Discussing Climate Change with Family

 Feb 1, 2016    by Nina Orellana

Climate change is often a polarizing and controversial topic. It is a heavily politicized issue that should be avoided at all costs during the infamous holiday dinner - or so I’ve been advised. And yet, somehow I got it into my head that I wanted to have an honest and open conversation about climate change with my family members last month. In part I wanted to have this conversation because I have a personal interest in understanding what the Hispanic population knows and how they feel about climate change--I am proudly half Salvadoreña, with my father being born in El Salvador and then immigrating to the United States, so this is a question that really hits home for me. I went into this conversation with my family with no expectations and no hidden agenda. I simply wanted to hear what they thought and felt.  

To get started, I compiled a list of questions that I thought would give me a nice overall view of my family’s perspective on climate change. I asked questions about whether they think climate change is happening, what or who they think is causing it and more generally how they are feeling about the issue. My main goal was to uncover their thoughts and feelings. I also wanted to know whether certain factors--such as where they live now versus where they grew up, their ties to El Salvador, and their personal experiences--might be particularly influential in shaping how they think about climate change.  My focus was the Hispanic side of my family, and I chose four individuals to interview.

What do they think of when they hear the words climate change?

I gave each of my interviewees an excerpt from an article featured in the Climate and Development Knowledge Network about El Salvador and climate change, and asked what they thought about the statement: “El Salvador faces acute vulnerability to climate disasters. According to the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, almost 90% of its land area is at risk from such events, 95% of its population live in risk zones and 96% of its gross domestic product (GDP) is produced in risk zones. In three years alone, climate-related events caused losses and damage amounting to US$1.3 billion. The nation’s annual GDP is around US$23 billion.”

For my family who moved from El Salvador and now live in the United States, I asked for their thoughts on differences between the politics of climate change in the two countries. I also asked them questions about whether they felt they could make a difference, if they feel they had experienced climate change, where they get their information on climate change, and if they felt they had enough resources to learn and do more about the threat of climate change.  

There were a couple of interesting themes that I noticed being repeated throughout the interviews. The divide between the younger and older interviewees was clear. Both of the women I interviewed, who are in their mid-twenties, say that climate change is happening now and is anthropogenic. They also seemed to have a good idea of what climate change is and that the recent increase in natural disasters can be attributed to it.

Costa de Sol, El Salvador. Photo: N. Orellana

Both of the men I interviewed, in contrast,were unsure as to what climate change is, or if it even exists. When I said the word climate change, you could almost feel the tension in the room. I could attribute this to a couple of different reasons. They may have felt embarrassed to not know exactly what climate change is, or they may have felt uncomfortable expressing their opinion on something that they didn’t know much about. Both asked me questions about climate change, as well as my personal opinions on the subject. I was happy to give them information and was also surprised at their interest. The conversation  became an equal exchange of ideas. In the end, they both felt more informed on the topic and I think they took climate change a little more seriously than they had when we started. It is important to note that all my family members said they received most of their information on climate change from social media, or else the nightly news.    

Almost everyone I talked to felt that El Salvador was doing little in the way of protecting the planet. One family member said, “In our country... we lack a government that cares about the environment and that takes charge of helping people at risk that live in areas not suitable for humans. They think that anything that the United States is doing is better, because there are no visible signs of pollution there. In El Salvador, there is often litter lining the streets and beaches and large clouds of black smoke belching from cars and trucks.” Interestingly, no one in my family believed that they had personally experienced any events attributed to climate change. But as the conversation continued, recent natural disasters did come up, although even my family member who lives in coastal New Jersey didn't make a link between Hurricane Sandy and climate change. This struck me as important and illustrative, highlighting how many people fail to make a connection between climate change and extreme storms or shifting seasonal events in their minds. As my father says, “Some winters are worse than others. Parts of the country have had these really awful natural disasters lately. But I don’t know if I can blame that on climate change.”

Despite these disagreements, there was one subject that my interviewees did all agree on: they felt El Salvador should be doing more to prepare for the impacts of climate change and adopting more strategies like those that the United States already has in place. For me, this was a great introduction into communicating climate change and an enjoyable experience to sit down with my family and discuss a topic that means so much to me. I know from personal experience that those “holiday dinner” conversations about climate change aren’t always easy, but they can be really rewarding. I highly recommend everyone try it out!

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Very well done, and thank for discussing this experience. One thing to be careful about is the climate change and extreme storms link. The climatologist in me always cringes a little bit when people talk about climate change and say then "storm X is an example of what climate change will do". What I worry about in that is the misconception that climate change is the cause of any one storm. I can understand wanting to draw that relationship, but it's more accurate to say that climate change changes the frequency and intensity of storms like Sandy and Katrina. Just something to remember here that's all.

Well done though, this is great!

Skeptical Science is also a good blog to know about: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skeptical_Science:
(I have he app on my phone to pull out anytime I am confronted my confusion about or opposition to climate science)
Skeptical Science (occasionally abbreviated SkS) is a climate science blog and information resource created in 2007 by Australian blogger and author John Cook. In addition to publishing articles on current events relating to climate science and climate policy, the site maintains a large database of articles analyzing the merit of arguments commonly put forth by those involved in the global warming controversy who oppose the mainstream scientific opinion on climate change.

Good thought-provoking story and comments. Just to keep things interesting, here is an article about the links between anamolous events, storms, and climate change:

Link to popular article/summary, Climate Change has Quadrupled Northeast's Flood Risk:


Link to original paper, Historically unprecedented erosion from tropical storm Irene due to high antecedent precipitation: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/esp.3896/abstract

tklemm's picture

I think climate change always strikes a cord that many people can resonate to. And if you had a constructive conversation with the general public (aka your family) about it, that's really good. I know from experience that your closest friends can really surprise you here (in a negative sense).

I wasn't quite sure what your takeaway message was, so I read your article as kind of a mini qualitative study. I really liked your method, which seemed semi-structured and open-ended - you had fixed questions and talking points but were open to veering off - and your description.

You drew a lot of conclusions. Be careful with doing that after talking to only 4 people. It's probably true that young people more so than old people in El Salvador accept the science on climate change. But (1) that's a finding I think many researchers would expect, so it's not exactly new. (2), interviewing a greater variety of people (different backgrounds, education, social status, geographic locations (rural, urban), age) you might get to a greater diversity or entirely different results. And (3), you shouldn't do a study just to verify existing findings, but to contradict them, or to add perspective by doing something that hasn't been done yet.

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This waterfall is part of Las Cascadas Don Juan located along the Rutas de las Flores in El Salvador. Photo: N. Orellana