Climate

How to Discuss Climate Change With Your Uncle During the Holidays

by Russell McLendon, in a Mother Nature Network cross-post

Most people know better than to bring up politics, religion or climatology in polite company. It’s a recipe for arguments, or at least for awkwardness.

But when families get together for big holiday meals … that recipe is often dusted off anyway. And whether it’s your nephew demonizing the Tea Party, your niece deifying Tim Tebow, or your aunt and uncle arguing about polar bears, no one wants squabbling to overshadow gobbling at a holiday feast.

Still, not all taboo topics are the same. Fuzzier issues like politics and religion are often sensitive, since they’re largely matters of opinion and faith. But climate science is a little different, thanks to the “science” part. It’s one thing to bite your tongue while a relative rants about taxes or morality, but what if the conversation turns to coral bleaching or glacier loss? Is it worth risking an argument to set the record straight?

In most cases, probably not. It’s not like your relative is addressing the United Nations, and you might just come off as uptight and self-righteous for trying to squelch dissent. If your uncle had two glasses of wine and wants to grumble about Al Gore, you’re probably better off letting him. Otherwise, you could just end up convincing him even further that environmentalists want to control his life.

But that’s not to say you should never speak up for science at family gatherings. Polite enlightenment is possible; it just requires being knowledgeable and confident without seeming nitpicky or condescending. And even if you can do that, it still depends on your audience, which may have little patience for a science lesson.

If you decide it’s worth the risks, though — maybe your uncle can be open-minded, or you know your cousin will back you up — here’s a quick guide for explaining climate change without raining on everyone’s parade:

1. Don’t blow hot air: Whether you’re debating your uncle or a stranger, it helps to know what you’re talking about. Doing your homework will help ensure you always have a response ready without resorting to hyperbole. Below are a few examples of claims you might hear from a climate-change denier, along with a rebuttal to each (and links to more comprehensive lists). If you want a cheat sheet, consider printing out this guide or loading it on your smartphone for easy reference.

  • “There’s no evidence of global warming, and computer models are unreliable.”

Scientists don’t need computer models to tell them global warming is under way. For that, they can look to surface-temperature records, satellite data, ice-sheet borehole analysis, measurements of sea-level rise and sea-ice extent, and observations of permafrost loss and glacier melting. Computer models are helpful for predicting future climate patterns, and they’re becoming increasingly accurate, but they’re hardly the only evidence we have.

  • “Global temperatures stopped rising in 1998.”

This argument has lost some steam lately, especially since 2005 and 2010 tied as the hottest years on record. But it was never very convincing to begin with, since it implies that only a linear year-to-year rise indicates a trend. 1998 was hot, but it’s considered an outlier because a strong El Niño skewed it even hotter. This graph shows yearly variability of global temperature anomalies (thin line) as well as as the “smoothed” average (bold line) from 1880 to 2010:

  • “Glaciers are actually growing.”

There are about 160,000 glaciers on Earth, and since scientists can’t monitor them all collectively, they study groups of “reference glaciers.” According to the World Glacier Monitoring Service, the average reference glacier has lost 12 meters (39 feet) of water-equivalent thickness since 1980. Some glaciers are stable, and a few are even growing, but many that provide key freshwater supplies are melting at an alarming rate. As glaciologist Bruce Molnia told MNN in 2010, warming affects low-elevation glaciers first, since temperatures are cooler in the mountains. “The lower the elevation of origin, the more dire the time period when the glacier will be affected,” Molnia said.

  • “The climate has changed before, so we can’t be blamed for changing it now.”

Earth’s climate has changed lots of times without human help, but does that really mean humans are incapable of changing it? As Skeptical Science points out, that’s “like arguing that humans can’t start bushfires because in the past they’ve happened naturally.” When the climate changed eons ago, it was because something made it change — extra sunshine warmed it up, volcanic clouds cooled it down. We know carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere, and we’re now releasing those gases at a record pace. And the main problem is that modern-day climate change is happening faster than in the past, potentially outpacing some species’ ability to adapt.

  • “Global warming is good for humans.”

CO2 does help plant growth, and warmer weather can initially boost crops in northern regions. But this view ignores widespread, long-term dangers in favor of scattered, short-term benefits. Climate change encourages extreme weather — including longer droughts in some places and bigger storms in others — that can decimate crops, and it also helps some pests expand their range. Global warming poses too many threats to list here, but they include: the loss of fisheries and marine ecosystems to ocean acidification; the loss of coastal communities to rising seas; the loss of freshwater supplies due to melting glaciers; and increased conflict due to droughts, floods and famine.

For a full list of responses to these and other climate claims, check out this 2009 report by the University of Oregon’s Climate Leadership Initiative, this guide for “How to talk to a climate skeptic” by journalist Coby Beck, and this list of arguments and myths by Skeptical Science. A wealth of information about climate change can also be found at NOAA’s climate.gov as well as climate.nasa.gov and epa.gov/climatechange.

2. Don’t be insulting: There’s no going back from ad hominem attacks. Don’t treat your uncle like he’s dumb, and don’t be rude or condescending. Admit it when you don’t know something; give your uncle credit when he’s right. This will help your credibility, and maybe even help prevent a holiday fracas with your family.

3. Cite your sources: No one expects you to bring a bibliography to Thanksgiving, but it would help if you could at least rattle off a few reputable sources of your information. That shouldn’t be too hard, since most major scientific organizations around the world have reached a consensus that global warming is real and human activity contributes to it. NOAA, NASA and the EPA are good places to start, as is the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which, coincidentally, is holding a big climate summit next week in South Africa). Be respectful of your uncle’s sources, too, but if he brings up “Climategate,” feel free to point out it’s been debunked.

(UPDATE: As MNN’s Karl Burkart reports, a new campaign dubbed “Hackergate” has just surfaced two years after Climategate. Nothing revelatory has emerged from the newly leaked emails so far, but if your uncle wants to press the issue, just remind him that climate change has been confirmed by far more scientists than the ones who wrote these emails — and they haven’t actually been discredited, either.)

4. Don’t mix science and politics: Climate change will never be solved without broad, coordinated political action, but that doesn’t mean it needs to start at your dinner table. Opposition to climate science is largely born from deeply entrenched political attitudes about government regulation, so subjects like cap and trade are often even more sensitive than the polar ice caps. Try to keep the conversation light-hearted, or at least civil, and steer it away from politics if you can.

5. Take a break: Your family is a captive audience during a holiday meal, so don’t bore them with endless bickering. Even if your uncle wants to keep debating solar flares and the heat-island effect, spare your relatives and suggest continuing the discussion later, maybe via email so you can both provide links to your sources.

However you decide to handle a climate-change denier at the dinner table, don’t forget the reason you’re both sitting there. Holiday meals are a celebration of family and friends, and you shouldn’t let a scientific debate kill the good vibes. It’s a smart strategy to apply elsewhere, too — if you can explain global warming without losing your cool, you might give environmentalists everywhere something to be thankful for.

— Russell McLendon is an eco-journalist writing about science and politics for Mother Nature Network. This piece was originally published at MMN.

JR:  For one-line and longer responses/debunkings of standard climate denier myths, the place to go is Skeptical Science.

29 Responses to How to Discuss Climate Change With Your Uncle During the Holidays

  1. John Tucker says:

    “Holiday meals are a celebration of family and friends, and you shouldn’t let a scientific debate kill the good vibes.”

    lol – I think that pretty much frames the whole “debate.”

    Also if they all already accepting of a reasonable science based world view – test the limits – critique renewables and nuclear power as a backup vibe killer!!

    Anywho happy Hanukkah, merry Christmas happy new year and a wonderful winter holiday celebration to all!

  2. DBarr says:

    No longer worried about the water obviously creeping higher up the beach every year. When we decide to sell the house, all we have to do is find a Republican. :D

  3. James Wells says:

    I think a useful approach is to refer to rational business decisions made by people who are not climate scientists. “You know, the world’s top insurance companies are changing their premiums and coverage based on climate change. Shippers are now assuming the sea routes, closed by ice for thousands of years, will stay open for their ships.” This avoids the kind of dueling web references about this or that temperature graph, that simply confuse and bore the people who are not debating. For me, the audience is not the Fox-viewing uncle (who is not going to be convinced), but the rest of the people at the table.

    Somewhat relevant, along the same lines: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/12/17/1045913/-Global-Warming-Creating-the-Conditions-for-a-Cronkite-Moment?detail=hide

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    Dear Uncle Bob:

    See that spit in the oven, the one you stuck in the ham? Well, that’s what your Hummer does every year to five children in Africa and Asia.

    Just kidding! Merry Christmas, everyone!

  5. Joe Romm says:

    There ain’t dueling sciences. Only one. And it ain’t pretty.

  6. jEREMY says:

    Sorry, but a person who is in denial will be insulted and will refuse to accept any explanation. Actually, they will select a word or phrase that they can question and distort to pronounce you are incorrect.
    Nothing will change their minds and don’t even bother to try.

  7. fj says:

    several years ago, in a bar, some guy was talking some garbage to me about climate change and well i told him what i thought about what he was saying and more and he said calm down you’re so angry you seem you like might shoot me . . .

    well this is how serious it is

    oh yeah, and he started to listen to me

    don’t worry about stepping on a few toes

    yes, it’s nice to be humane

    but this stuff is life-or-death serious and nothing to pussyfoot around

    read recently that now everything that happens with the weather, the least out of the ordinary, a lot people say it’s climate change causing it; well that’s the way it should be, because we have a serious problem here and we are not moving to solve it.

    and, it’s not something we should discussing politely over tea

  8. James Wells says:

    I am so with you.

    But what does exist is a large reservoir of obfuscative resources, so that a low-information observer, listening to two people debate on opposite sides, may not be able to make heads or tails of the discussion and may well be left with “unsettled, debatable” as their impression. Mission accomplished, for the deniers.

    I think that simple statements along the lines of “Some really smart business people are making decisions based on this reality” can sometimes cut through that obfuscation, especially in a situation where the time budget before Aunt Mary cuts off any further discussion may be limited.

    Thanks for your tireless and always awesome work,

  9. Robert In New Orleans says:

    To error is Human.
    To forgive is not Vulcan.

    To hell with family calm and unity, mankind is going off the cliff into the abyss and polite talk will not cut it anymore. Damn my ignorant relatives! I tell my older nieces and nephews that they will see and experience things brought on by climate change that will change their lives.

    There are no happy endings to this story, it only gets worse and we all know this.

    Seasons Greetings.

  10. PeterW says:

    10 maybe 15 years ago I would probably agree with this approach but after all this time, it’s quite obvious that being polite and humble doesn’t work. Think about it, this is exactly how progressive are framed, gutless unable to stand up for their convictions. It’s about time you were the uncle or cousin or whatever that people walk on egg shells around. This is serious and being miss manners is completely unproductive. At this point with me if a relative wants a fight he or she is getting one.

    Every flippant remark about climate change should be forcefully challenged. If this doesn’t make you princess of the ball, tough.

    I’m sorry for the rant Joe but this type of pussy footing around, is really starting to piss me off.

  11. Joe Romm says:

    I tend to agree — in most, but not all settings.

  12. Chad says:

    Being a scientist myself, I just pull snarky rank. “You guys seriously want to argue about science with a scientist? I got a blackboard out in the car. Let’s do it”.

    It shuts them up every time, and seems to sway the agnostics without annoying anyone.

    I do relish the day, however, that someone actually takes me up on the chalk-talk challenge and I quickly expose that they have no clue what they are talking about.

  13. There will be no deniers at our Christmas dinner. Only ones who are angry and scared.

  14. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    No one brought up climate change. But Noam Chomsky quotes caused more than enough trouble when the politics talks started.

  15. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    And don’t leave the Pentagon and the CIA off the list of those making contingency plans.

  16. Anne says:

    That’s hilarious. Sick, but hilarious. I had an actual “Uncle Bob” who teased me my whole life for being an environmentalist. This one is for him, too!

  17. Anne says:

    Why are families waiting for holidays to discuss serious issues? I think the larger problem is that there is not an ongoing conversation throughout the year on these matters of major importance. If a continual dialogue were taking place among family members, then the holiday gathering could be a time when “loaded topics” and more serious discussion and debate on national and global matters is set aside and family can just enjoy one another and celebrate common interests. Here, stronger bonds can form which can then lead to greater mutual respect and understanding, and then to meaningful debate at times other than the holiday dinner table. It makes no sense to me that we bottle it up or put it off until the Turkey is being carved or we reunite on a sacred day. Open up communication with Uncle Bob or Aunt Hilda or — better yet – with neices and nephews, children and grandchildren – throughout the year. Find new ways to feed them information and wisdom at times and in ways when it will be best accepted and digested. Then the dinner table will be a more harmonious place for all.

  18. tao9 says:

    We’re all playing pond hockey this morning in snowless, but very cold Connecticut.

    We all cut the blades off our sticks to make it more fair for faculty friends and media relatives who can’t skate.

    Merry Christmas!

  19. fj says:

    Agreed. Not all the time (instead of most of the time) for yours and everyone’s sanity . . . perspective . . . diminishing returns; sort of dreaming up real solutions and positive effects are the best way.

    And, with the often terrifying climate and environmental situation there are clear signs that this crisis will drive us to work together, force us to really put on our thinking caps — and, compassion capes — and be much better, smarter; after which having made us all absolutely brilliant solving the whole slew of ‘impossible’ problems to come; next, we’ll be heading for the stars.

  20. James Wells says:

    Oh yeah, those tree-hugging hippies at the Pentagon and CIA.

    Excellent point, thanks,

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Yes, they are preparing for war, war to seize resources and war to police collapsing societies in the poor world (a world that is rapidly expanding and will be hardest hit by climate change.)

  22. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Too true. The smallest minds are invariably those most firmly shut, like a demented clam.

  23. John Mason says:

    Anne, I think that pretty much nails it!

    Cheers – John

  24. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    Well, we don’t know what’s in the CIA’s analysis, as they continue to resist any and all requests under the FOI Act. But elements of the Pentagon’s plan have been declassified. I believe words like “world-wide counter- insurgency” and “low intensity war” are part of the mix – whatever in the hell that means.

  25. Raul M. says:

    A clear conscious tends to be a sign of a bad memory- fortune cookie.

  26. prokaryotes says:

    This is a good start to debate a climate denier. But after the facts are settled it comes down to action, to life changing decision making…

    For example in my family, people listen but they do not care at all it seems. There is an overall sense of “this does not concern me”, “im alone i cannot do anything about it”, “i have x problems which are personally more important to me then science…”

    Even in light of extreme disaster, peopel are helpless..

    Ultimately the government has to take responsibility, accountability, actions to prevent worst case scenarios.

    On the bottom lien we deal with a deep rooted addiction to fossil energy, thus we have to replace fossil energy from the equation, asap!

  27. Calamity Jean says:

    I do relish the day, however, that someone actually takes me up on the chalk-talk challenge….

    Has anyone ever done that?

  28. Bumblefly says:

    Such a profound, yet so quaint, quote. Can I use that? haha

  29. prokaryotes says:

    They are probably overwhelmed from the prospects and long term situations. Geo-political instabilities. They relay on people like Joe Romm or climate scientist to make up their risk assessment. And that is why they have taken climate change seriously years ago.

    Why they do not act accordingly (shut down the denial industry years ago) was a huge failure.

    But we are not at the point where the water boils over(literally). It is now game over for denial.

    If you look at bad planing and foresight, population control could fit in here. Because we do not face a population bomb, we face a genetic bottle neck by the end of the century and long term.

    And what many do not discuss are multiple threats from failing states. It just takes a few nukes to poison the entire earth or a few more fukushima from climate disrupting events.

    The future is at stake, that’s why people like Lovelock, Hansen, Hawking, Fenner etc etc warn of extinction threats.