Talking About Climate at a High School Reunion

092514Reunion_OrigLast Friday I celebrated my 30th high school reunion with over 150 classmates in my hometown of Las Vegas, Nevada; this Monday, I was eager to kick off Climate Week at the Civil Society Event on Action in Climate Change and Health on the other side of the country in New York City. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have publicly lamented the carbon cost of flying to the reunion on our alumni Facebook homepage. I was soundly chided with a hearty number of thumbs down responses. The clumsy effort to share my genuine climate conundrums — nostalgia and valuable social ties vs. another contribution to global warming — didn’t get much smoother when I arrived and found myself challenged to respond to the inevitable rounds of “so, what do you do?” in a way that would keep my friends engaged, instead of looking over my shoulder to escape anything close to a climate conversation.

 

That challenge is not mine alone. Talking about climate change in a way that makes it relevant to everyday life, such as what we eat or how we get around, was in fact central to the Civil Society Event. Speaker Dr. Alessandro Demaio, Fellow with the Harvard Global Equity Initiative, went so far as to say that, “If you want to empty out a dinner party, bring up climate change. We need to turn climate from a conversation ender to a conversation starter… and talking about health is a great way to do that.” Had I been able to reverse my itinerary, here are just a couple of ways some of the country’s leading climate and health experts gathering this week in NYC might have coached my reunion conversations to better effect.

 

When you talk about climate, talk instead about:

 

  • Better nutrition: At the Civil Society event, Jeffrey Patz, Director of the Global Health Institute, announced the release of a new study summarizing over 56 climate-change related health impacts. In the face of tremendous evidence that global temperatures and severe weather events are a real and urgent threat to good health, Patz highlighted one piece of good news. Solid data reveals many health benefits that could emerge from shifting our food system in a more climate friendly direction. For example, cutting meat, dairy and eggs in half would not only reduce carbon emissions by 25-40%, it could also decrease the amount of saturated fat in our diets by 40%.

 

  • Active living and healthier lifestyles: Acting Surgeon General, Boris Lushniak, remarked that, “It is so 20th century to say that I’m healthy because I’m not sick,” and encouraged the adoption of a “21st century mindset” that focuses instead on a definition of healthy that emphasizes complete health – including social, mental and emotional factors. For example, he illustrated how we can change social norms by designing and re-designing cities to encourage daily “active transport” such as walking, biking and public transit, as a way to combat climate change while reducing stress levels and improving physical health. According to the new study cited above, there is strong evidence that cities set up to make “active transport” easier, such as being able to easily swap a bike ride for a short car trip, could help save lives by reducing rates of breast cancer, and heart disease. Additionally, cities with high numbers of workers who commute by bike or foot show significantly lower rates of diabetes and obesity.

 

For better or worse, a high school reunion can pile on the pressure to show up looking one’s best. The Facebook posts jokingly surveying the crowd for tips on how to lose 10 pounds quick in the week before our gathering received far more ‘likes’ than my angst about gaining some carbon pounds by flying to attend on the eve of Climate Week. I wish I’d had the chance to hear and heed the advice from the Civil Society speakers ahead of my reunion. I might have gotten further talking about my work on climate if I had first greeted long-lost classmates by exclaiming how fit they looked, followed by questions about the healthy diet and lifestyle they must be leading. From there, I might just have pulled off making a link to what I do for a living. If I can do my part to join health professionals around the world who are talking effectively about climate by talking about health, I may just be able to look forward to the next reunion – if only by Skype. Unless of course, solar planes are around by then.

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