If your answer is ‘not recently’ or perhaps even ‘not ever’, then you’re not alone: climate conversations are remarkably few and far between. And if chatting doesn’t seem like the most urgent response we can muster in the face of rapidly rising temperatures and melting ice, then consider the consequences of the social silence that still defines the public discourse on climate change.

Firstly, misperceptions about what others think on climate change are rife. A recent poll found that although most people are favourable towards renewable energy, when asked what proportion of the population agree with them, people drastically underestimate the level of support for onshore wind. In the conversational vacuum around climate change, doubters’ voices are amplified and misperceptions grow, with serious consequences. Social norms - the standards we use to judge our own attitudes and behaviours - are a huge influence on all of us. If the right cues are not in place, the social momentum required to confront the reality of a changing climate is forever out of reach.

Secondly, politicians need vocal public support to enact low-carbon policies. Overcoming the so-called ‘governance trap’ on energy and climate change (where politicians won’t push ahead of where they perceive public opinion to be) is not just a question of lobbying MPs - it also requires building a chorus of voices in support of low-carbon energy policies. And that means getting ordinary people talking about climate change, what it means for their lives, and how they think society should be responding to the risks and reality of a changing climate. Without this, we end up with political polarisation, which at best slows progress or at worse - as may happen in the US under President Trump - can reverse previous gains.

The crucial role of climate conversations has been recognised by the Scottish Government, who recently initiated a national process of climate conversations to help them build informed support for their ambitious policy goals.

When you think about it, it makes complete sense. Governments pour many billions into the physical infrastructure for energy projects, but investment in the social infrastructure for climate conversations is almost entirely absent. It would produce a vibrant and dynamic public discourse on what type of  energy projects we need, and like all good investments, its value would become apparent over time, as individual campaigns, initiatives, and communication strategies found an increasingly attentive audience.

For a whole host of reasons, speaking with each other about climate change isn’t always easy. It can feel complex and daunting (although that’s a lot to do with the focus that’s been placed on scientific analyses, and apocalyptic campaigning - in fact climate change is relevant to almost every aspect of our lives). But the longer we wait to initiate a meaningful conversation, the harder it will be. It is time to start talking climate.

 

About the author

Dr Adam Corner is Research Director at Climate Outreach, Author of newly released book Talking Climate: from research to practice in public engagement and an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University.