Talk the Talk: How Conversations Can be the Most Effective Tool Against Climate Change

By Michelle Probst, Natural Resources Educator

The reality check we didn’t know we needed about how close climate change is to us came in the dose of reports released by the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Didn’t get a chance to read them? I don’t blame you; the full IPCC report is over 3,000 pages long. But, before we dive into the results of these reports, let’s talk about who these two entities are:

Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) is a statewide collaboration of scientists and stakeholders to provide information on the impacts of climate change in Wisconsin and define solutions and strategies to address these impacts. WICCI first came together in 2007 and WICCI looks at the impacts on air, land, water, built environment, and people. 

The Intergovernmental Pannel of Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nations body that provides regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and solutions for climate change. This group brings together experts from around the world.

Both reports are clear–climate change is happening, and humans are the cause. In fact, 80% of Dane county residents believe that climate change is happening. However, only 49% of people in Dane county believe that climate change will harm them personally.

So why do we think climate change will not affect us? Well, perhaps it’s because images of climate change impacts often focus on wildlife fires out west, polar bears with no ice to stand on, and excessive heat and drought in India—impacts that are geographically distant. When these issues are physically distanced from us, they are also mentally distanced from us and prevent us from acting on climate change. The recent report from WICCI helps bring light to the fact that climate change is happening right here in Wisconsin. So, what is happening to our climate here in Wisconsin, and specifically in Dane county? WICCI reported the following:

Wisconsin’s average daily temperature has become three degrees Fahrenheit warmer since 1950. Warming is happening fastest in the winter and at night. These warmer winters can lead to higher precipitation, which has increased by over 20% since 1950.

The last two decades have been the warmest on record, and the past decade has been the wettest—with southern Wisconsin experiencing the highest increase in precipitation. Anyone who lived in Dane county in August 2018, can attest to this. At that time, areas in Western Dane County received 11-15 inches of rain in a 24 hour period.

I can remember looking out my window on August 20, 2018 in complete awe. How can this much rain be coming down? While I’ve never lived through a hurricane, at the time, I felt like I was living in one. And I live on the east side of Madison, so I wasn’t even seeing the worst of it. Family from all over the state and country were reaching out to me making sure I was okay after hearing about the extreme rainfall and flooding in Dane county. Seeing the damage of our beloved communities and people in Dane county was heartbreaking.

Extreme events are already causing immense impacts across the state, and the frequency of those events will generally increase. This is beyond just extreme rainfall — high heat, winds, droughts and extreme cold have increased in frequency and severity over the past decades.

My first job when I turned 16 was a lifeguard at my local pool in southeastern Wisconsin. We would always gear up for the warm sunny days, knowing that many people would be using the pool. There were always a few days throughout the summer that were forecasted to reach 90 degrees when we would be prepared for people to come in masses to cool off. Now, I think about more recent summers where it seems like we have multiple days in a row that are over 90 degrees. I think of the fact that I grew up in a house without air conditioning, and now I would consider air conditioning a necessity in my home.

Maybe as you read this, you are reflecting on your own experiences and thinking about the changes we are seeing from climate change.

You may also be thinking, Yes, but what can I do to stop climate change? The events and experiences that I described above may have you feeling hopeless in the fight to stop climate change. I am here to get you out of that hopelessness, and get you to action! 

The most important thing we can do to address climate change is talk about it with others. This seems like such a simple action, but it’s something we aren’t currently doing. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, only 43% of people in Dane county talk about climate change occasionally, compared to 33% across Wisconsin. Unfortunately, climate change is something that has become politically charged, so we typically try to avoid it in conversations. Talking about climate change doesn’t mean referencing the latest peer-reviewed journal article. Talking about climate change means talking about your experience as a human on this planet—something we all have in common. 350.org provides resources on how to have conversations about climate change: 

Find someone that shares similar values as you. Maybe you live in the same community, work at the same place, or enjoy the same activities. Whatever it is, find something that you both can connect on. Odds are, you know many people who believe climate change is happening, and it can affect the same thing you both enjoy.  

LISTEN. Ask about their own experiences of climate change. Getting local can help, for example, I would ask my fellow Dane county residents about their experience with the extreme rainfall in August 2018. After you ask about their experience, listen, and make them feel comfortable in channeling their feelings.

Speak to lived experience. This is where you share your story, don’t jump to sharing data, talk about how climate change has impacted you directly, talk about how these experiences make you feel. This experience will help create connection.  

Give them hope & action. While talking about climate change can seem all doom & gloom—give them hope—victories happen when people come together. Join a local climate organization near you or commit to an action together. Want some actions? Sustain Dane has a comprehensive list of individual climate actions you can take. 

As we are approaching Earth Day, make a commitment to have a conversation about climate change with someone you don’t normally discuss this with. It could be a co-worker, a friend, a neighbor, however you know the person, talk about climate change with them. The more we talk about climate change, the more we feel connected to the issue and the people around us. This connection can help us move forward together in combating climate change and creating a better world for our future generations. 

Learn more:

Wisconsin’s changing climate: Impacts and solutions for a warmer climate. 2021. Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts. Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Madison, Wisconsin. 

Dane County Office of Energy & Climate Change—Climate Action Plan. This plan was published in 2020 and provides a road-map to achieve ambitious climate goals and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% countywide by 2030 and carbon-neutral by 2050.