Northern News

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A publication of the American Planning Association, California Chapter, Northern Section

Making great communities happen

Work through community conflict on climate change by confronting fears

By Geoff Ball and Debbie Mytels, February 15, 2021

A need for community discussions

City planners must work effectively with elected officials and their constituents to create mandated climate action plans. Planners recognize that they must also engage their community to generate support for the local policy proposals that reduce carbon emissions. Reluctance to talk about climate change, however, makes generating community engagement difficult. Like death, religion, and salaries, climate change is so complex and fraught with potential negative feelings that it’s essentially a taboo topic in personal conversations.

Given that you can’t solve a complex problem unless you talk about it, we decided to get people talking. We bring long years of community engagement experience to this effort: Geoff Ball started his work as a conflict resolution facilitator in 1971, and Debbie Mytels knows environmental issues after a long career leading local environmental organizations.

Analyzing why people outside the circle of climate activists were avoiding the topic, we realized there were basically three reasons:

1) Climate change really is a frightening topic. It raises concerns about dying, radical impacts on the lives of our grandchildren, and the destruction of civilization.

2) People perceive it to be controversial. They don’t want to get into arguments with family, neighbors, or co-workers.

3) Climate change is beyond complex. Most people vaguely understand its causes, but they feel deeply inadequate to address it.

Climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe (PhD, atmospheric sciences) addressed this avoidance in her 17-minute 2018 TED talk, “The most important thing you can do about climate change is talk about it.” Taking a cue from her, we designed a series of Community Conversations on Climate Change (CConCC) that can be adapted to meet a range of prior information and abilities to engage. The goal is to help people overcome their avoidance of a frightening topic, reduce conflict in discussing climate change, and explore some possible ways to respond.

Content of the workshops

Our workshops have five basic sections:

1) The “bad news” context. Noting polls that show the majority of Bay Area residents are cognizant of the causes and effects of climate change, we forego extensive discussion of the science involved. Instead, we briefly review why climate change is happening and focus more on its effects, particularly in our Northern California region: drought, fires, smoke. For an audience less familiar with climate science, this section of the workshop would be augmented with additional information. To help people recognize that fears about climate change are normal, we then offer a discussion where people speak in small groups or dyads about their emotional response to the climate crisis: how does it make them feel, personally?

2) The “good news.” To buoy their spirits, this section highlights three ways we are making progress: a) California’s stable per capita emissions since Title 24 standards were passed in the 1970s; b) the nationwide drop in emissions due to efficient LED lightbulbs over the past decade; and c) cost reductions in producing renewable energy which now place it at parity with fossil-fuel generated electricity. Other “good news” can be substituted, depending on the audience and locale.

3) Perspectives. This is a role-playing exercise to demonstrate that conversations about climate change need not be conflict-ridden. In groups of three, participants take a role: speaker, responder, or observer. The speaker reads an opinion about climate change and is asked to adopt it during the exercise. The responder uses “active listening” skills to acknowledge the speaker’s perspective, ask clarifying questions to probe the perspective more fully, and is asked to express their own personal opinion. The observer notes what the responder did to reduce (or possibly increase) conflict with the speaker. After a five-minute role-play, the observer shares what s/he has seen occur. If time permits, we do a second or third round using different written perspectives. All participants then de-brief whether these conversations have been helpful in recognizing that climate change conversations can be cordial and positive, even when people may not agree.

4) Thought experiment. This section addresses the “what can I do?” feeling by giving participants a brief experience in planning a solution to a climate-related problem. One example is to design a one-week mass carpool experiment, asking 15 large Silicon Valley employers to use publicity and incentives to entice their employees to create carpools. Participants work in groups of five with the goal to demonstrate what it would look like to cut commute traffic by 50 percent for one week. They plan how to connect with company executives, develop a publicity plan, break through barriers, create motivational presentations, and document the success of the experiment. Even going through an exercise to imagine such an outlandish change gives people a sense of the possibilities they can attempt. (Ironically, thanks to Covid-19, we have experienced an even larger reduction in commute traffic during the past year, which has shown us all that significant changes in our car culture are indeed possible.)

5) Avenues for action. In this section, we invite leaders from several environmental organizations to give short presentations about their climate protection work. Each speaker shares how volunteers get involved and the focus of their efforts: tree planting, legislative advocacy, land use planning, home energy efficiency education, and more. Afterward, the organizations staff tables around the room where people can chat and sign up for more information. We also distribute an extensive list of such organizations with their websites. Lastly, we offer a personal “action planning” worksheet where people commit to at least one action they will take within a specified time frame to reduce their greenhouse emissions.

Lessons learned

1) Talking about personal experiences is essential. While learning about the annual increase in parts per million of carbon dioxide atop Mauna Loa in Hawaii is an important scientific fact, it is not as meaningful to most people as their recent experiences of storms, floods, forest fires, drought, and unbreathable smoky air. These consequences are the experiences that create the fear of climate change. Rather than blocking such discussion, we want these fears to drive community-building conversations. It’s important for people to talk about them — and discuss what they can do.

2) Assess the audience’s knowledge about climate science. You want to be sure that people understand that it comes from burning fossil fuels along with practices such as deforestation. Some information is needed about how science measures global warming, along with evidence to validate scientific conclusions and disasters predicted by “business as usual” scenarios. Referring people to more information sources is better than barraging them with data. It’s possible to spend less time on the “bad news,” by reminding people of what they already know. Pollsters find that 80 percent of Californians have a basic knowledge of climate change and agree that it is occurring.

3) The climate change topic is too complex for just one workshop. People need time to understand complex information and to practice skills like active listening and nonviolent communication. These skills require sustained learning and involvement over time. We conclude that one good approach is to offer three workshops that build upon each other: 1) Climate 101, including basic climate science, how people experience it personally, and some “good news” of successes in reducing emissions; 2) a session on listening skills followed by authentic (rather than role-playing) conversations among participants; and 3) a session offering solutions that can be undertaken at a personal, community, and national level, with time for participants to discuss them at each level.

4) Isolated people don’t form a coherent, lasting group for action. This is another reason to offer consecutive sessions as a “course.” In order to develop plans for effective action it takes time, and workshop leaders should build in reasons for people to remain engaged. Creating a pleasant social environment that gives people an opportunity to make new friends is an example. Substantial food such as lunch or dinner can also be an inducement. Giving “cliff-hangers” of information (“We’ll talk about saving a lot on your utility bills in the next session.”) can also encourage return participation. Working with established groups that have ongoing relationships may also help.

5) Sharing insights about the power of collective action can create optimism and engender a sense of efficacy. One way to do this is to give out free LED lightbulbs or “smart” power strips. By installing such energy-saving devices at their homes, participants develop an immediate sense of their power to make a difference. Participants may not know that widespread use of LED lighting has now eliminated the need for the “peaker” power plants that used to be fired up at 5:00 pm to provide electricity for turning on lights when everyone comes home. The group can compute the carbon savings if everyone puts their “freebie” lightbulbs to work — and how much more would be saved if every resident in town installed one. This demonstration of an individual’s power within the group gives a lesson that can be extended to other situations.

Conclusion: Community spread and the role of cities

While our workshops have not (yet) fulfilled our “wildest dreams” — to engender a nationwide renunciation of fossil fuels — we feel the sessions contribute to the emerging awareness that climate change is an urgent problem — and that we CAN do something about it. After every community workshop, people take home the experience and talk about it with others the next day:

  • “How was your weekend?”
  • “I went to a workshop on climate change — learned about some of the progress we’re making on carbon emissions. Do you know that electricity from solar is now less expensive than from burning coal?”

Climate change is high on the new Administration’s agenda. More people are taking action. Policies are being created at every level of government.

Cities are the one community-based institution holding responsibility for tending to everyone’s needs, and cities are uniquely positioned to take on the challenge of creating carbon reduction policies that account for the needs of varied stakeholders. Convening conversations about climate change, teaching people about what still can be done to reduce the threat, is now an essential task. Cities can undertake this incredibly important role by bringing their citizens together to address this mutual challenge, developing solutions that serve multiple interests, and creating a future where our children and grandchildren can thrive.

Geoff Ball’s decades-long career has focused on patterns and process — early computer-based pattern recognition at SRI; and then Facilitation and Using Graphics with Groups applied to Multi-party Conflict Resolution and Consensus Building — mostly in Palo Alto, Lake Tahoe, and Northern California, with emphasis on the public sector. He holds a PhD in electrical engineering (pattern recognition) and a BA from Harvard University. You can reach him at geoffhball@gmail.com.

Debbie Mytels recently retired from a long career working on environmental issues where she engaged volunteers in community efforts (such as starting a commercial district recycling project), established a long-running awards program for businesses with innovative sustainability efforts, developed an environmental leadership training program, and launched a home energy-saving project that served thousands of residents in 11 Silicon Valley cities. She has a bachelor’s degree in social psychology from UC Berkeley. You can reach her at debbie.mytels@gmail.com.

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