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Mike Domitrz’s October 2015 campus

 While there are several reasons we aren’t acting on climate change as much as we could, one of our biggest problems is that we can’t act until we agree. And we can’t do that until we learn to talk about it in ways we agree on.

Deciding how to talk about a difficult topic is not a new problem, especially not on college campuses. Especially not at Swarthmore, where the conversation is about consent. Yet Swarthmore’s spotted history suggests that even when the student body generally agrees that consent should be obtained, it’s much harder to put it into practice.

Mike Domitrz’s October 2015 campus event “Can I Kiss You?” invited students to tackle this issue. The event scarcely presented “new” information; instead, the aim was to integrate the concept of consent into the framework of campus culture. Domitrz’s approach was to put the words in your mouth for you, specific phrases you could recite in front of a mirror. He does this because the language can matter as much as the issue. The phrases, the intonation, the intention can be crucial with topics of emotional sensitivity.

The truth: climate change is emotionally sensitive. It evokes fear. It shows us how the shorelines can be tugged out from under us, blankets of shade ripped off from over our heads, the future torn out of our fingers. It’s time to acknowledge this. It’s time to learn how we can talk about it, just you and me. So, can I talk to you about climate change?

To begin, let’s talk about fear. We need a healthy amount of concern to believe action is necessary. Such a reason is why visiting speaker Dr. Eban Goodstein began his talk, “New Rules for Climate Protection: Student Action to Change the Future,” with the claim “there will never be another ordinary day in any of our lives.” Feeling a stir of fear at that statement like that is natural, even rational.

Swarthmore Peripateo’s “Science and Society” panel discussion, peeling back the skin on science’s ethical issues, touched on the fear in the climate change debate. Near the end, Amy Vollmer, Professor of Biology, delved into the complexity of communicating science’s loaded but vital ideas. Describing her efforts to understand the climate dispute, she explained, “I wanted to learn why if we shouted louder, people didn’t buy in.”

The key to why people don’t “buy in,” according to Vollmer, has a lot to do with fear and personal security. People don’t like being told how many things they don’t know. Climate communication shouldn’t exploit people’s fears, but relate to them.

In this vein, communication necessitates compassion, or as Krista Thomason, Professor of Philosophy, wisely put it, charity. The precept of communication, whether the conversants are generous with each other, can be just as important as the facts.

A message’s linguistic packaging

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