by Myriam Ullah
Environmental sustainability, climate change, and the many debates that surround them are at the forefront of most contemporary news outlets. I recently decided to narrow my news feed topics of interest to include fewer issues in hopes that I could focus on specific areas and spend more time reading both sides of a debate. One of the topics I chose to focus on was climate change. I wanted to understand what types of conversations were happening in mainstream media and how that correlated with my values of simple living, treading lightly on the earth, and prioritizing environmentally responsible behaviors.
I hoped my experiment would help me to be more informed and equipped to contribute meaningfully in relevant discussions I cared about. I found that, in regard to, climate change being more informed did not necessarily translate into having more meaningful conversations. One of the things I learned from consuming more media on this topic, was that the discussion can be incredibly divisive and overwhelming. The more I read, the more I understood how people are being affected by the ways in which the discussion itself is unfolding. Essentially, how the discussion has become a detour itself, rerouting people rather than engaging them.
In today’s media jungle it can be hard to find your way through the many voices vying for your attention. Add in an election season and the increase of click bait titles, fake news, accusatory memes and it really can feel like you’re lost in the wilderness. The amount of contradictory information on climate change out there is confusing and makes it challenging to find straightforward data. There are also, of course, groups whose primary purpose is to discredit the voices pushing for higher environmental industry standards, for example, as this may compromise their potential for profit. It’s easy to get lost in the reports or feel disgusted at the needlessly personalized debate.
Underlying the mixed messages is also an underlying dynamic of overwhelm. Although there is a near consensus agreement on the need for drastic change in corporate and political will to change, there is not a clear or accessible vision for moving forward sustainably. After all isn’t it hard for anyone to hear that we are the enemies of a struggling planet who caused the climate to change so drastically that parts of the world we know today will soon be underwater displacing millions of people? And that the struggle for a resolution is going to involve so much sacrifice. Who would want to hear more about that? It is easier to learn about a problem that has a solution we can understand and can see clear steps to take to attain.
For those who are able and willing to wade through contradictions and overwhelming content there is also a dimension of mental wellbeing in how people seem to be affected by the dialogue about climate change. More people are discussing their experience of distress, depression, and angst, identified as ‘eco-anxiety‘, due to a sense of grief over what’s being lost and/or dread of an uncertain future. For many this anxiety may not yet be recognized but contributes to a lack of engagement with climate change.
Navigating the discussion to take action
This past May I had the opportunity to participate in a workshop from Climate Outreach as part of MCC Alberta’s Planting Peace Gathering . In speaking about some of the barriers to engaging with the issues around climate change the facilitator, Amber Bennett, stated that these issues need to become normalized as common topics of conversation but that the dialogue itself can often sound condemning. She continued on to name active listening as the unsung hero in building discussions around a seemingly taboo topic and encouraged asking questions about values and experiences over facts or reports.
We learned that as a society, if we listen openly and allow ourselves to discover congruence in our underlying values, we can overcome crucial barriers and move forward in finding ways to adopt environmentally responsible practices. We need to hear each other and acknowledge that across the spectrum, from climate change deniers to #FridaysForFuture strikers, people all desire sustainable livelihoods and a sense of security for future generations.
We also learned that in order to create change, we need to support each other. The dynamics at play within the discussions about climate change can create a total aversion to engaging with the topic at all. Struggling to understand the issues of climate change and how to move forward, can also cause us to root ourselves more vehemently in our stance and create additional barriers to open collaboration and seeking a balanced understanding.
In tough conversations about challenging topics, like climate change, we need more people in the dialogue who are open to hearing opposing views. In dialogue and with creativity, unlikely alliances, and a desire for change, we can challenge the status quo and make a difference.
Myriam Ullah is the Education & Advocacy Coordinator for MCC Saskatchewan
Banner image: The environment is difficult for agriculture in Central Highlands, Afghanistan. The mountains in the background have traditionally always been snow covered. (MCC Photo/Paul Shetler Fast)
MCC has recently released a 2019 federal election resource which includes a section about climate change along with questions to consider asking your MP candidates. The election resource also includes a companion guide (pocket version) with helpful tips for respectful dialogue about divisive issues.