Is a positive environmental narrative possible?

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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.

Post-carbon superpower

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.

Image by Colin Behrens from Pixabay

Three letters on the apocalypse

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Conveying global impacts of climate change often requires a smaller human framing

By David Salt

The Great Barrier Reef is dying. It’s been hit by another mass bleaching, the most extensive to date. It’s the third mass bleaching in five years but this time it’s hardly caused a ripple in a world struggling to cope with a pandemic. We’ll get through this pandemic but the loss of the world’s largest coral ecosystem is a tragedy that will stay with us forever.

The progressive destruction of the Great Barrier Reef (and coral reefs in general) is the result of climate change and raised water temperatures. It’s a consequence of human activity. To address it we need to modify human activity but so far such changes have proved beyond the capacity of the societies in which we live.

Trying to engage people on the consequences of climate change can be very difficult. It’s big, its complex, and it’s happening all around us. There’s so much information to absorb (and disinformation to avoid), so many strongly held views, so many vested interests attempting to skew the debate in their own favour. It’s often hard to keep up, and so much easier to tune out. We need to explore stories that will keep people tuned in.

King hit

Do you remember when the first big episode of mass coral bleaching occurred early in 2016? I do.

Reef scientists knew something bad was coming their way and deployed a lot of cameras to capture the event. But the scale of death and destruction exceeded their worst fears. Ninety three percent of the vast northern section of the reef, the most pristine region of the GBR, was bleached leading to the death of almost a quarter of the coral.

If left alone, the reef would recover but all the modelling of our warming world suggested the bleaching events would increase in number and severity. Indeed, 2017 saw a return of the bleaching, this time focussed on the middle section. (And the 2020 event is hitting the southern regions.)

I felt sick in my stomach at the implications of what we witnessed in 2016 and was more than a little surprised when the Government glossed over the tragedy telling the world their 2050 Reef Plan was on top of the problem, even though this plan didn’t even deal with climate change.

Following those mass bleachings I remember attempting to communicate their significance to environmental science students I was teaching. I found that the actual numbers surrounding the event were so large and somewhat technical that they seemingly lacked impact, they were difficult to engage with.

Three letters

So, I searched around for commentaries by people and groups I trusted, and I attempted to convey the impact of this bleaching event using some of the words that I myself found moving.

The first message I used was in an email from a colleague, a marine ecologist. This colleague was a co-author on the Nature paper that categorically connected the bleaching with global warming and in this email she discussed the significance of the findings.

The paper showed that record temperatures had triggered massive coral bleaching across the tropics (it was way more than just the Great Barrier Reef). The study also showed that better water quality or reduced fishing pressure did not significantly reduce the severity of bleaching, something that the government had been hoping would save the Reef – indeed, this was the centre of their management strategy. What’s more, past exposure to bleaching in 1998 and 2002 did not lessen the severity of the bleaching in 2016, which debunked the hope that the reef might ‘adapt’ to warming.

This is all pretty important stuff but possibly it’s more technical than the broader community can easily absorb.

The reason I shared this email with my students was because my colleague finished with the statement: “This is the most depressing paper I have ever been involved in!”

Most researchers would be ecstatic to get their name on a Nature paper but the conclusions of this one signified the death of an ecosystem my colleague had devoted her life to.

Civil society

The second letter I shared with my class was a public letter from 90 eminent Australians to billionaire Gautam Adani to say Australians want clean energy, not a new coal mine. Australians who signed the open letter included senior business leaders, sporting legends, Australians of the Year, authors, farmers, musicians, scientists, economists, artists and community leaders. Names included Ian and Greg Chappell, Missy Higgins, Tim Winton, Peter Garrett and businessmen Mark Burrows, John Mullen and Mark Joiner.

Of course, the company Adani was (and still is) attempting to develop the Carmichael coal project in the Galilee Basin in Central Queensland. The project involves a 60 million tonne per annum coal mine, a 388km long rail line and the construction of a new coal export terminal at the Abbot Point coal port.

The scientists are adamant the extraction of coal from this mine would be the death knell of coral reefs everywhere. The fact that this mine is in the backyard of the GBR only adds salt to the wound.

I shared this letter because it conveyed the deep visceral antipathy held by many of our community leaders to the growing impact of fossil fuels on the ecosystems we hold dear.

It should be noted that at the same time this letter was being delivered to Adani, the Queensland Premier and six regional mayors visited India to promote the controversial Adani megamine because it promised regional jobs.

The scientific consensus

The third letter was on a similar theme. It was from the Climate Change Council, a science-based group advocating action on climate change, to the Federal Government. It pleaded with the government to not support Adani in developing its rail line from the Carmichael Mine to the coast. It provided a thoroughly researched and well-articulated argument on what the science says about the impact of a new mega coal mine: “Supporting this mine would fly in the face of advice from experts who have collectively devoted over 1,200 years studying climate change, marine ecosystems and coral reefs,” the Climate Change Council said.

Their letter finished with this succinct plea: “We urge you, on behalf of the 69,000 people to whom the Reef provides a job, the 500 million people worldwide who rely on coral reefs for their food and livelihoods, and the millions of Australians who are passionate about the protecting the Reef, that you make your decision based on the science.”

I thought it was a fairly compelling argument myself, but then I accept the science. But the argument was largely rejected and ignored by the Government. The Adani mine was approved and is now under development.

Apocalypse now

I titled this story ‘3 letters on the apocalypse’ because it sounds punchy, and the point I’m making here is it’s difficult to punch through on environmental decline when it’s bigger and more pervasive than our senses (and cognition) can readily absorb. One way we can try is by sharing other people’s responses, putting the events into a human frame.

Think about how popular media attempted to convey the impact of the Black Summer super-fires eastern Australia has just endured. The numbers (burnt hectares, lost houses, lives ended) are literally beyond our ability to assimilate but the horror of individual stories of loss cut through.

While the word ‘apocalypse’ is hyperbolic I think it’s appropriately used here for both the mass bleachings and the super-fires. Its religious connotation is of an ‘end of times’, and that is quite fitting when applied to what’s happening on the Reef. The frequency of these events means that coral reefs like the GBR now have a new identity. They are turning into something else, a system which will have a different composition and structure, a system that is unlikely to provide us a rich yield of ecosystem goods and services that it currently does.

But the word ‘apocalypse’ has another meaning as well. It’s derived from the Greek word meaning ‘revelation’. The changes taking place on the Great Barrier Reef and the forests of south eastern Australia are indeed a revelation on the true nature of climate change. It’s a revelation we dare not ignore.

Image: Bleaching coral off Lizard Island, a casualty of the most recent mass bleaching event. Photo by Kristen Brown, courtesy of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

The real climate change debate

Beliefs trump evidence while the truth disappears in the babble

By David Salt

A few years ago American comedian John Oliver ran a skit on the way most mainstream media run debates on climate change. He lampooned the way they inaccurately portray the debate as a balanced affair in which a climate expert is pitted against a climate skeptic. The viewer sees one person versus one person – a 50:50 debate. But, as Oliver points out, the scientific consensus supporting climate change is an overwhelming 97%. To portray the debate as a 50:50 divide is inappropriate and dangerously biased.

Oliver demonstrates the ludicrousness of this by staging a ‘statistically representative debate’ in which three climate-change deniers argue their cant against 97 climate scientists who drown out the naysayers with their chorus of facts.

It’s a great skit, much loved by climate researchers and science communicators everywhere. If you haven’t seen it, I commend it to you. Indeed, I regularly screen it in a talk I give on ‘science and policy’. And, I note, it’s been watched by well over eight million people with 77,000 giving it the thumbs up with around 3,000 giving it the thumbs down – fairly close to the 97% scientific consensus.

So, having praised Oliver’s efforts, and lauded the skit’s central conceit, I’m now going to call it out for demonstrating two critical weaknesses in the overall effort to communicate the seriousness of climate change; flaws that are hampering current efforts to bring about enduring policy reform.

Belief vs evidence

The first relates to Oliver’s contention that facts are more important than people’s beliefs. He begins by pointing out that a recent Gallup poll found that 1 in 4 Americans are skeptical about the impacts of climate change and think this issue has been exaggerated. Oliver retorts (to much laughter) “who gives a shit, that doesn’t matter; you don’t need people’s opinions on a fact; you might as well have a poll on which figure is bigger, 15 or 5? Or, do owls exist? Or, are there hats?”

But, as we have seen increasingly over recent elections both here and abroad, beliefs do trump facts. We make fun of people’s beliefs, regardless of their relation to evidence, at our peril.

When I looked for stats on current beliefs in the US on climate change I found results from multiple surveys. Most suggested there was a growing acceptance of the reality of climate change, that young people had higher rates of acceptance and believed that governments should be doing more, and that Republican voters had significantly lower rates of belief.

One recent survey by Yale University of over 1000 adults found that a record 73% of Americans polled agreed that global warming was happening, marking a 10% point increase since 2015. The results were trumpeted in Forbes news under the banner New Survey Finds 3 Out Of 4 Americans Accept The Reality Of Climate Change, which is really pretty much the same as the figure quoted in the Oliver skit, just framed in the reverse way (1 in 4 Americans are skeptical about the impacts of climate change).

Speaking with one voice

And the second issue raised in the Oliver skit relates to the cacophony of scientist cries as the ‘statistically representative debate’ gets underway. The point he was trying to make is that the weight of evidence drowns out the denialism if you line them up along the lines of the 97% scientific consensus (97 scientists vs 3 deniers).

But I couldn’t hear any message; it was drowned out in the babble. Indeed, the only line you actually hear is that of the deniers who get the first line in: “Well I just don’t think all the science is in yet and settled,” says the denier. Oliver then asks for what the scientists think and you can’t hear anything from then on as the 97 voices speak out in unison.

So, Oliver’s point is made with comic impact but I think he also highlighted the problem of what the public hears when confronted by multiple voices spewing out endless facts and figures, impenetrable graphs and numbers loaded with dense techno-speak expositing doom and gloom if we don’t dramatically change our ways.

On the other side* is a tiny minority of players (usually representing unstated vested interests with deep and well-funded ideological roots) putting out simple, well-crafted messages of uncertainty, sowing seeds of doubt that, with time, flower into vigorous weeds of denial that prove ever so hard to pull out. Their seductive message is that this whole climate change thing is big and complicated, we’re still figuring out what it means, but we’d be fools to change the status quo while so much uncertainty is present. Let’s do nothing for now, keep the economy growing as we have for the past 50-70 years and some way down the track we’ll fix up the climate if indeed it turns out to be broken. And, if it does need fixing, our wonderful science and market forces will provide the solution.

It just isn’t fair

Scientists live and die by the evidence they generate. In their world facts win and beliefs inevitably bend to the weight of evidence, even if it takes a while. It’s a numbers game; over time the evidence builds and a scientific consensus forms (or shifts).

The scientific consensus on (anthropogenic) climate change has grown and solidified over the past 50 years. There is now no doubt in the world of science as to its reality or consequence, even if a small clique of deniers still warps the media debate. But this clique represents powerful vested interests, and their influence may take more than facts to shift.

Scientists believe their consensus will eventually permeate the societal debate; that, in a rational world, ‘facts’ will squash unfounded belief. But the real world isn’t always rational (or fair), and it doesn’t always conform to the rigorous black and white perspective of its scientific citizens.

*Sowing seeds of doubt is just one of several techniques employed by the climate-change denial lobby/collective. They also peddle conspiracy theories, cherry pick data, employ logical fallacies and set up fake debates. If you’d like to learn more about these dark arts and how they can be resisted, check on the University of Queenslands’ online course called Denial 101: Making Sense of Climate Science Denial. Highly commended.

Image: John Oliver stages a statistically representative debate. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cjuGCJJUGsg