A conversation with Brianna Aspinall about learning to talk about climate change

September 26, 2019

Jake Tobin Garrett

In light of the Global Climate Strike taking place this week in cities around the world, we spoke with our very own Brianna Aspinall who, in addition to her community engagement work at Park People, also heads up Carbon Conversations TO

In this blog, our Manager of Policy and Planning, Jake Tobin Garrett, chats with Brianna about how to talk about climate change with empathy, how to stay positive and motivated in the face of such a large issue, and why a mix of hope and anger is a good thing.

Jake Tobin Garrett: Tell me a little bit about Carbon Conversations TO and how you got involved.

Brianna Aspinall: Climate change can be pretty paralyzing, so with Carbon Conversations TO, which is based on a UK group, we try to help people move from those feelings of anxiety, anger, and sadness to action. The structure of Carbon Conversations TO is a small-group guided discussion over a 6-week period where we meet for two hours a week. We discuss elements like personal carbon footprints, how people feel about those and climate change at large, and what actions we can take. We also developed a workshop to help people in their journey to talk to others about climate change.

The reason I worked on bringing it to Toronto was really out of love for my partner who was struggling after seeing a documentary on climate change. He was quite sad and felt a little hopeless for the world. Seeing that at home everyday made me want to try to find a solution. 

JTG: Why is it important to have these conversations about climate change with people in our lives?

BA: I think about the metaphor that if your house is on fire, then you better learn how to talk about it with the people in there. It’s a big house and you don’t know everyone, but you better figure out ways to cooperate and collaborate, even though you might all be feeling a little anxious. 

JTG: How do you see your work on climate change intersect with your work at Park People?

BA: A big reason I started working at Park People was because I wanted to also focus on social issues. I think they’re quite interconnected with environmental issues, yet those groups don’t always work together. So I wanted to immerse myself in an environment where I would learn more about community development work. 

When you think about resiliency, it’s strong communities—communities that know each other and have strong networks—that are way more resilient, right? There are cool moments like we saw recently in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where community members came together to share food at a park bake oven after the hurricane. And so that’s why I think the work that Park People does is super important and connected to climate change. 

Credit: City of Toronto, Matt Forsythe

JTG: Do you have tips for people to have conversations about climate change? I feel like those conversations can often get very personal, where people can feel like their individual choices are being judged—like they have to fly for work or they have to drive their kids to soccer practice. 

BA: The first thing we tell people is to learn about your own connection to climate change and climate action. Learn what your carbon footprint is and your reaction to that footprint. Are you proud of certain things you’re doing or are you overwhelmed? That will hopefully give you a little bit of empathy when talking to others, because it’s not easy to change. 

Instead of coming from a place of judgment and assumptions, come from a place of curiosity. That might look like talking less and listening more. Asking more open ended questions.

JTG: Just good skills for having a good conversation anyways! 

BA: You will learn a lot from people, it’s kind of cool. Another thing you can do is focus on feelings. It’s quite common that people start coming from a place of blame, because they might be trying to defend themselves by putting responsibility on bigger actors like government or business. Those bigger actors definitely have a lot of responsibility and power, but we’re also a part of it. 

I try to focus on the emotion instead of the content. I might say “Oh, it sounds like you feel a little disempowered” or “It sounds like you feel like you can’t make a difference” and see where that conversation takes us. Because then you might understand them a little bit more, and help them get out of that negative space. 

JTG: What do you say to those that feel helpless, or that their individual actions—like biking to work or using a metal straw—are so infinitesimally small in the face of such a large issue? Do individual actions really matter in the face of climate change?

BA: I understand that people feel that their individual actions may not matter. I get into that mindset, too. But then I try to get myself out of it, because if you really think about it, it’s such a complex challenge. You can’t just have one group acting, because there isn’t just one clear solution.

JTG: Right, it’s not just: we have a carbon tax, now the issue is solved.

BA: Right, because you might not elect someone who advocates for a carbon tax if you don’t have people talking about climate change and understanding what is needed. We’re at a point where it’s not about pointing fingers, it’s about taking your own individual action because you’re a part of the big puzzle. And then also holding business and government accountable—thinking about your vote as a way to push for better climate action and better social justice as well. 

JTG: An important message considering we’re in the middle of a federal election. 

BA: There are some good groups like Lead Now’s Cooperate for climate campaign, 100 Debates for the Environment, Our Time for a Green New Deal that can help you choose candidates that are thinking about climate justice. 

And don’t underestimate how your actions might inspire others. I think about it as a drop falling into a calm lake—that ripple effect. You see it with Greta Thunberg, where she started on her own and now she’s created this mass movement. 

We all might have our own inner mini-Greta. I went to a restaurant and brought my own container. The person near me said, “Oh, cool. I should bring my own container.” Not everyone tells you that they’re inspired by you, but don’t be fooled. You probably are inspiring people. You might be inspiring yourself every day by acting along with you values. And then you’re actually building a way forward. 

We have ideas of what the world might look like where it’s better for everyone, more socially just and better for the environment, so we need to build that by showing people what that looks like. Doing the right thing does not always mean that you’re sacrificing your happiness. There’s also happiness in these different types of actions. 

JTG: It feels like a very interesting moment in time right now around climate change. We have Greta and this youth movement, a kind of swell of activism around this issue, but at the same time we’re also getting these incredibly grim scientific reports, and increasing instances of wildfires and flooding and ice melting in Greenland, and all sorts of catastrophic events. How do you feel about this particular moment that we’re existing in around this issue? Do you feel hopeful?

BA: I feel a mix of hope and despair, sadness, and anger. Depending on the day. I just try to embrace that and continue building my own hope by acting. 

But I think it’s such an opportunity, because if you look at the science it’s still very grim and scary, but there’s still time to act, literally right now. And putting money into climate change might also mean putting money into housing affordability and other problems that we face as a society.

I sometimes avoid the grim and scary side—reading about climate change effects—but I do think it’s important to remind ourselves of the urgency. Holding that balance of hope and urgency, or outrage, is super important to help us move forward.

To learn more about Carbon Conversations TO and how you can get involved and their upcoming workshop this November on how to talk about climate change, visit their website at www.carbonconversationsTO.com. You can also sign up for the group’s newsletter and follow them on Facebook.

title photo by Erick Dransch

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