We’ve been there, most of us. Thanksgiving dinner, lots of family including many you don’t see very often, and at some point somebody says something so terrible, you feel like you have to respond. Maybe it’s about global warming, and you’re a young climate activist (thank you!). Here’s my advice.
#1: You Don’t Have To
I was at Thanksgiving dinner at my wife’s parents’ house, along with her brother, sisters, spouses, kids, and grampa. Grampa is not a bad guy — he was in his 90s by then, and was a WWII veteran (fought in Patton’s army). Like many families at Thanksgiving, we decided to watch a football game. Like most, it begins with the singing of the national anthem. The singer is a black woman. That’s when grampa complains, because, he says, everybody knows “black women can’t sing.”
I felt two instincts: one, to laugh out loud in the most derisive fashion; two, to scream “Aretha!!!” at the top of my lungs (if you don’t know who Aretha is, google it — it’s worth finding out). Fortunatey, my sister-in-law simply said, “Oh grampy, you’re so silly!” Situation defused, useless argument avoided.
Maybe you’re a young climate activist, your mom and dad are climate activists, your brother is a poli-sci major focusing on climate issues and your sister is a grad student studying climate science. Only “drunk uncle” doesn’t get it — so you don’t have to respond. A simple, “Oh uncle, you’re so silly!” is probably best. Let your family enjoy Thanksgiving in peace.
#2: Be Polite and Respectful, and Stay Calm
There’s an old saying, that when you argue with an idiot nobody can tell who’s the idiot. That’s even more true for a shouting-match. If, however, drunk uncle is loud, obnoxious, and abusive while you are calm, rational, and polite, it helps avoid strife at the dinner table and it makes your claims so much more persuasive. You might not think so at the time, but it does.
There’s also the fact that Thanksgiving is not about climate change. It’s about family. Maybe you really do “need” to respond, not to let things go unchallenged, but you don’t have to be angry.
Staying calm is perhaps most important. Never forget that one of the ways climate deniers get their way is to make you lose control. Stay in control.
#3: Be Honest
Totally honest. Don’t make up stuff. Don’t claim what you don’t know. Always remember that a perfectly good answer to a question is: “I don’t know.”
#4: Know Your Audience
When you respond to something provocative from “drunk uncle,” be aware that you aren’t talking for him. To him, maybe, but not for him. You’re talking for the other people. Your 11-year-old cousin who is genuinely afraid of climate change. Your other cousin, who’s not sure. Your aunt who thinks it’s a Chinese plot. These are the people you might actually influence — not drunk uncle.
Are they conservatives? Instead of talking about being eco-friendly to mother earth, talk about the economy — that man-made climate change is already making it harder. Talk about national security, how global warming is a severe threat according to, oh, how about the pentagon and the military?
Are they liberal? Instead of talking national security, talk about how it will impact the poor most of all. And yes, feel free to sing the praises of taking care of mother earth.
Are they evangelical Christians? Mention that God himself told us to take good care of his garden. We might have “dominion” over the earth, but that only means we’re caretakers, not owners. It’s God’s earth, not ours.
#5: Know Your Facts
How much has planet Earth warmed since 1900? (About 1.1°C = 2°F). What’s the current level of CO2 in the atmosphere? (About 407 ppm=parts per million). How fast is it rising? (About 2.5 ppm/year). What’s the scientific consensus that climate change is real, man-made, and dangerous? (About 97%). When drunk uncle spouts nonsense, and you have the facts and figures at your fingertips, you win.
You don’t have to learn it all. But the more you know, the more persuasive you’ll be. Learn it ahead of time; nothing makes you look more “out-of-control” than leaving the table to google the facts.
#6: Give Hope
It’s easy to talk about what we can’t do, what we can’t avoid. That turns people off. Talk about what we can do. Talk about the benefits of renewable energy — both climate-wise and economic. This is especially true if your 11-year-old cousin is so afraid she cries about her future. SHE needs hope … show her you’re not going to let her down.
#7: It’s the simple things that take your breath away
I was at a diner having breakfast with my wife. It wasn’t crowded at all, but at the next table was a man talking loudly about how the new tax bill to fund education was just more of the “take my hard-earned money” liberal nonsense. Rather than argue, all I said (just loud enough to be heard) was this:
Mark Twain said, “Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail.”
The effect was miraculous. Suddenly the complainer wanted more funding for education! You had to be there to believe how effective it was. And there was no angry argument.
That kind of saying isn’t easy to find (unless you’re Mark Twain). But when you find one, use it.
#8: Know When to Quit
Let drunk uncle be the one who won’t shut up about the subject. Keep it short, keep it to the point, and when you’ve made your point, stop. It’s way more effective. And don’t forget, Thanksgiving dinner is about the love of family.
There’s my advice. I hope it serves you well.
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