What We Talk About When We Talk About Climate Change: Introduction, or Getting Under Our Own Skin

This is the first in a series about climate change as an environmental, social, and psychological issue. Each subsequent installment will focus on a different viewpoint or individual experience as part of the overall discussion.

In seventh grade science class, we watched Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. I had been out that day, but the buzz among students was reaching high pitch as we learned one girl, Celenia, didn’t believe in global warming. “My dad showed me a graph,” she proudly explained, “which shows there are cycles. Sometimes the Earth is warmer, and sometimes it’s cooler.”

As middle-schoolers, none of us could properly wield science, but we applied social pressure with a keen edge. How could she not believe in global warming when everyone else did? Afraid of rejection, Celenia came close to buckling. “Do you not believe in global warming because you really don’t believe in it, or because you’re afraid of it?” I asked. She didn’t seem able to answer.

For those of us in our twenties, global warming is nothing new. It’s a concept we grew up with, as we watched our parents’ generation grapple with the facts. Many of us associate fear and sadness with the moment we learned that the Earth was on a trajectory that wasn’t looking good, but even then, it was easy to dismiss. The threat felt distant, like how one day the sun will burn out or the universe will become cold and lonely.

But that distance is diminishing. Extreme weather events, droughts… our windows might be able to show us as much about climate change as our televisions do. It’s becoming clear that the longer it takes us to come around and face what we’ve spawned, the worse it will be. While doubt about climate change has generally dissipated in recent years, our ability to act remains constrained.

While there are several reasons we aren’t acting on climate change as much as we could, one of our biggest problems is that we can’t act until we agree. And we can’t do that until we learn to talk about it in ways we agree on.

Deciding how to talk about a difficult topic is not a new problem, especially not on college campuses. Especially not at Swarthmore, where the conversation is about consent. Yet Swarthmore’s spotted history suggests that even when the student body generally agrees that consent should be obtained, it’s much harder to put it into practice.

Mike Domitrz’s October 2015 campus event “Can I Kiss You?” invited students to tackle this issue. The event scarcely presented “new” information; instead, the aim was to integrate the concept of consent into the framework of campus culture. Domitrz’s approach was to put the words in your mouth for you, specific phrases you could recite in front of a mirror. He does this because the language can matter as much as the issue. The phrases, the intonation, the intention can be crucial with topics of emotional sensitivity.

The truth: climate change is emotionally sensitive. It evokes fear. It shows us how the shorelines can be tugged out from under us, blankets of shade ripped off from over our heads, the future torn out of our fingers. It’s time to acknowledge this. It’s time to learn how we can talk about it, just you and me. So, can I talk to you about climate change?

To begin, let’s talk about fear. We need a healthy amount of concern to believe action is necessary. Such a reason is why visiting speaker Dr. Eban Goodstein began his talk, “New Rules for Climate Protection: Student Action to Change the Future,” with the claim “there will never be another ordinary day in any of our lives.” Feeling a stir of fear at that statement like that is natural, even rational.

Swarthmore Peripateo’s “Science and Society” panel discussion, peeling back the skin on science’s ethical issues, touched on the fear in the climate change debate. Near the end, Amy Vollmer, Professor of Biology, delved into the complexity of communicating science’s loaded but vital ideas. Describing her efforts to understand the climate dispute, she explained, “I wanted to learn why if we shouted louder, people didn’t buy in.”

The key to why people don’t “buy in,” according to Vollmer, has a lot to do with fear and personal security. People don’t like being told how many things they don’t know. Climate communication shouldn’t exploit people’s fears, but relate to them.

In this vein, communication necessitates compassion, or as Krista Thomason, Professor of Philosophy, wisely put it, charity. The precept of communication, whether the conversants are generous with each other, can be just as important as the facts.

A message’s linguistic packaging is not a new idea, but it’s one that’s easily forgotten in the heat of climate change. It’s easy to focus on pressing the message and forget the intimacy of it, the tenderness. How bared skin is equally susceptible to scorching sun as the nails of hurricane rain. How bareness can seem shameful in a world of lab coats, suits, watches, precious metals.

It’s more than peeling back the personas we’re clothed in. It’s about peeling back our own skin, getting ready to probe the sore and tender areas. We need to dissect ourselves to know who we are. We need to dissect our tongues to learn what exactly that strange thing is, that which happens when we talk.

The way many talk about climate change today tends to be about challenge. In his talk, Dr. Goodstein’s language was fringed with the notion of greatness, how profound our present opportunity is to “enrich the future.”

But the way Dr. Goodstein talks about climate change—“the best we can do is challenge it”—is not the only way we talk about it. The facts are just the part floating on the surface. When we talk about climate change, one topic can dissolve into a million other topics, stories, and feelings that involve ourselves as unique inflections of the human form.

The secret of our infinite differences, desires, and distances is perhaps why it’s so hard to talk collaboratively about these issues. We are all our own forms of the self. And it seems, when we talk about climate change, we’re talking about more than a planet; we’re talking about people, and how those people live. We’re talking about ourselves.

Featured image courtesy of www.motherearthnews.com


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Cara Ehlenfeldt

Cara Ehlenfeldt ’16 is a linguistics major and English literature minor from Tabernacle, NJ. She primarily writes arts & features pieces, which include her delightfully morbid cartoons. When she’s not working on these pieces, she can be found translating Russian children’s literature, laboring over a set of poems, or plunging into a new publishing endeavor. She has also founded/managed and campus literary magazine and interned with the nonprofit publisher Copper Canyon Press. She aspires to live in Portland, Oregon and become a science writer, with some poetry on the side.

3 comments

  1. 1
    Raifo1 says:

    I think everyone agrees there is evidence to indicate that our climate is changing. What we don’t all agree on is what actually the cause is. Science defines that the changes are due to forest fires, earth goephysical aborations and solar radiation. Manmade affects are almost non existant when compared to the three causes above. We do control the switch for manmade cause but unfortunately we don’t on the main three contributors. It is unreasonable to spend billions on controlling what we can for only a 1 or 2 % impact. One other cause for climate change that isn’t identified by most observers is the pollution of out space with near earth orbiting devices. In the early years these devices were restricted by the amount of signal downloading transmission via micro wave signals. This low frequency standard disappeared long ago and now we have units transmitting upwards of 1000 megawatts and more dependant on the services provided. We now have over 3000 orbiting satelites all beaming down microwave signals to earth. The earth has become a mega mircowave oven and yet that is a switch we control but as yet hasn’t even entered into the discussion. Enviro wackos have to take their blinders off and get to realistic objectives.

  2. 0
    Derek Speed says:

    If it does nothing but consume and reproduce, what is it? A virus, a bacteria, and schizophrenic people, that think they’re intelligent. Human population growth, is the problem, the leading cause of Global Warming and climate Change, is politicians, telling everybody that economic growth and education are the key to a better future.
    You haven’t come close to touching on actual fear, which is exactly what everybody is going to get. Human population is now growing faster than any virus or bacteria known to man, it would be equivalent to you inhaling a single Ebola Virus, and that virus consumes and reproduces so fast, you’re dead, in 55 seconds.
    Here’s the fear, you haven’t and will not touch: “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, true, or false? If you answer true, I’ll show very quickly, exactly how wrong you are. Climate Change and Global Warming, is a psychological problem, with fear, that will never be fixed, with science fiction.

  3. 0
    Wilberry says:

    For all you college students; in the real world no one cares about climate change, global warning, “insert latest buzz word here”. Survey after survey show’s it to be ranked dead last on issues of real importance.

    It’s the latest wealth distribution racket clothed in a green garb.

    You had me til “we watched Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.”

    Carry on, idealism is great.

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