At the moment Australia is watching its federal government pivot in real-time from a state of climate complacency to one of being seen to be taking emissions reduction seriously - which, of course, is some distance from actual action to prevent catastrophic warming of the planet.
It’s happening not because of some epiphany within the leadership of the current Federal Government, or the Liberal and National parties of which it is comprised, but because of international pressure and the growing impatience that much of the world now feels toward nations with the means to take meaningful action but who have decided that they can’t be bothered.
And at the time of writing, that plan for Australia’s glorious emissions-addressing climate future had manifested mainly in vague pronouncements from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, backbench unrest and uncertainty about whether or not to attend the most urgent and important climate summit in human history is worth the PM’s time.
But even this overdue and begrudging change is worth celebrating because maintaining optimism in the face of what is an otherwise overwhelming crisis is absolutely necessary, even vital. That sense of active hope is perhaps the greatest day-to-day challenge for all of us who accept the science and understand the stakes.
The need to remain actively hopeful isn’t just necessary for our own ability to get out of bed in the morning on a warming planet, but to convince others of the necessity for action. That’s because tales of already-unfolding catastrophe and endless statistics simply don’t change hearts and minds - or at least, not the number of hearts and the quanta of minds we need to, in the time we still have. If facts and figures worked to change opinions, they would already have done so since there has been absolutely no shortage of either in the last three decades.
Encouragingly, the research shows time after time that Australians overwhelmingly accept climate change. While it’s a partisan issue here, as in much of the world, the number of actual climate denialists is thankfully small (though disproportionately powerful).
People fall into six broad categories when it comes to their concern over climate change - the Alarmed, the Concerned, the Cautious, the Disengaged, the Doubtful, and the Dismissive. Reassuringly, the first two groups are the ones most motivated and active in addressing change and makeup over half of the Australian population, while that last group is only around ten percent - and the 17 percent who make up the Doubtful and the Disengaged are very much there to be persuaded.1
So, how does one do so? If we really want to change people’s minds we need to stop being scientific and start being emotional.
There has been a vast amount of research into what does change people’s minds in general and on climate change in particular, and one clear discovery is that the starting point in any effective discussion is often nothing to do with the effects of climate change itself, but the things that we love the most. In psychological circles it's called the "object of care" and it can be anything: one’s grandchild, flowering wattles, sugar gliders, a beloved beachfront that one doesn’t want to see underwater.
In fact, without being too cynical about it, you can even see this happening with the change in language of the Morrison Government regarding climate action. The facts haven’t changed, and no new research has come in that’s finally switched the argument. What’s forced the federal government into taking climate seriously is the thing they care about: the balance of international trade, specifically with countries who are planning to introduce tariffs upon those who undercut global efforts on emissions reduction for economic reasons.
In the mind of the Coalition, the survival of koalas might not be an object of care for which it’s worth making any effort to decarbonize, but events have shown that they’re prepared to be downright proactive when it comes to ensuring that the nation preserves its sacred connection with its iconic profits of from global iron ore sales, and the electoral advantages they bring in the resource-digging states.
It might seem narcissistic to reduce the scope of a massive global issue to a handful of things that happen to appeal to an individual, but that’s what makes the issue personally relevant. And it’s important to recognize that this is a starting point, not a conclusion. It’s a way to get that conversation about climate started and make that first step towards thinking about the issue and towards taking action with like-minded folks.
The other clear finding is that the best way to talk about climate change is, to put it simply, to talk about climate change.
Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy, of course. Talking about climate change is one of the most uncomfortable topics to bring up in conversation. It’s arguably beyond classic uncomfortable topics like sex and religion, and closer to the top-tier subjects like mental health, or whether Friends is actually deeply problematic
That’s because it’s impossible to bring the subject up without risking appearing to judge people for their lifestyle choices. No one wants to be the humorless scold in the friend group or family gathering, and “so, did you drive here in a petrol-burning vehicle like some sort of environmental vandal?” is a high-risk opening gambit for Tinder dates.
Even those of us who do legitimately lay awake at night fearing for the survival of Arctic permafrosts often aren’t comfortable about communicating that message to other people. It’s one thing to believe in the science; it’s quite another to risk ruining this lovely picnic by citing IPCC reports on sea-level rise.
But we need to push through because the evidence is that speaking about climate change in those causal settings is hugely normalizing. It helps make clear that this is an issue that everyone has a stake in, not a rarefied area of policy that requires reams of new data and a clear and costed series of policies. It takes the issue from the realm of the horrifying - and thus encouraging either paralysis or denial - and places it into the public sphere where it firmly belongs.
Data doesn’t change minds: conversations do. Specifically, conversations with people who are liked and respected. (Or, for that matter, fancied: as mentioned above, it’s a hard subject to wedge into a first date but whoever works out how to discuss climate in a meaningful yet saucily flirtatious manner will very possibly save the world.)
Part of being able to talk about climate change is finding a way to tell your own climate story. How do you feel about what’s going on? How has that changed? Sharing your own personal story is one of the most successful ways to sidestep the landmines in what has become a highly politicized and ‘constipated’ conversation. Hopefully, it will elicit empathy and understanding from the person you’re talking to, getting them to open up about their own story and why they feel the way they do about the climate.
And some of that is about encouraging climate literacy because it’s a fast-moving, ever-changing phenomenon and the climate denialists are always adapting too. Outright refusal to accept that anything is wrong is becoming rare among our elected officials, but it’s been replaced with a sneakier version where governments promise action which seems oddly pro-emissions, such as technology which has either not proved to work or proved not to work, such as the new zeal for carbon capture and storage: an emissions-reduction method of similar efficacy as magical amulets and shouting at the Moon.
It will also help make clear the recalcitrance of parties like the Nationals, who have been responding to calls for targets like “Net Zero by 2050” as though this is the first that they’ve heard of this “climate” business and that they can hardly be expected to know what they’re expected to do about it.
And at the risk of stating the obvious: this is hard stuff. This is a painful subject, especially for those of us who have delved deeply into the science. It’s impossible to think about, much less talk about, without dealing with a heady mix of anger, grief, anxiety, and guilt. It’s OK not to be OK.
However, the fire that drives the turbines of change is hope. And we’re going to need stockpiles of it - not in a blithely fact-avoidant Pollyanna way, but optimistic that we can still make the sort of social and political changes that we need to make.
And the first step in change is talking about it.
Read the full Climate Change and Evolution series:
1. Introduction: The Nexus Between Climate Change and Evolution by Helen Camakaris and James Dyke
2. The Anthropocene: A Shock in the Evolutionary History of the Earth System by Will Steffan
3. Evolutionary Mismatch, Partisan Politics, and Climate Change: A Tragedy in Three Acts by Helen Camakaris
4. A Climate of Change: To Combat Global Warming, We Need to Break the Law by A.C. Grayling
5. Changing Social Norms Could Create a Green Future by Mark van Vugt
7. The Solution To Climate Change Is To Talk About Climate Change by Rebecca Huntley
8. Dealing with Disproportionality in Climate Change Policymaking by Christopher M. Weible