That Suffocating Silence
It’s October 2022, and I can’t sleep.
A third of Pakistan is underwater. An area approximately the size of the UK is completely submerged. This year, the sweltering heat sees homes in London, streets away from mine, go up in flames. The night air is filled with smoke and sirens. Across the country – the continent – rivers dry up; cascades reduced to parched trickles.
Awake and afraid, I trace, again and again, my mental footpaths towards catastrophe. What on earth are we doing? Why hasn’t anyone noticed? How can we think about anything else?
And yet, waking in the morning, instead of hearing these late-night terrors broadcast on the front pages of the newspapers, I find only the royal family, the football, and the news that my Prime Minister will not be attending COP because he wants to focus on “pressing domestic commitments”.
If we are to trust that most elusive concept, “the data”, climate concern among the British public has never been higher. In October 2022, three quarters of adults told the Office for National Statistics they were “concerned” about the impact of climate change, making it the second highest concern in the UK. In August, 90% of young people said they felt concerned or very concerned about climate change. Yet despite widespread acceptance that climate change is happening – and that it’s a terrifying prospect – a strange silence persists.
Despite our high levels of climate anxiety, only three in ten young people talk to their friends about the emergency. Even (especially?) in my leftist, vegetarian, Guardian-reading friendship group, the conversation is far more likely to turn to UK politics, inequality, gender, holidays or work than it is to the tidal wave facing our species – even though, of course, climate change is intimately connected to all those things. Meanwhile, the barrage of banality filling our screens, feeds and newspapers seems methodically insistent on talking about something, anything, else. “Never”, wrote George Monbiot in the midst of the sweltering heatwave, “has a silence been so loud and so resonant”. His words, backlit on my web browser, were nestled among banner advertisements for long-haul flights.
The barrage of banality filling our screens, feeds and newspapers seems methodically insistent on talking about something, anything, else
This poses several questions. Is the silence a problem? If so, is talking more about climate change the solution? And is it possible (or desirable) to speak about the crisis without lapsing into despair or blame?
The Cost of Censorship
Let’s start with the first. Is this silence a problem? Well, yes.
Without rational, empathetic dialogue about the climate emergency, we become trapped in a cycle of pluralistic ignorance. This concept describes our tendency to wrongly perceive other people’s attitudes as different to our own, even when they are not. In the case of student drinking, students perceive their peers to be more comfortable with excessive drinking than they themselves are, even though these peers privately hold the same view. The same phenomenon has been applied to climate change, to explain both why many of us don’t have climate-related conversations (we wrongly believe others to be less concerned than we are) and why this becomes self-reinforcing (because this collective self-silencing contributes to the appearance that nobody cares).
Pluralistic ignorance is a barrier to action on a mass scale. People tend to shift their attitudes, and their behaviours, towards the perceived norm (in this case, doing little or nothing). Providing information about the real beliefs and behaviours of others reverses these effects. And hearing people you trust – your friends, family or loved ones – contradict your perceived status quo may have an even greater impact on behaviour. Mass public support does not automatically lead governments to implement radical climate policies, but it’s hard to see how such policies could ever come about without a social mandate. And because politicians and business leaders also live in the world (many perhaps only a few degrees of separation from you); also have friends and family and dinner conversations, an atmosphere of climate dialogue may well permeate their consciousness in more indirect ways, too.
Big Oil has known this for years. The deafening silence around climate change is not a ‘natural fact’. It is an explicit goal of many of the world’s most powerful institutions. Over the past few decades, fossil fuel companies have spent billions on PR to dilute, downplay and distract from the climate emergency. They know that controlling the public narrative matters. Silence stifles systemic change. But it has other costs, too. One is loneliness, caused by the sense that those you love do not share your fear, your guilt, your anger – or even know that it exists. At its extreme, this gap between your reality and other people’s behaviour can feel like a form of insanity.
For me, talking is a reminder that I’m not going mad, as I lie awake in my stuffy bedroom and contemplate whether it’s wrong to have children. It helps me find allies, who will come to protests with me and make silly banners and shout, and then go for a drink afterwards, because, really, what else are we supposed to do? Sometimes just having it out there, on the table, seems to clear space within all the superficial joviality for a more honest form of joy, a joy that is not denial but determination, that says: “I have looked this in the face and chosen not to let it overcome me, not today.” And seeing – sometimes, enough – how it does change days, minds, behaviour, gives me the strength to keep going.
Fossil fuel companies have spent billions to dilute, downplay and distract from the climate emergency
Is it always good to talk?
Talking regularly about climate change is one tactic for accelerating climate action. But what is its effect on us? Some researchers advocate for the benefits of “cathartic conversations” to validate people’s feelings and foster community sentiment. Talking about climate change can be a way of connecting with those you love, nourishing yourself and fuelling your action. But for some, discussing the emergency brings nothing but frustration and fear – whether due to painful experiences, the nature of your relationships, or simply your current emotional bandwidth.
I sometimes find it helpful to ask myself what I’m actually looking to achieve with this sort of discussion. Too often, I catch myself believing that if my conversational partner does not unconditionally surrender to my point of view, the discussion has been a failure. But putting less weight on the outcome of the conversation and more on its mere existence can be liberating. Even if somebody vehemently disagrees with your perspective, your conversation may be the most that person has thought about climate change in years. Your very presence could challenge their belief that everyone feels the same way they do. And on a personal level, just breaking the silence is an act of resistance – of love, even – against the alienation that ensues when two people perceive reality so differently.
Just breaking the silence is an act of resistance, of love
That said, if you continue to find every conversation painful and exhausting, consider this permission to put your energy somewhere else. Part of the strangeness of this crisis is that, as well as being witnesses and perpetrators of it, we are all victims too. Genuine self-care that recognises our own limits as well as our power will become ever more necessary in the coming years. Whilst we do need a net increase in climate conversations, they don’t have to come from you. Taking visible action may be just as effective as talking in combatting pluralistic ignorance. And if you’re thinking of exploring the subtle art of climate talk, you could always test the conversational water with a climate therapy professional – some of whom even offer free sessions – or in a held space like a Climate Cafe.
So what about those of us who want desperately to talk, but cannot? Many things might stand in our way – struggling to find the “right words”, or the fear of being ostracised or ridiculed. Research by Climate Outreach, a British NGO focussed on climate communications, found that the most cited reason for not speaking about climate change is not knowing what to do about it – at least on an individual level. Faced with the prospect that we as individuals can do nothing to change our circumstances, the situation becomes overwhelming – and we lapse into silence.
If this is you, I deeply empathise. I spend large swathes of my life in a sort of reluctant complicity with friends’ and relatives’ business as usual, conscious that any dire pronouncements on the weather would invariably end in “but what can we do”? Acknowledging the overwhelm explicitly can help, and a blind insistence on simple solutions will often ring hollow. But the same research found that people who were taking some action, however small, found it easier to start climate conversations. Discussions that end with an invitation to become part of the collective effort against the crisis – move your money, reduce your meat consumption, join an environmental group or just continue the conversation with others – are more likely to feel constructive and positive (try our ‘Just Do It’ section for ideas).
A blind insistence on simple solutions will often ring hollow
What if, instead, your fear is that of appearing sanctimonious? Friends and family who know me as a climate campaigner are invariably convinced I’m judging their choices even when I’m not. So is it too much to hope that a climate conversation might be free of guilt and defensiveness? Personally, I’ve found that sharing your own struggles can go a long way. Whilst it’s helpful to show you are to some degree acting in line with your values, none of us is living an environmentally weightless life (nor would it “solve” climate change if we were).
Finding common ground, however difficult that feels, can also divert the conversation away from blame. In the UK, certain values have almost universal resonance: protecting future generations, creating a healthier society and preserving the countryside. Beginning with these and moving from there towards more concrete actions can sometimes transcend oppositional ‘argument’ dynamics.
Climate Outreach’s handbook covers these issues and more, and is designed to help people have more effective climate conversations. It is particularly useful for navigating discussions outside your immediate echo chamber – with older family members, for instance. Whilst such conversations can sometimes feel futile, there is good evidence that egalitarian interactions between politically opposed groups can reduce polarisation and improve both groups’ understanding of climate change.
Seeds of Possibility
The question that concerns me most in all this – the one that comes back most frequently and robs me of most sleep – is that of time. Conversations, like any hopeful gesture towards change, are seeds. They might fall on barren ground, or they might grow beyond our wildest imaginings. But is it too late for scattering seeds, when so much is at stake?
The answer that I have come to is this: it is not either/or. Conversation keeps me accountable, spurs me to act and finds me friends to do it with. And when so much seems hopeless, it keeps alive a belief in the possibility that things might change; that seeds might fall on fertile ground, and bloom.