Everyone talks about climate change. A handful of activists are doing something about it. But how can the activists reach everyone else?
This is the topic that provoked discussion at a meeting of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) at noon on Saturday January 12 at an office in the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph.
The meeting was hosted by Mark Berardine, president of the Wellington unit of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA). The twenty-or-so men and women in attendance were joined by Guelph MP Lloyd Longfield, there at the invitation of the host. Longfield took a couple of questions before departing for another appointment as proceedings got under way.
The main event, and the chief reason for the gathering (apart from the homemade soup and Polestar bread provided by the teachers’ association), was a live-streamed presentation from the U.S.-based climate organization.
The CCL has more than 400 branches in the United States and more than 30 in Canada. It is committed to promoting legislation that addresses the climate crisis. This promotion, as the group’s name suggests, involves actively lobbying elected representatives to pass climate-oriented laws and organizing grassroots letter-writing campaigns in support of these efforts. As an indication of their effectiveness, Executive Director Mark Reynolds reported that the American members had more than 600 letters to the editor published in the United States in December alone. In the same month, they authored more than 100 op eds.
The guest speaker, introduced by Reynolds, was Washington, D.C.-based journalist Amanda Ripley. She described strategies that might be employed to reach people who refuse to acknowledge the reality of global warming. Her approach is inspired by experts in fields ranging from economics to diplomacy, people who routinely deal with conflict in the course of their work. They know from experience the strategies that don’t work in a polarized environment. And what doesn’t work, for starters, is confronting people with facts.
The confrontational approach, according to Ripley, is ineffective because it challenges the skeptic’s identity and because, between the activist advocate and the recalcitrant doubter, there is no foundation of trust. It is unrealistic to imagine that these obstacles can be overcome in the course of a brief conversation. Just being right (and saying so) won’t do the job.
What does work is complexity.
The strategy Ripley describes requires the contending parties to step outside their fixed and prickly identities and open themselves to neutral, non-threatening sources of information. A document of some kind, a pamphlet or book, may serve the purpose. Infographics, apparently, are more effective than mere words. In one way or another, the advocate can bring about a shared understanding of a complex issue by … introducing complex materials. Participants given such materials before a meeting bring a broader perspective to the discussion than those who walk in cold. In such an exercise, the goal isn’t to win or lose. It’s to achieve understanding.
These strategies inform Ripley’s work as a journalist. She’s not alone: she referred the audience to an organization and its website www.solutionsjournalism.org. She and others like her are looking for ways to get past people’s fixed opinions and establish a level of trust that makes meaningful dialogue possible. She posted a list of questions that can help bring about this result. The point, above all, is first to listen. And then listen some more.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned in recent years, it’s that those who cling most tenaciously to irrational positions believe themselves to be the victims of an uncaring society. They’re aggrieved. The feel themselves to be unheard.
Local business owner and climate activist Steve Dyck has taken the lead in bringing the CCL to Guelph. He led the discussion following Ripley’s presentation. The participants came from a number of different organizations including the Coalition for Social Justice, the Council of Canadians, Extinction Rebellion and, of course, OECTA. There was general agreement on the need to coordinate action among the different organizations and to embark on a letter-writing campaign.
There will be another gathering of the CCL next month.