Climate Communication and Hospitality: Making the Conversation More Welcoming

Fred Clark’s Slacktivist is one of my favorite blogs. Fred is a liberal Baptist who writes brilliantly about ethics and religion. Also Buffy the Vampire Slayer, journalism, mobile home communities… and how those things relate to ethics and religion. One of his frequent topics is evangelism. He points out that evangelism means “hospitality,” but very few people treat it that way. He does, and his comments section is home to a thriving conversation among Jews, Atheists, Agnostics, Pagans, Christians of all sects, and probably people of several faiths I’ve missed.

I have rather more tolerance for conversion attempts than most people. If a Jehovah’s Witness comes to my door, I’m likely to invite them in, feed them pumpkin bread, and spend an enjoyable half hour arguing theology. But nothing, from the well-fed door-to-door debate service to the Chick Tracts that kids used to give out at Orleans Elementary, has ever caused me to question my Jewish faith. Fred, while he hasn’t caused me to question it either, but unlike the others has actually managed to share the appeal of the faith he’s talking about.

Is science communication hospitality, or is it a conversion attempt? We often treat it like the latter, and for good reason: whether people accept the existence of climate change, evolution, germs, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria affects the well-being of everyone on earth. But would we be more effective if we focused on hospitality?

I think the answer is actually a bit complicated. As Thomas Jefferson said, “If my neighbor believes in no gods, one god, or 20 gods, it neither breaks my arm, nor steals my purse.” If my neighbor believes that our town doesn’t need to adapt to a changing climate, it has the potential to do me a great deal of harm.

On the other hand, if I walk up to my neighbor with a pamphlet and a lecture, I’m not likely to get much of anywhere. I’m making the same mistake as someone who thinks, “Have you heard about Jesus Christ?” is an effective opener. (“No, man, I live under a rock.”) If I invite my neighbor over for pumpkin bread, and ask them what they really believe, and why they believe it—start a dialogue that assumes that they disagree for reasons other than stupidity or ignorance—I may get a lot further.

People disbelieve in, or avoid or ignore, climate change for a lot of reasons. These reasons are not unique to climate deniers—they are types of self-protection, biased information seeking, and need to fit in that most people are prone to one way or another. I’ll explore some of these reasons in future posts. For now, I’ll just say that climate communicators might be more effective if we understood our opponents more deeply. And that may take some hospitality.

Before anyone jumps on me, I’m not arguing here for false balance on talk shows and similar nonsense. There are a lot of professional deniers who don’t argue in good faith, and they are always going to try to derail the conversation. But there are even more people who hold legitimately acquired and often complicated opinions, and we need a real, working model of how they think. Treating them like fellow human beings, rather than assuming they’re stupid or ignorant, can go a long way.

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