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This robot will stop you from attacking your climate-denying uncle at Christmas

A five-step plan to surviving debates at holiday gatherings.
The CliMate chat bot draws on a 5-step method of having better conversations first used in the Angry Uncle Bot offered to polarized US families before Thanksgiving. Photo: Pixabay

There’s nothing like an existential crisis to spice up Christmas dinner conversation.

But when it comes to species-scale extinction — and the heated politics around climate change — dinner table banter can turn hostile. 

That’s where CliMate chatbot comes in.

CliMate is a conversation coach launched Dec. 10 and accessed through the Facebook Messenger app to help people with polarized opinions talk — without picking up a carving knife.

In guided practice conversations, users can choose whether they are someone concerned about climate change chatting with a climate skeptic, or vice versa. In one example, the bot plays the role of a denier, baiting the user with, [angry face] “Global warming is a hoax.” You, as a climate change believer, are offered several options to respond, from “I can’t believe you’re a science denier. You’re brainwashed!” to “Can you say more about that?”

As you progress from one interaction to another, the bot guides you through a five-step method to having better conversations, a strategy developed by social psychologist Karin Tamerius.

An example of an interaction with the CliMate chat bot
An example of an interaction with the CliMate chat bot

“Normally when we have conversations, we’re yelling facts at each other. This is trying to ask with genuine curiosity, reflect, find places of common ground,” said Jodi Stark, a public engagement specialist with the David Suzuki Foundation, which launched the chatbot in collaboration with the U.S. non-profit Smart Politics.

Stark, who was the main force behind applying the chatbot to climate change, says she was tired of seeing conversations devolve into name-calling and speaking past one another, with neither side really listening. So she reached out to Tamerius and soon the two were part of a team working to drain the toxicity out of conversations around climate change.

The 5-step method of having better conversations was developed by social psychologist Karin Tamerius
The 5-step method of having better conversations was developed by social psychologist Karin Tamerius after extensive online dialogue with conservatives - Submitted

While the CliMate chatbot appears to be the first to address conversations around climate change, the idea of applying bots to help guide social interactions was first popularized in the United States by Tamerius in the lead-up to Thanksgiving 2018. Angry Uncle Bot was launched to help Americans get through a long weekend at a time when the Donald Trump presidency had polarized families.

(Tamerius has since re-worked the Angry Uncle Bot to help people navigate conversations surrounding the impeachment of the US president.)

“Many of us aren’t accustomed to socializing with people who think differently from us, especially about politics,” Tamerius wrote in The New York Times in November 2018. "Our political attitudes and beliefs are intertwined with our most basic human needs — needs for safety, belonging, identity, self-esteem and purpose — and when they’re threatened, we’re biologically wired to respond as if we’re in physical peril.

“So how can you talk with people who disagree with you without setting off this fight-or-flight response?”

Of course, politics — like many things — is different in Canada, evidenced by the rise of climate change as a ballot-box issue in October's federal election. 

Despite popular interest among the electorate, regional divisions between Canada’s oil country and the other provinces remain a barrier in any national project that would wean the Canadian economy off fossil fuels.

“We know we’re not going to be able to act on climate change unless we can talk about it and find common ground,” Stark said.

Tamarius’s research tells us two things, said Stark: that people are swayed more by peers, loved ones and neighbours than by experts and scientists; and that working to find common ground and shared experiences works better than forcing facts down someone’s throat.

“The way a lot of us are having conversations, we’re leaving people entrenched in their own positions. We’re just getting them to dig their heals in. The more we fuel the divide between these two camps, the slower it is to move forward.

“At the crux of it," she said, "it’s a communication problem."

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