How to Talk to Your Friends About Copenhagen

Talking about climate change may be one of the most revolutionary things you can do. But how do you strike up your own Copenhagen conversations—and what do you say once you do?
COP 15, photo by Matthew McDermott

In the Bella Center, site of the U.N. negotiations.

Photo by Matthew McDermott

I grew up with the idea that it’s rude to bring up, in polite conversation, religion, politics, or, say, my views about one of the most important negotiations in the world, happening right now in Copenhagen. The fact that I feel so passionately that we have to stabilize the climate only makes it harder to talk about. How do I even bring the subject up without finding myself on top of a soapbox haranguing the people I love?

But it turns out that talking about climate change may be one of the most revolutionary things I—or you—can do.

Media have suggested that Americans’ belief in human-made climate change is wavering, though recent poll results vary widely. In October, a Pew Research Center poll said only 36 percent of Americans believe global warming is human-made, though 57 percent think there is “solid evidence” that it is occurring, regardless of cause. A November Washington Post/ABC News poll says 72 percent believe the Earth’s temperature has probably been going up (down from 80 percent last year), and 44 percent think global warming is a very serious problem.

More interesting to me are the results from a deliberative survey organized by World Wide Views on Global Warming, a project coordinated by a team of researchers in Denmark, but done in partnership with research institutions all over the world, including several U.S. universities. In a deliberative survey, you don’t just rely on what people have learned from cable news or Facebook. World Wide Views told its participants the whole story; it gave them the chance to review and discuss information from climate scientists, and even some climate skeptics. Their survey data are not perfect—only 100 people could participate from each region or country. (They chose five regions in the U.S.) But by the end of the process, 91 percent of the 4,000 people worldwide who participated in the survey said it was urgent that a deal come out of Copenhagen—including 9 out of 10 Americans, from all over the country, all backgrounds and political walks.

Photo by Gary Braasch. Bangladeshis on edge of eroding village south of Dhaka. Copyright © Gary BraaschPhoto Essay: Earth Under Fire
Photographer Gary Braasch chronicles the world-wide effects of climate change.

To me, these results suggest that it is possible to change minds, even in our deeply partisan country. If Americans got solid information about climate change, they might understand that it’s both real and urgent. The more we all get the word out, the better our chances are for building enough public support to have ambitious greenhouse gas regulation. We’re also less likely to stay quiet if Congress or Obama lets us down on climate policy.

But how do you bring up the story of the climate crisis on the phone, over a beer, or while waiting in line for the movies? And once you do, what do you say?

In the last couple weeks, I called up a few of my friends. I didn’t go after dyed-in-the-wool climate deniers or any relatives, journalists, scientists, or friends who work for environmental groups, either. I was afraid it would be awkward to bring up climate change, but they actually sounded excited. It seemed they’d been mulling it over, and my call gave them permission to ask questions and express their own concerns.

This is a summary of some their major questions, followed by things I did say, things I wish I had said, and information I promised I would look up. Though I only contacted a handful of people, I think the questions represent common concerns and misconceptions. Consider how you might answer these questions, and then strike up your own Copenhagen conversations.

Friend: Yeah, I’ve heard a little about Copenhagen, but I don’t know what the chances are that we’ll get an actual deal out of it. Better than under Bush, right?

Me: Well, yes, our chances are definitely better than under Bush. Copenhagen is where leaders are supposed to negotiate a successor to Kyoto. Kyoto, obviously, didn’t work very well, in large part because the U.S. never ratified the agreement. Global greenhouse gas emissions have risen by about 3.5 percent a year since 2000.

There are reasons to be optimistic about Copenhagen, and reasons to be worried. Everybody agrees that the U.S. is the most important key player. The U.S. and China are the world’s two biggest greenhouse gas emitters right now, although the U.S. has been polluting the climate decades longer than China has and doesn’t have nearly as big a population.

Obama COP15 ad

Ads in the Copenhagen airport feature world leaders, in 2020, apologizing for not stopping catastrophic climate change.

Photo courtesy of Greenpeace International

Following his meeting with China’s leaders last month, Obama said that his aim for Copenhagen is not just “a partial accord or a political declaration” but a deal that “has immediate operational effect.” China is now putting pressure on Obama to increase U.S. commitments to cut carbon emissions. And many smaller countries, especially African and island nations, are combining forces to push the negotiations toward more ambitious goals. There is tension between developing nations and industrial countries, and it will be a challenge, to say the least, to broker a deal that will be ambitious enough to satisfy countries getting hit hard by the effects of climate change. Those countries need financial help to adapt their technology and to develop a green economy.

The thing is, the eyes of the world are on Copenhagen right now. Many leaders would be embarrassed to see it flop completely, and they should be. News media, naysayers, and pundits have snarked about what we should expect out of Copenhagen. Multiple reports have declared the negotiations “dead,” some before they even started; all of them have been followed, usually less than a day later, by more rigorous analyses showing that leaders are still taking the talks seriously. Major players like India and China have announced commitments to cutting emissions. Much is still possible, and we won’t know the outcomes until the end of the two weeks.

I think we in the public should expect a lot from these talks. Just like your boss expects you to show up to work. And if you don’t, she demands to know why you haven’t. And if you keep missing work for no reason, you might lose your job. It would help if the public held leaders accountable—they have to show up to Copenhagen and broker a deal. If they don’t, we should demand more, either by voting people out of office (some Senators come to mind) or staging direct action. That may sound simplistic, but consider that public pressure is the only strategy that has ever worked to push forward a people-centered agenda. We’ll be seeing a lot of direct action in Copenhagen in the next few days.

Friend: But we’re in the middle of economic recovery, and aren’t these regulations hard to implement? Can’t we do this slowly and gradually? 

Me: We’ve been waiting for a couple of decades to take action on global warming. And recently, scientists have been gathering evidence that climate change is worse than they predicted even a few years ago. There are real consequences for everyone. If you live in L.A. or Las Vegas, your major water sources, Lakes Mead and Powell, have a 50-50 chance of going dry in 12 years due to climate change.

For every year we don’t act, the solutions become $500 billion more expensive.

Leaders in Copenhagen are negotiating over emissions cuts that will decide whether we have a little temperature rise that many of us can adjust to—even though it will have some major, negative consequences—or a huge temperature change that could damage crops and cause food shortages, dry up our water sources, and change weather patterns so that we have more and more environmental disasters, including hurricanes like Katrina.

We can’t wait because some changes to the planet can’t be easily undone. When Arctic ice melts, for instance, dark ocean water absorbs more heat, making the planet even warmer. Such changes are called tipping points or thresholds. We strike many of the worst thresholds after a two-degree Celsius temperature rise above preindustrial levels. An analysis by the International Energy Agency predicts that for every year we don’t act, the solutions become $500 billion more expensive.

Scientists say we’ve only got until 2015 to avoid such changes—level off global emissions, turn them around, and begin major reductions.

Some see the consequences as potentially even more dire. Kevin Parker, the global head of Deutsche Bank Asset Management, recently told the New York Times, “People often ask about the costs ... they don’t look at the cost of inaction, which is the extinction of the human race. Period.”

Moreover, a huge consensus of activists, businesses, and policymakers now agree that the green economic revolution won’t be an obstacle to recovery, but the way out of the economic downturn.

Friend: My mom keeps sending me messages about leaked emails from climate scientists. What’s that about?

At the end of November, a group of computer hackers leaked thousands of messages and insider documents from the Climate Research Unit (CRU), a major source of climate data, at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. Climate deniers got a hold of those emails and tried to use particular phrases and discussions within them to cast doubt on whether climate change is actually happening. For instance, one email talked about a cool “trick,” i.e. an interesting method, a scientist developed to analyze tree ring data, measurements that can be used to estimate annual temperature changes over the long term. Conservative pundits deliberately misconstrued this message, suggesting scientists have been trying to “trick” the public.

Consumer Illustration, by Jim RoweWho's Polluting the Climate Conversation?
The money, CEOs, and Astroturf groups behind the doubt and denial.

This is mostly a distortion of insider conversations. Think about the last time you said something in an email that was negative, flippant, or sarcastic. Nothing in the messages changes the data. And even if the message contents did suggest that the CRU data were compromised, there are thousands of other data points from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and studies from around the world that provide overwhelming evidence that human-made climate change is real.

The real scams and hoaxes come not from climate science but from the fossil fuel industry, which has, for instance, hired people to pose as citizen activists and waged misinformation campaigns aimed at getting inexperienced reporters to pick up false information about climate change.

Friend: Can the public still have a say in what happens, or has everything already been decided?

Me: Again, not much will be decided until the end of the two-week negotiations. And while the public doesn’t get a vote at Copenhagen, there are lots of opportunities to make your opinion visible in ways that get media coverage and sway public debate. One of the largest will be on December 12, when climate activists all over the world are staging a series of vigils and demonstrations. You can also write letters to the White House, your Senator, or the editors of your local news outlets.


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