Cousin Marcus is a Skeptic: 4 ways to deal when climate science and family collide

Picture this. Your family is all gathered around the fireplace after a long and joyous evening of food, board games, and snowball fights. Your cousin Marcus mentions seeing a picture of your club’s eco-fashion show on Facebook. He then tells everyone that climate change is a hoax.

Or how about this one? You’ve just finished eating, when your Aunt Eliza throws a plastic bottle into the garbage can. When you mention that plastic is recyclable, she laughs, rolls her eyes and calls you a tree-hugger.

What to do? You love Cousin Marcus and Aunt Eliza, but you really don’t agree with them. How do you deal when perspectives clash?

Here’s 4 ways to keep your cool during heated discussions this winter break:

- Stay calm. This one is huge. It may sound really simple, but keeping a level head while someone else is getting emotional can be very difficult. Remember to breathe and don’t let your emotions get the better of you. If you start to feel upset, take a minute before you respond. If all else fails, it’s always ok to say “I want to talk to you about this more. Could I have a moment to think before we continue?”

- Respectfully disagree.
You don’t have to always agree with adults. But you do have to be respectful. It might be tempting to get upset and yell when you disagree with someone, but it will only make her more loyal to her opinion. The question here that you need to ask yourself is, “Do I want to win? Or do I want to discuss and educate?” (Hint—the answer should be “discuss and educate.”) And absolutely no name-calling!

- Ask for more info.
Instead of defending your point of view, you can choose to explore his. I know it may be tempting to jump into a rehearsed defense of the environmental movement. Thanks to the ACE Assembly, you now know all the facts and figures about climate change. The thing is, sometimes the science isn’t enough to convince someone. Instead of telling him why you think you’re right, try to find out why he think he’s right! Often, when people respond strongly to a topic, they’re actually defending a value they think is being challenged. Here are two values that commonly motivate skepticism:

- Concerns about jobs and the economy. If this comes up, you can gently mention that there are more people in the solar industry than in coal mining. Also mentioning the fact that Americans have always been on the forefront of the latest technology, but when it comes to renewable fuel sources, we’re allowing other countries to take the lead.

- Concerns about individual liberties.
Freedom is an important value in American culture, and it matters to everyone—environmentalists and climate skeptics alike. When someone mentions that the government is using climate change as a way to get power over individuals, you can tell her that personal liberty means a lot to you too. And for you, this includes the freedom to drink clean water, play outside without breathing in smog, or even just enjoy our nation’s beautiful natural scenery. Even Republican Former President Teddy Roosevelt was a conservationist!

Be positive. Environmentalists can get a bad reputation for being Debbie Downers. Even if the science is backing you up, no one wants to feel like they’re personally responsible for wrecking the planet. People believe that they are basically good (and they are!), so presenting them with information that contradicts this idea can send them into a tizzy. The technical term for this is called “cognitive dissonance.” Generally speaking, cognitive dissonance alone isn’t the best way to convince people to take action. More likely, it’s going to make them get defensive, fearful, or apathetic. To avoid triggering a negative reaction, make sure you talk about all the awesome things people are doing in their communities that make a positive financial, health, and environmental impact!

In closing, enjoy your winter break and don’t sweat tough climate science conversations with Cousin Marcus and Aunt Eliza. Just remember that when met with curiosity, even potential conflicts can turn into an opportunity to discuss, learn, and grow!

Have you ever had an encounter with a skeptical relative? What’s worked for you? Comment below!