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Having the Climate Talk with Your Parents

Talking politics with our parents – it’s a struggle we’ve all had to deal with. Whether it’s addressing women’s rights, arguing about racial injustice or disputing social inequality, it’s rarely an easy task.

Sometimes, I think that older generations got the easy way out with only one awkward topic to discuss with their parents.

We, on the other hand, are the ones that have to champion social and political change, and to call our families out on their problematic beliefs. Because if we don’t, it’s on us to live with the consequences.

Few topics demonstrate this generational gap better than environmentalism. Statistics show that while 70% of young people worry about climate change, this number drops down to just about 56% for people over 55.

The good news is that intergenerational learning – that is, the transfer of knowledge from children to parents – seems to be one of the most effective ways to counter this dynamic.

Even better, the positive impact of children talking about the environment seems to be the strongest among male and conservative parents (who are also the group with the lowest level of environmental concern).

While this sounds promising, one important question remains – namely, how exactly do we go about discussing climate change with our families? The answer to this will vary greatly per person, as we all come from different backgrounds – I have friends that grew up in conservative households, as well as ones whose parents do yoga and eat vegan.

Even so, most of us will invariably have the topic of environmentalism come up at the dinner table at some point. It might be because our parents are climate change non-believers, or just because they are woefully misguided in their efforts – like my mom, when she informed me that her and my father are practically vegetarians now... all the while eating her fourth beef patty of that week.

Take the roundabout way

This first approach is especially useful when dealing with parents that are either new or particularly averse to the idea of environmentalism.

When talking to senior family members, using highly politicized terms such as ‘climate change’ can make them defensive before you’ve even had the chance to make your point. People’s views on loaded topics such as climate change are often shaped by deep-rooted beliefs such as (conservative) political ideology, culture and socio-economic background.

This is why in her study, Lawson suggests that kids avoid using the phrase ‘climate change’ when first talking to their parents, and opt for presenting ecological facts and suggestions instead.

For example, instead of hitting your family with an elaborate pitch on the importance of veganism, try saying something along the lines of “Do you know that having just one portion of meat less per week can save up to 2 tonnes of water?”. Alternatively, you can give them direct suggestions, such as “Why don’t we take public transport instead of driving to the theater tonight?”.

What this does is it shifts your parents’ thinking from “Why care about climate change?” to “Why not try implementing small changes to help the environment?”.

This way you give them simple actionable items to try, as opposed to questioning their whole worldview. Ultimately, this creates a much more accessible and less daunting entry point that opens up the door for further discussion.

This approach might feel like you’re compromising your morals or weakening your stance, but remember that ultimately, it’s better to take baby steps than to remain stuck. People often feel averse to things they don’t understand, and this also holds true when it comes to our parents and environmentalism. It is highly likely that – once you have eased them into some eco-friendly ways of living – your family will be open to learn more and improve.

Learn to speak their language Due to the difficult economic past of my home country Bulgaria, people there often see environmentalism as frivolous and a sign that “you don’t have bigger things to worry about” (the idea here being that only those who don’t have to think about earning money can ‘afford’ to care about the environment).

Depending on where in the world you are from, your parents might carry a similar historical, political or economic baggage. And – while such logic is fundamentally flawed – merely arguing against it won’t necessarily help us bridge the gap between our generation and theirs.

What can help is learning to speak in terms that make sense to even the most pragmatic of minds. Luckily, environmentalism isn’t only great for the planet – it’s also great for us and the economy.

For example, if you want to stop your parents from supporting fast fashion, you can mention the violation of human rights that’s involved in the production process. Some people don’t feel touched by the idea of negative environmental impact, but relating the problem to fellow humans can get them on board.

Similarly, you can try pointing out the economic benefits of plant-based eating – research shows that a large-scale shift to veganism in the US alone would free up enough natural resources to feed 350 million extra people.

Keep at it

Beliefs rarely change overnight, so persistence is key when talking environmentalism with our parents. We all know how, when a family member says something problematic for the umpteenth time (Hi, uncles at family gatherings!), we are tempted to just let it slide.

While this sense of annoyance and exhaustion is completely understandable, it’s important to find it in us to defend our position.

Progress is made in baby steps, so every little effort counts. Every time you talk to your family about climate change, or give them eco-friendly tips, you introduce them to new ways of thinking. Our parents weren’t raised with the same environmental awareness as we were, so changing their mindsets is bound to take time.

You can also lead by example. Last time I went to grab a coffee with my mom, I got us both almond milk lattes (she usually has hers with dairy milk). Luckily, she liked it (Hooray!) and is now aware that there is a more eco-friendly alternative to her favorite drink.

Small instances like these can help us introduce our families to environmentalism without being preachy. The goal here is to normalize eco-friendly living – try bringing your parents to a flea market, cook them a vegan dinner, or get them reusable shopping bags.

Ultimately, this kind of sustained effort can show even the hardest of sceptics that environmentalism isn’t frivolous, impractical or reserved for hippies – instead, it’s accessible, fun, and vital for both ourselves and the planet.


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