Climate Politics at the Dinner Table

How Capilano University’s Climate Justice Summit tackled difficult conversations

Megan Orr, Opinions Editor
Valeriya Kim, Illustrator

The morning began with an uplifting, albeit adorable, rendition of Merrill Osmond’s You Gotta Have Hope, by a small group of fourth and fifth graders from Eagle Harbour Montessori. After one last shrill proclamation of “Hope!” Communications Professor at Capilano University, Michael Markwick, came forward with a few opening remarks. “This has never been done before,” he said. “This is the very first time elementary school students and Communications students have worked together.” 

The Climate Justice Summit, held on CapU’s North Shore campus Nov. 14., is an event that has taken place before, but this year’s structure was new. The summit, which is organized as a part of Capilano University’s Communications 433, Risk and Crisis Communications, has been a part of Markwick’s syllabuses for more than five years. This year, however, the term work has been done in correlation with Stephen Price’s grade four and fives at Eagle Harbour. After a summer of widespread wildfire devastation in British Columbia, Vancouver experienced one of the worst years on record for air quality. Price and Marwick were interested in looking at how these different groups of students were experiencing these issues. 

“That’s really the origin of this specific project,” said Markwick. “We are looking at how two different generations of students have had experiences of wildfire smoke, and what that means in terms of their physical health, but also their mental health and with that, the prospects of a future.” 

The work that both classes were doing this term became increasingly poignant with the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) releasing their report detailing the implications of increased warming trends on Oct. 8. The findings were damning: an increase more than 1.5 C in the next 12 years will be irreversible. “We’ve only got 12 years left. So there was most definitely, I think, in the collaboration between both generations of students, a sense of urgency,” said Markwick. “But I didn’t get a sense of fatalism. In fact, the younger generation was even more determined that we’re going to get this done and less inclined to settle.”  

Price said that this was a great opportunity for his elementary students to not only get to see what a university class is like, but also get involved with politics in a more tangible way. “[It] really humanizes government,” he said. “Rather than looking in a book, at a chart, we were speaking to an MLA and seeing our letter presented by that MLA to the Premier of the province. It’s hard to get students to get excited about the book that shows them the chart of how their government is organized… They were way more interested.” 

In the Climate Justice Summit, both classes presented a joint letter to North Vancouver-Lonsdale MLA, Bowinn Ma, which she later took to Premier John Horgan. The letter detailed the work that the classes had been doing, but also pointed to four main concerns, asking for the Premier’s consideration. The concerns outlined were: building a green economy, making polluters accountable and our families safer, helping workers switch out of jobs that are bad for our environment and responding to emergencies and helping families.  

Students from both classes shared personal stories of their experiences when it came to the fires this summer. Overall, students felt limited by the fact that they were unable to do the things they wanted to because of the smoke. Markwick stressed the importance of having such conversations. “What I have seen is that creating public space for people [allows them] to turn a really difficult personal moment into a public story builds their power [and] allows them to say: this is why I am not going to be moved from this,” he said.  

Bowinn Ma shared a personal anecdote about her work life as a politician. She admitted that disagreement around certain policies can sometimes impact her personal life in negative ways. Despite that, she understands that talking about these challenging topics is extremely valuable. “It’s so, so incredibly important that we talk about these things with each other,” she said. “Despite the challenges that sometimes happen around the family table, I do actually believe in bringing politics to the dinner table, provided those conversations are in good faith.” .  

Not talking politics at the dinner table is a concept that’s driven into us. Perhaps born out of politeness or discomfort, it’s often thought that it’s just better to avoid politics altogether. It’s the plot of many a sitcom episode. It was the central conflict of the 2018 movie, <i>The Oath<i>, where the family members had differing political views which quickly dissolved into chaos over Thanksgiving dinner. 

It’s pretty normal to want to avoid conflict, especially in an era where it seems that the political spectrum is becoming increasingly polarized. While it’s often tempting to try and avoid a potential conflict entirely, it doesn’t do anyone any favours when it comes to building relationships and starting a dialogue about the issues that are worrying us. “I honestly do believe that the taboo of talking politics with friends and family stifles our ability to address the very issues that are driving us,” said Ma.  

With winter break quickly approaching, it’s important to keep in mind that just because a topic is challenging, it doesn’t mean the conversation needs to be. There are ways to approach politically charged issues without invoking too much anxiety. “I think in having these conversations around the dining room table, around the Christmas table, it’s a mistake to start with policy… I think it’s more important to check in with people and have conversations just about what their experiences are,” said Markwick.  

In his work with young children, Price has similarly found that the best thing you can do is encourage polite curiosity, as well as polite persistence. “Starting with curious questions is, I think, a really powerful and often underutilized tool,” said Price.  

Conversely, having these conversations may not be possible for everyone. “Being able to have difficult conversations about what’s actually taking place, [should] not to be taken for granted because there are lots of people who don’t want to have those conversations, lots of people who don’t want to entertain those facts,” said Markwick. He’s right. The ability to have thoughtful conversations with family and friends is something worth doing, despite the potential challenges.  

Markwick emphasized how “the relationship should always lead.” The focus should be on talking about issues and sharing stories. According to Markwick, we all need to learn how to “check [our] own judgments and assumptions about people.”  

“It’s a bad idea, at the dining table – unless you know your family very well – to go in with the International Panel on Climate Change report and leave it on the table. But the advantage of doing this at a Christmas table, or over the holidays, is to always lead with the relationship,” he said. “That process of sharing your experiences, should always be done in a way that recognizes [the relationship]. Creating space for us to share what this was like for me, for you, is important because it enriches that relationship.”  

Research on climate change discussions supports Markwick’s ideas. “Rather than being a threat to rational deliberation about climate change, emotions are a necessary source of reflection and insight concerning the moral impact of climate change. Emotional engagement also leads to a higher degree of motivation than a detached, rational stance on climate change,” writes Sabine Roeser, in her article, Risk Communication, Public Engagement, and Climate Change: A Role for Emotions. 

This idea, of being able to share emotions is deeply important to the work of the Climate Justice Project, but also to larger conversations about our world as a whole. “[…] The ability to be candid in a relationship is essential if we are to share in the work of doing a democracy together,” said Markwick. 

The purpose of the summit was not just to start a conversation, but hopefully create changes in legislation through the students’ letter to the Premier. It also held some valuable lessons on relationship and community building, for both CapU students and Eagle Harbour students. Moving forward, these teachings will hopefully allow us all to approach difficult conversations with curiosity, in good faith and with the relationship in mind, combining all three ideas from Price, Ma and Markwick, respectively.  

It’s likely that not everyone that you have the chance to share a dinner table with this winter break will share the same views as you, but that doesn’t mean that the conversations that you have can’t be worthwhile. On the contrary: engaging with people who you don’t agree with can be extremely valuable in, as Markwick puts it, “doing a democracy together.” Sharing stories and experiences, and listening to others is simply the first step. 

The resounding message? It’s the same as the first: You gotta have hope – hope that we have the capacity to make a change and save the environment. Hope that our policy makers have our best interests in mind, and hope that this holiday season we are able to engage in meaningful conversations, and emerge unscathed.

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