sunny, and they can’t do anything about it right then but enjoy. If you insist on misery during nice weather, comfort yourself the way my Catholic coworkers did — it all comes around, one way or another.

Today I’m thinking the way to go is to dribble little facties into conversations. My little facty of the week comes from hearing journalist Elizabeth Kolbert speak in Seattle recently. Kolbert wrote three long pieces on climate change for The New Yorker last year, and has just released a book based on them, Field Notes From a Catastrophe. Get ready, because it’s about to be required reading (I hope you’re all caught up on The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices). She’s a great writer, and can explain complex science clearly.

Since I saw her speak, I’ve said this every day: “Kolbert says average global temperatures are estimated to rise 5 to 8 degrees by the end of the century. She said, to give us some context, during the last ice age the average global temperature was only 10 degrees cooler than now.” There are a few handy aspects to this facty. One is, I attribute it to another person, an expert, and I don’t have to pretend to be a know-it-all who’s doing everything right. Another is, I’m terrible at remembering specific numbers, so it’s nice to know I’m correct somewhere within a range.

I haven’t used this sentence to temper sunbathing enthusiasm, so it’s untested on that front, but I suspect it’ll work fine. I imagine if you use it, or one you prefer, you would get a feeling that you at least had tried to inject sobriety into the situation. Get her book, hunt around in Grist‘s archives for climate stories, or look over the United Nations climate site to find a few little facties of your own.

It’s hard to be left feeling you should have said something but didn’t, and we might as well practice with sunbathers. Teasing sunbathers is much easier than criticizing people’s cars. That’s the big one I want to figure out. How do we talk to people — our parents and dear friends — about harmful actions they are taking? I must find a way.


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