Bringing climate change home

December 1, 2013, 3:51 pm

JohnShepardClimateConversation_featured_image500pxRecently, I was listening to a climate advocate recount her experience at a community workshop she had attended in Arizona on the topic of drought.  The organizers were happy to have been invited into the community to discuss this topic, and happier still to be able to include a noted climatologist as the opening speaker.

What transpired during the presentation is emblematic of the broader conversation about climate change, at least in the West.

The good news: the speaker did not use the words “climate” and “change” one right after the other.  The bad news: the presentation was so chock full of compelling data, charts, graphs, and images that  the audience was left overwhelmed and confused.  It took most of the remaining day-long gathering to get the workshop participants focused back on their concerns.

Having participated in many community workshops on complex environmental and land use issues, I’ve learned one cardinal rule: no matter the topic, you have to start where the community is at.  Establishing a personal connection with the audience requires speaking to what matters most to them.  Telling a story that relates to their concerns is even better.

As the evidence and urgency grows about climate change, there’s a tendency among climate advocates to want to convey all the information available, when it may be wiser to follow the old adage that “less is more.” In the West, folks are already experiencing drought, heat waves, and wildfire. Possibly focusing on just one of these climate events, and keeping it local and personal, may be enough to start a conversation.

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John Shepard

John Shepard

An environmentalist, John Shepard has lived with his family in Tucson, Arizona, since 1995 . His work takes him throughout the American West and Northwest Mexico, giving him a first-hand look at how climate change is impacting the region’s landscapes and communities.

2 Responses to Bringing climate change home

  1. Mike Burkholder

    December 28, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    John, I appreciate that your focus in this blog entry appears to be how to accomplish the gentle education that will lead to change on the part of those who do not understand or possibly don’t believe what is happening with the world’s climate. I find parallels in how we in health care educate a person newly diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. It’s tough for folks in that position to see a path beyond the lifestyle of a lifetime and that’s especially true when those who are trying to help come across as food cops and worse. People respond far better to empathy than to difficult truths bluntly presented but, the more important the need and impassioned the presenter, the harder it is to find that empathic starting point. Still, just a little empathy is sometimes all that’s needed.

    • John Shepard

      December 29, 2013 at 8:58 am


      Thanks for your comment! I agree there are parallels. Fear of change and the unknown likely play a part in accepting climate change or an illness like diabetes. It is a challenge to blend hard truths and empathy when communicating about a complex and polarizing issue like climate change, but I think we can do better!


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