Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Conversations about Climate Change

David Maxfield is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything.

David Maxfield is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything.


Crucial ConversationsQ Dear Crucial Skills,
I followed the climate change summit in Copenhagen last December and found it very frustrating to watch world leaders unable to agree on actions they must take to protect the ecological health of our planet. The meetings quickly disintegrated into a discussion about the individual wealth of their own nations.

What crucial conversation would help leaders agree to a plan to preserve the planet’s health—even though this will be at some economic expense to all?

Frustrated with World Leaders

A Dear Frustrated,

This is a great and timely question. Resolving climate change will require leaders to address some very sensitive conversations. And as citizens, we can help. When we take an interest and speak up, it encourages our leaders to speak up as well.

Crucial conversations require dialogue. Climate change has been mired in silence and violence for many years. The good news about the Climate Summit in Copenhagen was that more than 130 world leaders came together. Heads of state from five opinion-leader nations (U.S., China, India, Brazil, and South Africa) met for seven hours and negotiated an agreement that forms a framework for a 2010 world summit in Mexico City. The decision-makers are at the table, and dialogue has begun.

It helps to Start with Facts. Another major advance world leaders made at Copenhagen was to agree on a set of facts related to climate change. These facts establish the common ground needed to build solutions. A few of the most significant of these facts are:

  • Increases in global temperatures must be limited to 2 degrees Celsius.
  • Some countries will be especially hurt by climate change and other countries must support them.
  • Deep cuts in global emissions of CO2 will be required.
  • Developed countries and developing countries will need to follow different paths.

World leaders must now find Mutual Purpose. This gets to the heart of your question. Nations and their leaders look to their national interests, which are often in conflict—at least in the short term. Climate change is a global issue that requires a broader, more long-term view. Remember the question we ask in Crucial Conversations: “What do you really want—for yourself, for others, and for the relationship?” This is the question leaders must ask.

Here are a few crucial conversations where national interests may be in conflict—and mutual purpose must be found. Our leaders would do well to bring these crucial issues to the table:

1. Developed countries, especially the U.S., use the most carbon per person. Developed countries benefit if carbon is capped at the national level, not the per person level. Developing countries, like India and China, use far less carbon per person, but they will soon use the most at the national level. They benefit if carbon is capped at the per person level.

2. Developed countries have proposed a cap-and-trade strategy. This strategy benefits developed countries because it favors rich over poor. Developing countries are hurt by this approach.

3. Developed countries have an obligation to resettle refugees. Island and low-lying countries—places like Bangladesh and Vietnam—will lose large portions of their land mass, producing tens of millions of climate refugees. What obligation do developed countries have to resettle these refugees?

4. Developed countries have benefited the most from carbon use over the last 100 years—and have been responsible for the greatest amount of carbon-related damage. Does this mean they should be held accountable for the damage already caused and pick up a greater share of the repair and resettlement bill?

    Soon we must Move to Action. Have you ever been part of a team that got bogged down because the facts were never complete and the options never ideal? When it comes to climate change, we will never have all the facts or a painless solution. But we will have to act anyway. We can’t afford to let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

    In Crucial Conversations, we recommend to decide how you will decide. Some climate change decisions may involve consensus targets, but most are likely to be consultative or independent. We can’t let the desire for consensus prevent us from taking action either independently or with small groups of other opinion-leader nations.

    Finally, when a problem is profound, persistent, and resistant, its solution will require more than a crucial conversation. It will require a full-fledged Influencer strategy. Next week, I will apply our Influencer model to your question.


    From the Road

    From the Road: The Wait 'em Out Kid

    Steve Willis is a master trainer and vice president of professional services at VitalSmarts.Steve Willis is a master trainer and vice president of professional services at VitalSmarts.

    From the Road

    When I was boy, I frequently watched old western shows on TV. I liked them because of the rough and rowdy, shoot ’em up action. At the time, I had most of the shows memorized word-for-word. And while I can’t remember much, one line still sticks with me: “Well boys, looks like we’re just gonna have to wait ’em out!”

    Over the years, I’ve remembered and tried to adhere to this advice—especially when it comes to training. For example, after asking a thoughtful question, I’d wait ’em out (wait in silence for participants to respond) instead of rushing in with both guns blazing and firing off half a dozen responses. And my wait ’em out technique served me well. That is, until I ran into Dr. Ethna Reid.

    Dr. Reid is a professional educator who has dedicated her career to improving the teaching of children. After many years of study, she’s discovered teachers who increase the rate of participation among students are more effective. She also quickly discovered (and was equally quick to point out) that while I was good at waiting ’em out, I missed the opportunity to increase participation during the wait.

    Now, as I approach a discussion question, I do something a little different to increase the rate of participation. I set expectations before asking the question. For example, I say something like, “I’m going to give you about fifteen seconds to think about where and how you could use the skills we’ve discussed, and then I’ll ask some of you to share your thoughts.” Then I wait (the part I’m especially good at) and then call on people to share. I’ve found this simple approach gives people time to process the question and increases the number of people who actually process a response. It also produces more thoughtful participation from the group.

    I’m always amazed at how little adjustments in my approach make such a significant difference in participation among the participants and the rate at which they internalize the principles and skills. Thanks to Ethna, I’m leaving my “Steve . . . the wait ’em out kid” days behind.