It was 1988. I was 38, married, had two young daughters, and was working full time. In my “free” time I volunteered for RESULTS, an international advocacy organization to end poverty. I was no stranger to seemingly insurmountable issues.
Barbara Dunlap was the group leader of our local RESULTS chapter. I liked her. She ran a good meeting, she was smart, energetic, and solid. She moved like a New Yorker—a blonde with blunt-cut hair swinging as she walked decidedly on her way to somewhere.
Then suddenly, she quit the group. She said there was something more pressing that needed her attention—something she referred to as global warming.
“What’s global warming?” My forehead tightened as I asked the question.
She gave some long explanation that I couldn’t follow about ice caps melting, weather patterns changing, crops dying. I must have glanced off into space or changed the subject, because she called me back by name.
“Davia, this is big—bigger than poverty, bigger than everything put together.”
A picture came to mind: the ice at the top of the globe turning to water and washing over Alaska. Something faraway and hardly relevant. I smiled at Barbara in a distracted way and thought, “Okay, so she’s crazy. I didn’t see that one coming.”
I had no idea what she was talking about and certainly global warming—whatever that was—had nothing to do with me or anyone else I knew.
Barbara gave up on me and disappeared. I promptly forgot about that thing called global warming.
It is only now that I think back and wonder if she felt the same frustration that I sometimes feel today. How in the world could she get me to see the undeniable, absolute relevance of global warming to my life? How could she get me to understand the urgency and immediacy? Did she hunt for the right words, hoping to get my attention? Did she walk away frustrated with herself for lacking the communication skills to wake me up? Was she angered by my inability to connect the dots?
I haven’t seen Barbara since that year, but I think about her when I try to engage others in a conversation about climate change. When they turn away, change the subject, or fail to see the relevance, I remind myself that I too turned away, changed the subject, and failed to see the relevance. I wasn’t bad or stupid or insensitive in 1988. I just didn’t get it yet.
Now, in 2016, I can put myself in her shoes. Now I am the one who is talking to folks who don’t get it. Rather than judge and criticize, I try to step into their shoes—the shoes I wore in 1988. I try to talk and listen in an open-hearted way that will inspire them to action.
When having these conversations, these are the seven points I try to remember:
1. Listen to what matters to them. Make climate change personal—because it is. It’s easy to connect the dots to so many things that matter. Skiing options in North America are dwindling. Surf destinations are being threatened. Countries that once produced favorite foods such as chocolate, coffee, and wine are finding crops will no longer grow in their changed climate. Just about every area of our lives will be impacted, so if I can find out what matters most to the other person, I can explain how that area will be impacted by global warming.
2. Big issues need clear bite-sized action steps. As Meryl Streep recently said, “None of us can do everything, but each of us can do something.” Kind of like that old joke: “How do you eat a hippopotamus? One bite at a time.”
3. Congress is Key. Suggest they learn about their U.S. Representative. Ask them to find the name of their Member of Congress at house.gov then search for climate change on the congress member’s website. Learn what their MoC says about climate change. Find out what actions they’re taking.
4. Build Congressional Relationships. Ask them to write a letter to their MoCongress. Follow this outline—Introduce yourself, tell your MoC why you are concerned about climate change, then ask them to get back to you and tell you what actions they are taking.
5. Be patient. Notice whether the listener is still engaged. Continue to make climate change personal. Ask them if they see evidence in their own lives. In what way?
6. Be grateful. You too were once less than interested in climate change.
7. Remember that every conversation matters.
Sometimes I get it right. Sometimes I don’t. The point is I keep trying and, hopefully, make an impact, one person at a time.