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How to Talk About Climate Change During a Pandemic

May 25, 2021 | Informed Citizens, Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, Prepared Communities, Reserves, What We Work For

Emphasizing connections to the natural world is one way communities can integrate efforts to address climate change and manage the COVID-19 epidemic. Photo courtesy Narragansett Bay Reserve.

As the world faces down the challenges of the past year, one fact remains: we need to talk about climate change. Whether the conversation is between scientists and decision makers, educators and students, or even family members at the dinner table, how we talk about it has a huge impact on how our words are received. A new training from Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Reserve is helping coastal communities reckon with the climate change conversation in a way that’s constructive, even under the weight of other crises.

“Many people are still building their confidence to talk about climate change, and the pandemic didn’t help,” says Jen West, the Reserve’s coastal training program coordinator who developed the training with support from the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI). “This training is intended to help everyone adapt and respond to the unique demands of this moment by providing ways to maximize the positive outcomes of climate communications in a COVID-19 context.”

Through the NERRS national network, the Rhode Island-based training has been offered to communities and Reserve partners from the Gulf of Maine to the Gulf of Mexico. These events engaged hundreds of participants at more than 53 organizations, providing tools and ideas to help shape local educationand conversationaround climate change. One component of the training advice is specific to navigating these conversations in the context of the COVID-19 pandemican ongoing concern for many communities.

“This training was a great reminder that the language we use to discuss topics greatly impacts the way our audience receives the message; it provided tools for discussing climate change at a time when our communications have to be drastically modified,” says Taylor Ryan, an air quality specialist at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

“One idea that has really stuck with me is how the media is often pitting environmental ‘improvement’ against the COVID-19 crisis; for example, saying ‘air quality is better because less people are driving to work.’ As representatives of environmental agencies, and personal environmental stewards, we want to ensure the narrative does not create a divide between environmental and economic issues by using positive messaging toward both.”

COVID offers us an opportunity to highlight our connections to each other and the natural world, observes West. “It can be a way to help people understand why it’s important to take action at a community level. Any time we can align efforts to address COVID-19 with with those focused on climate change, we are helping to build that understanding and sense of empowerment,” she says.

The training uses a set of market-tested “frameworks” to give people effective, proven ways to shape the climate change conversation in ways that connect with the person they’re engaging. Certain metaphorical frames are effective for communicating complex concepts: for example, NNOCCI recommends explaining ocean acidification as an “osteoporosis of the sea.” Positive frames that emphasize protecting people and places and responsible stewardship work better to promote action than dire messages.

“We have to tell a story that’s not just doom and gloom, because we know that doesn’t work,” says West. “Hope promotes dialogue and action—now is the time to shift the national conversation about climate change to be more positive, civic-minded, and solutions-focused.”

Tips for How to Talk About Climate Change—Even During a Pandemic. Watch a recording from the Wells Reserve here.

Using more positive frames has resonated with many participants. “I’m redoing our forest ecology program for students in middle school and want to add a climate connection,” says Tracey Hall, an education coordinator for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. “I got some helpful ideas to connect the importance of forests, trees as a carbon sink and related steps people can do that take the gloom and doom out!”

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What We Work ForInformed CitizensHow to Talk About Climate Change During a Pandemic