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Race, Religion & Social Justice

Nature Conservancy in Utah says climate change conversation at Christmas is necessary

A photo of a family gathered around a table in festive Christmas wear.
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Nature Conservancy in Utah calls for climate change chats at Christmas gatherings.

Having a “merry little Christmas” will be tough — if not impossible — for many this year.

Tornadoes possibly fueled by climate change ravaged Kentucky and nearby states killing scores and leaving a path of destruction. Here in Utah, despite recent snowfall, the snowpack isn’t where experts say it should be, and drought conditions are alarming.

Yet, the holiday season is here, and as people gather — do they really want to talk about it — or is it just impossible to ignore? The Nature Conservancy says people are concerned, but they aren’t having climate change chats.

Megan Nelson is their Utah Director of Policy, and she joined KUER’s Pamela McCall with advice on having the tough conversation with family and friends.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela McCall: A recent Yale study found that seven in 10 Americans believe climate change is happening, and two-thirds are worried about it. Yet more than half of Americans rarely, if ever, talk about climate change with their families and friends. Tell us more about that.

Megan Nelson: It's hard to talk about. People are scared. Outcomes of climate change are generally negative. And so when we get together with friends and family, usually we won't talk about bad things

PM: If we don't want to talk about climate change on a random weekday, why should we want to have a discussion about it during the holidays?

MN: You know, it's a good time. You can relate family adventures or outings or memories to things that have been changed through climate change. Did you used to go skiing every Thanksgiving and now sometimes the resorts aren't open? When you went up to your cabin, was the river always flowing and now it's very low?

PM: How do we talk about those things during the holidays without bringing everyone down?

Megan Nelson: It's a great question. First, you need to be genuine. You really want to come to it wanting to know what other people think about it and what they understand. You need to approach them where they are. Second, you want to really make those connections instead of debating facts. This is a personal thing. It's a people thing. It's not a political thing. You also want to talk about what's happening now. Sometimes climate change can seem really abstract because it's very far out there, but there are things around us every day that are very personal and we can relate to. I like to say that there are preschool rules. It's just like on the playground. Treat others as you want to be treated. Don't interrupt people. Use your inside voice and remember that this is someone you already have a connection with.

PM: Holiday dinners for some people can be difficult at the best of times. How do we then broach climate change with some people who don't think that it's actually happening?

MN: I think there are words you can use that are very much safe words. "Drought" is one of them. I think, this year, everybody in the state can agree. We had a drought. Part of it was amplified by climate change. We've seen an increase in temperatures, we've seen dry soils, and we've seen less and less winter snowpack. You talk about drought. That is the thing everyone can relate to. Similarly with wildfires. There were a lot of days this summer where we had smoke from states three states away. That is not a common thing, but unfortunately it's becoming more normal. So you can begin by talking about drought and wildfires and then eventually get to climate change.

PM: Is it still something we want to talk about while we're sitting around having our turkey and cranberries?

MN: I think so. I think especially when we face the impacts of this already. This is not something out in the future. A poll that we did here in Utah said that two-thirds of the state believe climate change is happening. And so a lot of times we have these assumptions of what people believe, and I think there's a lot more commonality between us than differences on some of these issues.

PM: And if we do have those conversations, as you recommend, what's possible and hopeful in terms of both what the Nature Conservancy is doing and what individuals and families can do to alter the course we're on?

MN: We need everything from personal individual action, like talking with friends and family, which hopefully leads to personal changes, all the way up to demonstration projects like we do in the state on water and agricultural lands to take them to scale to help with mitigation and adaptation, all the way up to policy.

PM: What's your Christmas wish in terms of people gathering and talking about climate change or, as you say, perhaps starting with the term drought?

MN: I really hope that this is something that begins this year and doesn't stop. And that, this Christmas, maybe this can be the first time you talk about it, but, as we begin to gather safely and more often, that conversation continues.

PM: And if things get testy, maybe just park it until a later date?

MN: Or bring out the pumpkin pie. That is always a crowd pleaser.

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