Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 7, 2020

How to Talk About Climate Change, in a way that makes a difference, by Rebecca Huntley

How to Talk about Climate Change, in a way that makes a difference is another book that I discovered through this year’s digital Melbourne Writers Festival. Rebecca Huntley was on a panel ably chaired by Adam Morton with Ketan Joshi (whose book Windfall, is now on my TBR), and Victor Steffensen (Fire Country).  It was a very good session, but this is a case of having to get the book and read it for yourself.

It is exactly what the title says it is.  It’s a kind of self-help book to help you learn the powers of persuasion, on the contentious issue of climate change.  It shouldn’t be contentious, because the science is clear, but the vested interests so explicitly outlined in Judith Brett’s recent Quarterly Essay (#78) titled The Coal Curse, Resources, Climate and Australia’s Future have made it so.  As Huntley demonstrated in her Quarterly Essay (#73), titled Australia Fair, Listening to the Nation, market research shows that Australians do want change.  Her book is a manual on how to achieve it.

She begins by explaining how she herself had a change of heart.  She had long been convinced of the need to tackle climate change, but the school climate strikes made her realise that it’s not just an issue of logic and facts, it’s an emotional issue.

This emotional change intrigued me.  I consider myself a highly rational person.  I’m a trained lawyer and social researcher.  I base my judgements on demonstrable evidence that will stand up to scrutiny from lawyers, good journalists, academics and Senate committees.  But this transformative moment—the moment I tipped from being concerned about climate change to genuinely alarmed about the threat—didn’t happen because I read a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) or sat through a presentation from a climate scientist about carbon dioxide levels.  I reacted to a crowd of children holding up signs in the streets, girls who were only a few years older than my eldest daughter.  Suddenly, it was personal.  (p.4)

As you’d expect, Huntley anticipates the argument that it’s up to governments and corporations to act and that our feelings are irrelevant.  Her response is that we need multiple fronts of pressure on governments and corporations, especially those that are resisting action.  To do that we need to understand our own responses—the social and psychological factors that underpin how we react.

The chapter headings outline the scope of the book:

  1. The problem with reason, or why we need to stop arguing about science
  2. Start being emotional, or the importance of feelings over facts
  3. Green girls, or what we can learn from teens on talking about climate
  4. Guilt, or my plastic coffee cup killed the green sea turtle
  5. Fear, or do wildfires change minds and votes
  6. Anger, or how to turn anger into activism
  7. Denial, or the need to be innocent
  8. Despair, or the support group at the end of the world
  9. Hope, or how to get out of bed in the morning
  10. Loss, or bury me in a carbon sink
  11. Love, or do it for the birds
  12. Conclusion: Talk about climate change, it’s the right time.

Because we are flawed human beings, social reality is messy, and it’s a fallacy to think that people who are resistant to something will change if more and more facts are communicated to them.   [At its most banal, did knowing that Brussel sprouts are good for me ever make me eat them?]  Even when communicated by popular and respected science communicators like David Attenborough, Brian Cox and others, public opinion hasn’t changed much.  The important steps now are social, political, cultural and economic.  We need to understand some basic things about human psychology to progress.

Huntley quotes J. Marshall Shepherd on ‘3 kinds of bias that shape your worldview’:

  • confirmation bias, which is that we focus on what we already believe
  • Dunning-Kruger, which is that we think we know more than we do and to underestimate what we don’t know
  • cognitive dissonance, which is the discomfort we feel when we can’t reconcile our beliefs with actions or ideas that don’t fit.

Shepherd challenges us to take an inventory of our biases and of the beliefs we use to prop them up. 

Think about where you get your information, how reliable it is and whether you only read the things that agree with what you want to think rather than the actual truth.  Then share what you’ve learned—about yourself and about the world—with other people.  (p.43)

[Yes, sage advice, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to start reading The Australian.  Their front page today about Victoria’s road map out of lockdown is a disgrace to journalism.]

There is so much valuable analysis in this book that it’s hard to convey, so I’ll concentrate on the chapter ‘Guilt, or my plastic coffee cup killed the green sea turtle’.  It begins with an amusing anecdote about the angst triggered by forgetting to bring a re-usable cup for the daily caffeine shot, and the predicted judginess in the workplace.  Huntley uses this to demonstrate the thought processes that come with feelings of guilt, including negative feelings about self, anxiety about social rejection by the peer group (‘cup shaming’) and cognitive dissonance. 

She then goes on to explain that guilt and its more painful cousin shame, can be harnessed to compel us to change our behaviour.  David Sznycer from the University of Montreal has this to say:

‘When we act in a way we are not proud of, the brain broadcasts a signal that prompts us to alter our conduct.’ He argues that guilt and shame have played important roles in our evolutionary survival by ensuring that we didn’t harm people who cared about us.  Guilt and shame helped maintain social cohesion, protecting the group dynamic so important to the survival of the herd.  In hunter-gatherer societies, for example, people relied on each other for survival.  They had to band together, share resources and protect each other from threats.  Not fitting in or not getting along with others could be a life-threatening move. (p.70)

Guilt and shame need to be differentiated: they light up different areas of the brain.  We can feel guilty about something yet still feel that we are good people, whereas shame makes us feel bad about ourselves.  In terms of the goal, getting people to alter their behaviour in the climate-change space,  it’s important to find the balance between constructive guilt and destructive shame.

Effective appeals to act on climate change have to acknowledge that we all live compromised lives, that we all make ‘bad’ choices out of necessity or lack of options.  And yet we still have a responsibility to care for the environment, change what we can and act as part of a larger group.

Constructive guilt emphasises collective responsibility as much as, if not more than, individual responsibility. (p.71)

In a later chapter, Huntley discusses the way we distance ourselves from people unlike ourselves so that we can collectively ignore the plight of nations already suffering the impact of climate change when their development has been so delayed that they have done little or nothing to cause it.  We saw this in Australia’s response to Pacific Islander nations last year, with no evidence of guilt or shame from our political representatives.  What this shows is that achieving change is a complex matter, which is why this book is so valuable.

Highly recommended.

BTW, tomorrow (September 8th 2020, 6.15pm-7.15pm) the Wheeler Centre is live-streaming an even called Breaking the Climate Stalemate. It features my favourite journalist Sally Warhaft, with Judith Brett, and Marian Wilkinson, and it’s free.  If you miss it, wait a day or two because they usually make these events available as podcasts or videos.

Author: Rebecca Huntley
Title: How to Talk about Climate Change, in a way that makes a difference
Publisher: Murdoch Books (an imprint of Allen & Unwin) 2020
ISBN: 9781760525361, pbk., 291 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from readings, $32.99


Responses

  1. I really don’t think it matters at all what we the people think, politicians know that global warming is real but they are paid by big business to ignore ‘long term’ problems in favour of immediate profits. We will come about – too late of course – only because the profits from doing so are greater than the profits from continuing to mine/burn coal and oil.

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    • It sounds as if you have given up. See chapter 8!

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  2. Here in regional NSW, which was once a very conservative area, I have yet to come across a single person who does not believe the climate is warming and that we are at least part of the cause – but it seems nigh on impossible to persuade some politicians. I am just glad I am on the wrong side of 50 quite frankly – I have more hope in the younger people coming through now, but we are leaving them a hell of a legacy – and I am likely to spend my remaining years frying each summer, which has become a season to dread here.

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    • Yes, I dread summer too. What with the heat, and the fires, and the smoke, and the economic devastation and heartbreak that follows it, it is a season of misery IMO.
      I have given up on the Liberal Party altogether, but they will eventually lose government just because all governments run out of steam in the end. What we have to hope for is that the only other viable party that can form government when that happens i.e. the ALP, will have meaningful policies to get us back on track.

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  3. What a fascinating sounding book. And if it can make me get past my despair at the corruption of those who control the world through money then it would most definitely be worth reading.

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    • I think it has applications in all kinds of issues, even C-19. Governments have to persuade people to act not in their own best interests, but to alter their behaviour in the interests of the frail and the vulnerable. Here in Victoria where the second wave was started by very selfish people breaking the rules, we can see the government appealing to compassion, which is one of the strategies recommended in the book.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] would be How to Talk About Climate Change, in a way that makes a difference, by Rebecca Huntley.  The title is self-explanatory, but the strategies are well worth knowing, for […]

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  5. […] How To Talk About Climate Change in a  Way That Makes a Difference – R. Huntley […]

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  6. Wow! Very interesting piece. Loved reading this! To spread more awareness of the climate crisis, please feel free to check out my recent blog post! (:

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    • Hi Maddie, one of the interesting aspects of this book is the way it enable me to see how the same strategies were, or weren’t, applied to get cooperation with the pandemic strategies.
      Joe Biden needs a copy of this book!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for sharing that! Hopefully the United States will recover from the Trump Administrations (as well as other politicians) many attempts to choose the economy over the environment!

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        • That would indeed be nice…

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