Dave (right) with Helena Montana’s Mayor Wilmot Collins.

As part of our Independent Challenge program, Dave Morris toured from Missoula, Montana through Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, California and Oregon ahead of the UN Climate Summit (COP26) last fall. He collected stories and thoughts on climate change from locals all along the way and learned a lot about climate change conversations.

Dave offered to share his thoughts on how to talk about climate change with the Climate Ride community. His experiences can help all Climate Riders talk about these issues.

If you want to talk to Dave, you can to reach out to him on his website: www.climatecouragetour.org.

Here’s Dave:

Talking about climate change may be the biggest individual step we can take toward climate stability. Our personal actions, such as cycling instead of driving, matter to a degree, but constitute only a small part of the solutions we need. Collective action is essential, and the best way to open minds and motivate action is to have engaging conversations about climate issues.

Last fall (2021) I rode 2,000 miles around the Western U.S. talking to people about climate issues ahead of the COP26 U.N. climate summit. Throughout that ride I challenged myself to get past my discomfort and talk to all sorts of people about climate change. Here are some things I learned:

Bike touring is a great platform for talking about climate. Firstly, bike tourers are using carbon-free transportation to travel long distances. That shows very directly that alternatives to fossil fuels work! The determination (and hopefully joy) we show in cycling across states or continents is quite impressive, and becomes even more so if your motive is to fight climate change. By touring you are putting yourself on the line in meaningful ways that give you credibility, even among climate skeptics.

People in towns or along the road would often ask me about my bike tour – the standard “where-from and where-to” questions. I’d lay out my logistics and chat about the landscapes and communities I’d visited. Then I’d ask where they were from, and try to build connections between our places and interests. Somewhere along that line I’d add that I was talking to people about climate change all along my route. Then I’d ask my favorite question, “What do people where you’re from think about climate issues?”

That question allowed my new acquaintance some personal distance from their answer – since I wasn’t asking about their own opinion. But it usually led to a pretty clear discussion of our personal ideas and experiences with climate issues. Following a reporter’s advice, I took a journalistic approach to these conversations: asking questions aimed at fully understanding my new friend’s experiences and ideas. Showing genuine interest was essential to getting real perspectives on the thorny issues of climate change.

The proper overall goal in these conversations is to learn from people, NOT to “educate” them. People reliably double down on their existing beliefs when they feel attacked (i.e. “educated”). By contrast, when I have made a real connection, people tend to return that respect and ask about my climate experiences and opinions. I had plenty of climate impacts to share from the tour and from my home (e.g. fire, drought, and storms). If asked I’d explain my deeper reasons for the tour, and provide some reliable resources for climate information and action.

It was good to have some climate experiences ready to go, especially ones that connected to our shared interests. Knowing some basic, and very solidly sourced, climate data was also helpful. Obviously, it’s important not to be drawn into debates about abstract theories and murky conspiracies on any side. Stick to what you know personally as much as possible, and seek that kind of information from your new friend.

I was constantly surprised by how much people knew about climate issues and the ideas they shared about what could and should be done. When I approached people expecting to learn something interesting they quite often provided insights that I would never have suspected. My stereotypes about climate attitudes were often delightfully shredded, and I was deeply grateful for that.

To show thanks to my new friends, I had some bike stickers with a fun logo and my website address printed up before I left on the tour. I handed these out generously as a way to make a stronger connection and to invite them to stay in contact. The website has links to resources and groups working hard on climate issues at many scales. Everyone needs to see direct ways to act on climate change – otherwise it can simply be too overwhelming.

To my pleasant surprise, none of my conversations got angry and the vast majority were enjoyable. That’s not because of any great skill on my part, but because humans are profoundly social and generally want to be liked and respected. Outside of anonymous and highly partisan arenas, we really care what others think of us. It’s important to use these basic social desires to move people toward action on climate change. Fear of awkwardness and conflict stops countless climate conversations before they start – but if we get past that fear we find far more tolerance and goodwill than we expect.

Conversations are certainly not the ONLY good thing we can do for the climate while bike touring. Fundraising for climate groups is great, and sharing motivational stories with your friends in the climate-action-choir is important. But I think all Climate Riders should also set concrete goals for climate conversations on their tours, and beyond that for when they get back home. Sharing what we learn in these conversations also can motivate others to start talking about climate issues on their own. That’s a truly virtuous cycle.

Most people in the U.S. have never had a real conversation about climate change with a stranger – and certainly not someone they think they might disagree with. As climate-driven bike tourers we can make these kinds of connections across boundaries. I left every conversation on my tour with a smile and often a handshake, feeling that I’d opened a door into an expanding space of positive possibilities for our shared climate.

Quick Summary:

Use the interest and generosity people often show bike tourers to make initial connections.

Build that connection by learning about their home places, work, and travel.

Mention that you are riding to learn about climate questions and solutions.

Ask what people in their community think about climate issues. Follow where that conversation leads, investigating what they personally have experienced and believe.

Be ready to explain some climate impacts you have seen at home and on the road. Why are you so concerned? What makes you hopeful? Have some experiences to share and a few uncontroversial data points to back them up.

Bring some small gift to share, like a bike sticker, that includes links to your organization or blog. That way they can stay in touch and find ways to get involved in climate action.

Share what you learn in these climate conversations with others. That will inspire more conversations, and inform and inspire better actions toward climate stability.

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