Maybe we should be turning to hope rather than fear
By Peter Burnett
One of the challenges of working in the environmental field is that both the news and the prospects are almost relentlessly negative. Bad things have happened and there’s much worse to come.
The public don’t like it either. There is research suggesting that trying to promote policy and behavioural change through fear, by warning people of likely environmental disaster, does not work and can even be counterproductive.
This made me wonder whether our environmental situation can be compared to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief, experienced by people diagnosed with a terminal illness. The first two stages are denial and anger, words which seem to describe climate change denialism quite well.
If this is right, the obvious solution for those trying to build public support for stronger environment policy is to identify positive narratives that are based on hope rather than fear. I thought I’d look at some positive narratives to see whether they might provide support for better policy in Australia. I’m hoping this is more than just wishful thinking.
Imports down, national security up
The first narrative concerns import substitution. Although we produce a reasonable amount of oil, we export three quarters of it and import more than 80% of what we consume. This is because ‘oils aint oils’; different grades of oil are used for different purposes.
If we could replace imported oil with renewable energy, mostly by switching to electric vehicles, there’d be a double benefit, not including environmental gains.
Replacing an imported energy with renewable energy from local sources would improve our balance of payments, which is good for the economy. We could spend our import dollar on other things.
It would also benefit our national security by reducing our dependence on other countries, and thus our foreign policy concern with the Middle East, long an area of instability.
In particular, it would largely remove the need for us to hold a three month supply of oil in reserve, just in case international supply chains were disrupted. This is a policy that members of the International Energy Agency adopted in the 1970s after the first global oil crisis, brought on by OPEC countries imposing an oil embargo in response to the Yom Kippur war.
Australia has not been complying with this obligation in recent years and is taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to play catchup by buying cheap oil and storing it in America until we can build enough storage here.
The second narrative is based on reshaping the domestic economy. In his 2019 book Superpower, Ross Garnaut argued that Australia’s wealth of renewable resources offered it an unparalleled opportunity to become an energy superpower in a decarbonising world.
His most powerful argument was that because green hydrogen (hydrogen produced from renewable energy) was best used at source rather than exported (because liquefying hydrogen for transport is energy-intensive and costly), we could shift from exporting mineral ores such as iron and aluminium, to refining those ores into metals domestically.
Recently, the Grattan Institute has buttressed this argument. In its report Start with Steel Grattan argues that, instead of exporting green hydrogen, we should use it to make ‘green steel’. Green steel is made by using hydrogen, rather than coal, to strip the oxygen out of iron ore, leaving water as the by-product rather than carbon dioxide. The metal is then refined into steel.
This is only the most prominent example. Australia’s wealth of mineral and renewable resources would allow us to move up the supply chain in a range of high tech, low carbon, industries, such as producing batteries for electric cars.
Yes we can!
I have called the third and most recent positive narrative to emerge ‘yes we can’, after President Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan.
Although the COVID-19 crisis has been both a health and economic disaster, it has produced some unexpected positives.
One is national cooperation, led by a new body, the national cabinet. Another is public cooperation, manifested through high levels of compliance with the draconian restrictions associated with lockdown.
While it is too early to tell, it seems that the political ground may have shifted because of the virus. Commentators are talking about proceeding with reforms that, until recently, were gridlocked politically, like tax reform, all in the interests of helping economic recovery.
Beyond reforms related directly to economic recovery, I detect at least some sentiment that if we can cope with corona we can cope with other things too, so let’s make the most of the opportunity and deal with other threats as well.
This is the most tenuous of the three narratives.
Where to from here?
All three narratives are real and, for added effect, they could all be developed at once, as they are complementary.
This does not mean any of them will gain traction. They are only part of the recipe.
The missing ingredient is political will, which will emerge only with political leadership (a ‘pull’ factor) or a groundswell of public opinion (a ‘push’ factor).
Moreover, it seems equally likely that negative environmental narratives could gain traction, for example that economic recovery requires ‘sacrifices’, including the by-passing of any environmental concern that would delay a development approval.
However, I think you can see just from the examples I have provided here, positive environmental narratives are not only possible, they are viable.
Maybe we should be asking ourselves what we need to do to make them real.