How To Talk About Climate Change with Clients and Colleagues

6 August 2019

There is not much to look forward to when we talk about climate change. In the adventure travel industry, it is a very different kind of awe to look out over a spectacular glaciated mountain range or colorful coral reef and quietly consider — much less talk about — how much they’ve changed, what they will look like in 20 or 30 years, who’s to blame for their accelerated transformation, and who will continue to be affected by their destruction. Sometimes it seems that, as the science on and our awareness about climate change expands, whether from the relentless barrage of apocalyptic reports or from direct experiences with its effects, what we most urgently need to be addressing right now can be the hardest thing to talk about.

But whether we want to or not, we must talk about the oversized, dirty elephant in the room: climate change (also being referred to as the climate crisis). Our livelihoods depend on healthy ecosystems and resilient communities to thrive, and we must start having these complicated conversations now. Further, if we want what we talk about to be a part of the complicated, multi-faceted solutions needed to get us out of such a dire situation, we have to be smart and thoughtful about the best way to share our concerns, experiences, and ideas with our clients, colleagues, and even families and friends.

In fact, talking about climate change can be a positive experience if approached and handled in the right way. It can be affirming for our local partners to talk about changing weather patterns in their communities, and it can lead to realizing common goals, beliefs, and concerns across continents and cultures. It can also be a moment of reckoning for visitors from high-emissions economies or lifestyles to come face to face with real people from low-emissions economies, who often and rightly argue they bear less of a responsibility for the massive increases in greenhouse gases yet are the most greatly affected.

So, how can we talk about such a complex and potentially frightening issue — an issue with many nuances and arguments for both action and inaction? How can we take advantage of our role as interpreters and, in some cases, partners in the conservation and protection of cultural and natural resources to continue creating resilient ecosystems and communities? How can we honestly and openly talk about climate change?

Here are a few tips and tricks that might come in handy for adventure travel businesses to use as guides and launchpads for conversations with clients and colleagues. They may or may not apply to your role in the chain of creating and providing transformative experiences for travelers, but one thing about the present climate crisis is certain: It is affecting every single aspect of our planet, so if this information isn’t of use on the trail, it will certainly be of use somewhere else in your life.

Start With The Basics

There are thousands of sources of information on climate change available, from informal discussions with farmers and web resources from organizations dedicated to studying and addressing our changing climate, to the United Nations, tasked with supporting research and initiatives around the globe in partnership with a variety of stakeholders on the ground.

Listening to locals such as Aymara mountain guide Jaime Quispe in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real describe the changes taking place in his community and the local ecosystem is a key way for guests to learn about the real impacts of climate change. © Stephen Taranto

All this information can feel overwhelming, so before launching a plan to communicate about climate change with others, familiarize yourself with the general facts. To navigate the negotiations and debates about how to tackle the problem, start by reviewing basic vocabulary related to the issue. This grounds your understanding about climate change and gives you confidence to help others understand as well.

For example, what is the difference between climate change and global warming? And what does PPM mean? Remember that not everyone in the adventure tourism orbit uses the terms and concepts prevalent in Western societies’ data-based approaches that dominate the web and other forums. Farmers speak about the changes in their own ways, as do fishers, small-island nation residents, Indigenous peoples, youth, and so forth. It is important that we listen to their stories and the ways and words they use to describe shifts in their environments.

Go Local First

At this point, most people with direct connections to the land and sea are aware of how their local climate is changing. Ask them to share their observations and experiences. This may be in the form of informal discussions with local tour operators during field visits or during conversations that take place when tourists are visiting them. Everyone likes to talk about the weather, and in our line of business it is something we are always thinking about anyway, so casual conversations with our hotel partners, field guides, local farmers we visit, and drivers already navigating treacherous roads and waterways are a direct and clear source of information about how their landscapes are affected.

Leading such everyday exchanges to the more complicated topic of catastrophic climate change can inform our risk management plans and practices. It can also help us convey how climate change impacts the places and people with whom we work. Encourage adventure travel guides and tour leaders to check in with the people they interact with during their work. These on-the-ground connections are in a position to share the environmental changes in a way that accurately represent the local communities’ perspectives and can help facilitate meaningful conversations about the issue between guests and hosts.

Understand Your Audience

At its heart, the travel industry is about engaging with the new, the highest, the longest, the farthest, and perhaps the strangest and most bizarre. What else so intrinsically centers around bringing people together in a landscape and experiencing what is unique or surprising or superlative about a place and its inhabitants? When it comes to inserting complicated issues into what is often a transformational and (hopefully) positive experience for visitors, it is essential that we understand, to the greatest extent possible, where they are coming from in both a literal and figurative sense.

Some of us may have clients or colleagues who are decision makers at large investment banks or agro-businesses while others of us may work as backpacking guides. Still others of us may be responsible for our own company’s fleet of buses, jeeps, and boats. In whatever capacity we work, we can share our concern for the climate in a way that conveys a sense of community and urgency about a crisis that may be addressed in ways that are still unknown. When we design itineraries, set off guiding on a cross-country trek, or meet with our fleet managers, ask those around you how they understand and are affected by climate change. This will help with deciding when and how to broach the subject.

If you’re interested in collaborating on a mitigation or adaptation project within your company or with a partner, local community, or other audience, prepare yourself for inspiring collective action. Do you want to ask your supervisor to invest in solar for your office? Are you convinced an all-electric vehicle fleet is the best way to address greenhouse gas emissions? Do you want your clients to know your home is being affected daily by rising tides?

If nothing else, initiate a conversation about others’ perspectives on the subject before carrying your vision forward. Doing so allows you to present your ideas in a way that complements theirs, leads to a successful collaboration, or is, at the very least, a meaningful exchange of ideas.

Speak From Your Own Experiences

Everyone is affected by climate change regardless of how protected we might consider ourselves. Stories about what is happening on a daily basis on the ground are an essential component for building concern, consensus, and action about the urgency of the climate crisis. Have you been directly affected? Do you know someone who has been or who may be soon? How is the weather changing where you live? How is your landscape predicted to change over time? It is not hard to find someone, something, or somewhere close to you that is under pressure from climate change.

There are a million ways and a million places where we can start a conversation about climate change. © Stephen Taranto

Starting a conversation with a personal story is a natural way to begin talking about climate change. We all seek to speak from the heart, and we appreciate and respect others who do the same. It is also harder to dismiss or forget these stories when they’re tied to known people and places. Whether you tell your story hundreds of times or only occasionally, you’ll make a greater contribution to how your audience understands climate change when you make it personal.

Share Solutions

This is one way to step out of the seemingly dire reality of the climate crisis. Say what we will about how close to the edge we are, there are countless intrepid souls, companies, schools, organizations, movements, and governments hard at work to do something about it.

Again, your own experiences can be a starting point for this conversation. Your contributions may seem insignificant (sharing your personal commitment to cycling instead of driving) or fairly grandiose (establishing an emissions off-setting program for travel- and work-related contributions to greenhouse gases), but no effort is too small. In fact, some have surprising multiplier effects. For example, the integration of solar ovens in food preparation has had a major impact on emissions produced by burning firewood in rural areas, which makes for a fascinating story with relatively easy replication.

Additionally, incorporating time for on-the-ground partners to share their solutions adds value to visitor experiences, affirms the practitioners’ solutions, and builds community around the many ways to address climate change.

Take Action and Brag About It

Action leads to more action, so share what you’ve been doing to address the problem. Have you added an electric vehicle to your fleet? Have you found providers investing in solar energy systems for their hotel or restaurant? Are you supporting a multi-year reforestation project? Let the world know! There is no time like the present to share stories and ideas that can have massive ripple effects.

Incorporating visits to destinations with climate change solutions underway, regardless of size and scale, can get clients and partners talking about solutions as well. © Stephen Taranto

There are, of course, an overwhelming array of channels where you can talk about your work: with colleagues at trade shows and conferences, at local speaking events, in round-table discussions with peers, with clients on trips, and through social media, blog posts, photo essays, and more. Proudly and openly share your successes; someone else might hear what you say and build on the idea in their own context.


Even for those of us who have fully and fearfully recognized the seriousness of the climate crisis, talking about it remains a challenge. We are all in some way complicit in the problem, and, as a result, need to be a part of the solution. That’s a heavy realization. Further complicating the matter is the degree to which any one person, community, city, or country is responsible for the changes. This can lead to accusations, anger, resentment, and guilt. For those whose greenhouse emissions contributions are relatively low, they may understandably believe high contributors should bear more of the responsibility.

But, wherever we fall on that continuum and whatever our capacity to be a part of the solution, we need to find spaces and places to talk about climate change and the problems it’s causing and how each of us can be a part of the transition to sustainability. Climate change is happening here and now. The science and experiences of millions around the world don’t leave us any alternative but to act.