S3E12 Talking About Climate Change with Rebecca Huntley

Episode Summary

If you find talking about climate change difficult, you are not alone! A complex and contentious topic that often makes people anxious and overwhelmed… of course it is hard to talk about. Yet that is exactly what we must do if we are going to make sure everyone is paying attention to this critical issue. In this episode we chat with Rebecca Huntley about her new book ‘How to Talk About Climate Change in a way that makes a difference’. We explore why talking about climate change can be so difficult and what we can do to navigate it. 

Click here for the the Six America’s study at Yale.

This episode was created in 2020 as part of a series called Turning the Goldfields Green. This series was created with support from MASGMAINfm and the Community Broadcasting Foundation.


A quick note about the transcripts: 

Some sounds in the podcast may not translate easily to the written word, we describe these when possible. We have also chosen readability over strict fidelity to the actual words spoken. As such, we have not transcribed every word and have sometimes altered the text to keep the meaning true, but also be as readable as possible.

Bird calls and guitar music plays as Allie speaks.

Allie Hanly: Welcome to Saltgrass: Turning the Goldfields Green, a show about how local communities can engage with the climate crisis at a grassroots level. This program explores the unique challenges and advantages of working for change in regional communities and small towns. Yet the themes are universal in an age where the main challenge at our times is how to navigate the imminent threat of a warming globe.

So, this show Saltgrass was initially created as a means of talking about climate change in a way that isn’t shouty or even argumentative. We try not to be ‘slogany’, but rather get in deep behind the one-line catchphrases to see what is really going on. We want to see who the humans are behind the movements and what makes people want to make change happen.

I personally find the prospect of climate change overwhelming and I’m certainly not perfect in my life choices, so I’m definitely not going to preach. But what I do want is for the world to change and I want each one of us to do what we can in our own communities and in our own sphere of influence to make sure that we are healing, and not hurting our planet, and all of the life that we coexist with on this beautiful grain of sand floating in space.

I also work for a sustainability group as their communications manager, so it is literally my job to communicate about climate change and engage my community around these issues. So, it was with a certain amount of excitement—read a lot—that I heard about this book called How to Talk About Climate Change in a Way That Makes a Difference (2020 Murdoch books).The author, Rebecca Huntley, has written this book to explore why talking about climate change can be so difficult. Rebecca is one of Australia’s most experienced social researchers and holds multiple degrees. She speaks with us in this episode about the book and why she wrote it and then we explore what she thinks is the most challenging and most effective way of communicating about climate change.

Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge that Saltgrass is produced on Djaara country, home of the Dja Dja Wurrung people. We pay respects to elders past, present and emerging. 

Saltgrass theme plays: Salt of the earth people, grass roots change. Listen to all episodes of Saltgrass on your podcast app.

Allie: Let’s start with your personal story. In your book, you describe this process of how you were one of those people who knew climate change was a thing and knew that it was a concern, but you hadn’t really taken it on board to the point where you were going to change your life to try and do something about it. So, can you talk us through that shift that happened to you between knowing the science of it and believing it, but still not taking action, to being one of those people who takes action?

Rebecca Huntley: Yes, look, it was a really surprising moment for me because I’m a very intellectual person—I did a PhD and all the rest of it—so I tend to look at moments of my life when I read something and really understood, or, you know, had an intellectual epiphany rather than an emotional epiphany in so many ways. 

And this happened one morning when I was, you know, perhaps not fully caffeinated and watching a student climate strike, and really being able to see in the faces and the voices of those young people, something very much like, you know, my daughter’s face and her concerns around climate. 

And there was that moment where I thought “they’re really talking to me and my generation, which is that parent generation.” Some people my age are in positions of power across society, and so it just really felt like a moment, although obviously there was a whole lot of stuff leading up to that moment where I thought, yeah, I actually can’t ignore this. This is something they’re asking you to do something and it’s not the kind of thing that kids normally ask you to do, like, you know, can I eat a whole cake and watch the internet for 10 hours? Like it was something I had to take seriously!

Allie and Rebecca laugh.

Allie: Yep.

Rebecca:  And I did, and it was like I say in the book, it’s not like I suddenly understood the science of climate change better or felt that it was more of an urgent issue. It went from something that I knew intellectually to something that I felt emotionally, and that combination of those two things, as well as being in a position where I thought I could make a contribution to the general climate change movement and the cause, was what kind of brought about that change.

Allie: It’s really interesting I think, ‘cause I work as the communications officer at our local sustainability group and I obviously also run this radio show and podcast about climate change. And one of the conversations we have a lot at the sustainability group and amongst other groups locally, is how do we communicate: A. to our tried-and-true followers who really believe in it and they’re really deeply concerned and they want action to happen on a broad scale right now. But also, we really need to reach the people who don’t believe that yet and aren’t taking action. Or they might believe it, like you did before you saw the student strikers. And so, it’s this constant sort of push and pull between who are we really communicating with. And one of the things I noticed in your book was you talk about a study which talks about the six Americas and the different audiences. Can you talk us through that a little? 

Rebecca: Yeah, so this was something that comes out of Yale University; it’s been around for about 12 years. So, they segment the American population into six distinct groups in terms of how they see climate change. And then of course, the distinct groups are distinct in terms of not just how they view climate change, but a range of other things, including how they look at politics; there’s different kinds of demographic skews to those groups.

 And I’ve been lucky enough to be part of a team that have done a similar study in Australia, actually with seven segments, which we call climate compass. 

And understanding how different people respond to climate change is really critical when we think about how to talk about it.

Allie: So just quickly for the listeners, the Six America Study has identified six attitudes to climate change. So, it goes from ‘dismissive’ to ‘alarmed’. So, the ‘dismissive’ believe that global warming is not happening; it’s not human caused or a threat, and most endorse the idea that it’s all a conspiracy theory, ie. global warming is a hoax. The ‘doubtful’ do not think that global warming is happening or they believe that it’s just a natural cycle. They don’t think much about it or consider it a serious risk. 

The ‘disengaged’ know little about global warming. They rarely or never hear about it in the media that they consume. The ‘cautioushaven’t yet made up their minds. They wonder whether or not global warming is happening. They wonder whether or not it’s human-caused or if it’s even serious. Then we have the ‘concerned’, they think that human-caused global warming is happening and they think it’s a serious threat, and they support climate policies. However, they tend to believe that climate impacts are still distant in time and space, and they think that climate change is a low priority compared to other issues that we’re dealing with as a society. 

And then there’s the ‘alarmed’, and they are convinced that global warming is happening, that it’s human-caused, that it’s an urgent threat, and they strongly support climate policies. A lot of these people still, however, don’t know what they or others can do to solve the problem. So, I will put a link to the website that explains these six attitudes that they’ve identified in America. And you can have a look at that at any time. So just go to saltgrasspodcast.com and find this episode to get that link.

Rebecca: I mean I often reflect on the irony that I needed to become part of the group we call the ‘alarmed’ on climate change, to really direct my life towards climate change communication. But I do worry that I become less capable of doing it because I’m ‘alarmed’. 

So previously I was just generally concerned and now I’m alarmed; I worry all the time, perhaps potentially losing some perspective that, you know, actually about 75 % of the population are not like me, even though at least 70% of the population are concerned about climate. The good thing is that my day job is talking to people who don’t think how I think on climate in my research.

And so, I look at a lot of the research and I’m forced to listen to people. And forced is a good thing; you do actually have to listen. You have to be forced to listen to people before you even engage them in a conversation about climate. You really have to understand where they’re coming from and do it with as much of an open mind and as much empathy as possible. Which isn’t the same as agreeing with them, absolutely, but is certainly a starting point.

So, look, for your sustainability group and for the core members of it and for anybody that you might want to pull in, you know, all of the things you’re thinking about in terms of what is it that sustains us? So certainly, a big part of climate is making sure that the people who are engaged in the movement can stay engaged, but that is only a small part of the task. The biggest task for us is to be better at talking to people who aren’t like us about our shared goal, which is basically a liveable world, right? A world that isn’t so hot and so climatically crazy that we can’t grow food, play sport, raise our kids in the great outdoors. 

And for some of us, of course, you know, whether you’re from the Torres Strait or from Pacific Islands or from Bangladesh, just live, not just a liveable life, but a life. And so, these are our kind of shared goals, but how we get to those shared goals and the things that will convince us and the things that will engage us are really quite different.

Allie: Yeah. You’ve structured your book around emotional responses that people might have when they’re confronted with someone talking about climate change, and then you negotiate in each chapter a different emotional response and why people might feel that way, but also how to talk to them if they’re feeling that way.

Tell us a little bit about how you came to write a book in that structure and what you’ve learned. 

Rebecca: Yeah, so look, I mean, I was really feeling it out as I went along because this is a very different book for me than so many other books I’ve written, which have been very much based on, you know, social science data about how people feel and statistics from the ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) and all the rest of it.

And while I’ve always had a personal intellectual interest in all of the books I’ve written in the past, there wasn’t a kind of personal narrative or personal story embedded in this. And so, this is quite personal book, quite an emotional book. And I’m not a psychologist, I didn’t do psychology at university, I’ve learned about people’s psychological and social responses to issues over time, having been a social researcher. So, look, I started from that point of view of thinking, you know, how far can facts take us? So how far can just being presented with the facts of climate change get people of all different kinds and the community towards actually doing anything.

So that gap between knowledge and understanding and action is a really critical one and always needs to be bridged in order to bring about either behaviour change or social change or political change. And so, I did a lot of chapters that, you know, the first two chapters are really like, how far will facts take us and why do we have to be emotional? Because people respond to any issue with a mixture of the rational and irrational and that’s what human beings are like. 

And then of course, that led me to the kind of rich and developing body of research in academia and beyond about how different kinds of emotions provoke different kinds of reactions in people, particularly in the area of climate change. And so, I just thought it was worth exploring each of those emotions. The insight for me, of course, is that coming into it, I had the very, perhaps simple-minded approach, which is thinking “oh, well we, you know, negative things, you know aren’t going to work. And we have to be positive and it has to be all about hope.” 

But actually, it’s not the case, not the case at all, except I think for shame, which is probably the only emotion that I think is almost like a live grenade in your hand. Shame is not something that is, I think, very useful, but guilt can be. I found that what we would describe as negative emotions can be used constructively and productively depending on who you’re talking to about what and what you want to get them to do.

So, I almost found an upside to even things like anger and fear and all the rest of it. And in fact, a downside to some of the things we imagine are supposed to be wholly kind of positive, like hope. Hope that’s based on the idea that, you know, Elon Musk is going to invent something that will mean that we can all keep behaving…

Allie: Laughing, Yep.

Rebecca: So that everything will be fine and you know, we’re going to all be behaving in the way we’ve been behaving. That’s a kind of a really ridiculous hope, and that hope is actually, is a different form of inaction and kind of, it’s not even hope, it’s just blind and actually, destructive optimism that makes people not do anything. 

So, I thought that it was worth exploring all of them. Some are really quite interconnected—fear and anger, obviously very interconnected in many ways—grief and loss, that notion of grief and loss, you know, again, interconnected. And so, I kind of worked my way through the different emotions, kind of feeling my way through them and seeing which ones worked one after another and found myself going through those emotions myself as I wrote the book. Laughing.

Allie: A bit of therapy as you wrote the book. Laughing.

Rebecca: It really was and really felt that I was going through it because as I mentioned in the book, I wrote quite a lot of it during last summer’s fires, and wrote it in my study while watching it all unfold on social media and all the rest of it. So, it was really quite a visceral emotional experience writing a book in that way. 

Allie: Yeah absolutely. So just going back to that issue of guilt and shame, I think it was interesting you sort of mentioned how some of the climate messaging in the past has missed some valuable opportunities because they’ve focused on shame instead of guilt, or shame instead of other things. Because you also said that you’re worried about your own capacity to be an effective messenger because you’re now ‘alarmed’. And I guess I’m wondering what are some of the mistakes people make when they’re in that ‘alarmed’ state, if they’re the ones who feel like it’s up to them to convince the world. What are some of the mistakes they make when they’re trying to communicate about climate change. 

Rebecca Oh wow! Allie and Rebecca laugh.

And look, when I say mistakes, you know, I feel acutely that you know, there’ve been people in the climate movement for decades and I’ve got late to the party. And so, when I point out the mistakes, these are not for me saying that I’ve got necessarily all the answers. And I also recognise that I can’t think, really there’d be very few issues that are quite as complicated to communicate to people about climate change. This is such a challenging issue, so it’s not for want of trying, or not necessarily for want of great, you know, commitment and integrity that environmentalists in the past have done this.

I suppose one of the real challenges around the whole notion of guilt and shame at the moment is that, if we make climate activism about the individual decisions that you as a sole person make in day-to-day life, then we forget those structures of broader responsibility and power. And you know, at its worst, at its most myopic and at its most problematic, activism around climate and the environment is about your decisions as a consumer, whether you remember a keeper-cup or whether you get plastic packaging and all the rest of it; not to diminish the movement to do anything about those issues or whether you drive to work or not…

Allie: Or live a zero-waste lifestyle, or… 

Rebecca: All of those other kinds of things. Now, these are important movements; scaled up they’re important… But of course, if you make people who were already under pressure in their day-to-day life, particularly women with children and you know, people without a lot of resources or people without a whole lot of access to bike lanes and public transport and everything, make them feel like they’re personally responsible for the melting of the polar caps if they’re not doing these things. I’m exaggerating a bit, but not entirely, right?

Allie: Yeah, I do think people feel that way though. Like some people are like, “oh, I just had a plastic takeaway container and now the world’s going to end because of me.” 

Rebecca: No, I think that’s right. Getting people individually engaged and interested in climate, it’s different than making people feel individually responsible. And so, what I say in the book, the only people that I think should really be hanging their head in shame are the politicians and people letting fossil fuel companies, and people in the media continuously and aggressively fuelling misinformation and getting in the way of progress about this and doing all the kinds of things that they’ve done for their own personal benefit to derail something that’s going to benefit the majority of the people. So, they’re really people who should feel shame. We should all try as hard as we can, but, and we should all feel a sense of responsibility. But you know, the responsibility is not ours individually to bear or even as communities, like we have to bear it more broadly.

Environmentalists are constantly being accused, particularly by the right-wing media of lecturing other people, of looking down on people who aren’t like them and judging them as morally bad for not caring about climate. And that’s an unfair characterisation, but it occasionally does happen. You do hear it where people say, “why don’t these bogans living in regional Queensland care about their kids?” And they do. They absolutely care about their kids as much as you. How that’s being expressed is different for them, and it’s kind of easy if you’ve got a job in a booming industry or you know, an investor or a lawyer or the rest of it, to kind of judge other people whose main jobs and main source of jobs may well be in fossil fuels, at least in the short term. 

Allie: Vulnerable, yeah.

Rebecca: Exactly. This is a constant tension in how we talk about climate, to give people something to do that makes them feel powerful and effective, and that is often going to be the stuff they have the most control over. Right? So obviously some of the most effective things that people can do around climate are things like just continuously voting for parties that take climate seriously, or going to their superannuation fund or going to their bank and saying, I’m actually going to actively make decisions about my money, that it moves it away from fossil fuels.

Again, you’ve got to educate people that actually they benefit at many levels for doing that, but for most people, these aren’t easy decisions to make; it does feel easier to say, okay, I’ll get a keeper cup and we will have shorter showers and all the rest of it. So, it is that idea about power, efficacy and trust that if you do make a decision, it’s actually going to make an impact. This sense that, “oh, it’s just me, and if it’s just me, what’s that going to do? I’m just one vote, I’m just one bank customer.” So much of the challenge is not necessarily about saying to people climate change is real and it’s something that’s going to affect your life and the life of your children. The biggest challenge is saying, but if you do this thing, it’s going to make a difference. That is our biggest challenge at the moment.

Allie: Because it also feels like there’s a million things being demanded of us. We’re under an avalanche of expectations and they all seem quite minute in the scale of things, but when you add them up, it does add up to a lot, but, yeah, it’s really tricky. 

Rebecca: It does, it does.

Allie:  And so, in terms of seeing big sweeping change happening in our society, is it really about having kitchen table conversations with your conservative ‘Uncle Barry’, or is there something else that needs to be going on? You know, like, I know it’s more than just our conversations with the people around us, but how important are those conversations really? Because I’m avoidant of them personally, because I actually really feel strongly about climate and I’m also a vegetarian and I feel strongly about that, so I avoid conversations about that ‘cause I get really upset when people flippantly throw it back at me because they don’t care yet. So how important are those conversations? And I, I guess the question underneath that: is that what you want your book to help people be able to do? 

Rebecca: Yes, so I want people to work out…I suppose the first thing to work out is, how much energy do you have to devote to this? And if it’s only a little bit of energy and you only have skill in one area, that’s enough, right? One of the things I say all the time—I don’t have it in the book, but I say it all the time when I’m speaking—is you are already powerful.

If you are concerned about climate change, I don’t want you to go off and change your life because of it. You can find a way to work out what is it that I do in my life right now: what are the relationships I have, leverage I have, organisations I’m part of, job that I do, and is there a crack even or a little opportunity to bring climate change into that world, right? And that is going to be more…I’m not saying don’t join Green Peace or Extinction Rebellion if that’s what you want to do. 

Allie: Laughs.

Rebecca: But one of the things that has really impressed me looking at the spectrum of climate action, and we really are talking about a spectrum, is when different groups of people decide to speak out about climate in surprising ways. So, one of the groups I’m working with at the moment who’s very interesting and they’re about to launch later on this month, are Surfers for Climate. 

Allie: Surfers?

Rebecca:  People who surf in the sea. A whole lot of you know, pro and very, well-known surfers; some well-known and some just known in the surfing community.

We want to find a way to get surfers of all types—and surfing is one of those sports that really kind of, crosses from super wealthy inner-city people to people who live in the bush and the country and all kind; crosses all those barriers, and now increasingly women and young women—to get them to think about climate change.

And so, what I find fascinating—and I have worked with all different kind groups: farmers, parents, all the rest of it—is how these groups think, okay? Let’s think about the things that matter to us in terms of whether the sport we play or the identity we have or where we live or what we do for a job. And how can we talk to that community about climate in a way that is relevant to them. 

And of course, the other thing that’s really powerful about that is, that these are people you’re already having conversations with all the time. You know, the problem with the ‘Uncle Barry’ conversation who you see once a year is you’re both a bit, you know, you’re both on the ‘turps’. 

Allie: Laughs.

Rebecca: And you’re really not going to convince each other over, you know, the Christmas turkey in that one difficult conversation at the end of the year. What you need is ongoing relationships of trust and reciprocity and to make climate change relevant for the world that you live in and the community that you’re part of.

So, I think that’s a really good way to approach it, and for people who feel overwhelmed by a million things, just saying, you know, maybe you’re part of a sporting organisation or a community that got affected by the fires, you know, by smoke haze, or you’re worried about increasing temperatures, or you’re really concerned about electricity prices or energy prices and how that’s going to affect your community organisation or anything, how can you bring that conversation into that realm? 

And so, what I’m hoping is that the book will allow people who want to start those conversations, a little bit of understanding and empathy about what might be the resistance and barriers that other people have to it. How potentially to side-step them or how to work through them or even just to better understand them. That’s always a really good part of it. I mean, often people say, “I just can’t understand climate change deniers, I just can’t understand them. They’re stupid, you know? Well, they must be dumb” and it’s actually just not the case. 

They’re no more or less stupid than anybody else, or they may be less educated, like they may have had less access to higher education, which is not actually a measure of intelligence, I’ve got to say, it’s a measure of access to education. Then to better understand them, and that’s part of it. Part of it is really this critical question of empathy, which has to be the start of any conversation, a productive conversation where people might shift their perspective. 

Allie: Absolutely, and I guess if I come back to myself, when I’m confronted with someone who’s triggering me in their sort of flippantness or their disregard for something I care about, I can have empathy for myself in that moment and understand that I’m feeling that. But if I can really understand them on that other level, instead of just sitting in my own triggered response, I can look at them and go, okay, this is because you’ve been raised that way and you understand certain things. And you know, it helps me step outside of my own emotional response, I guess. 

Rebecca: It can be really hard. And as a social researcher, and as a social researcher who was trained in a particular methodology where we would go to people’s homes and instead of asking a whole lot of questions, we would just say, “oh, you know, what have you been talking about?” And, you know, over that 20 years I’ve heard people say all kinds of things. Some of which I’ve found offensive, some of which I could have taken personally. A big part of being a social researcher is forcing yourself to stand back and take a kind of “I’m a professional listener” right? rather than engage in this conversation as an equal participant. It is really difficult, and I’m still a bit surprised every now and then that when I’m not paying a lot of attention or I’m a bit tired or I’m a bit irritable, that somebody can trigger me. 

I was doing a talk-back and I was talking about the influence of the fossil fuel lobby on elections and that we didn’t really understand how influential they were or weren’t because we don’t actually have very transparent donation laws in Australia. But you can have somebody like, you know, Clive Palmer directly be involved through money in the electoral process and all the rest of it, and the amount of PR dollars the fossil fuel industry spends, and this guy thought that I was trying to say that he was really easily manipulated and stupid, and he was being bought by the fossil fuel industry and he was saying, “well, I make up my own decision about who I want to vote for.” And I got a bit irritated with him or a bit…felt like he was misconstruing what I was going to say.

But I, I looked at it and I realised that I understand why he had that response I was talking about the influence of money and hidden money on politics. And it sounded like I was saying, you are stupid and you’re being manipulated and you don’t know it. But I also made the point I said, “look, I’m not just saying you are, I’m saying we all are. Of course, we’re influenced”. We’re influenced in all kinds of ways, probably ways I’m not even aware of. 

It’s really hard to sustain the kind of emotional energy you need for these conversations ‘cause they’re really difficult. So sometimes, you know, in the schoolyard or at the party, I just sit back and let it go; just sit back and chill.

Allie and Rebecca: Laughter

Rebecca: I sit back and let it go. Because sometimes it feels a little bit too much like work and I just give myself an opportunity to listen to people. And of course, people love being asked why they feel the way they do. So that’s why I just go into questioning mode “oh really, why do you feel that?” I just ask a range of really open respectful questions and I generally get a bit of insight from that point.

Allie: That’s really interesting. Yeah. On that topic of social undercurrents and control that we’re not aware of, I’m really interested in this increasing divide that seems to be coming out of our use of social media and the algorithms that are used there to help direct things. 

There’s a documentary that recently got released called The Social Dilemma (2020 docudrama) and it describes the algorithms on these social media platforms direct content that they think we want to see. But that creates these silos where we’re only getting information that reinforces what we already believe. And so, you do get the people who live completely different lives fundamentally believing everyone should believe what they think because it’s all they’ve been shown. And we are the same. We live in this bubble. 

How do you think we can communicate on social media or how do we navigate social media to negotiate that dynamic that’s emerging? 

Rebecca: It’s very, very difficult, and in fact, it’s funny that you mentioned The Social Dilemma because my 12-year-old daughter watched it. We had a conversation the other day. And she said she was really worried about a world controlled by Facebook. I mean, she’s worried about Instagram presenting the kind of idea about these perfect lives that can’t be lived, but she was particularly worried about Facebook, and so I quit Facebook. Laughs.

Allie: Wow, you have!

Rebecca: Yes. I quit Facebook a couple of days ago, I deleted my account.

Allie: I know a few people have done that recently. 

Rebecca: You know, I am on Instagram, but it’s kind of pretty pictures for me basically on Instagram and also, she’s on Instagram, so I think it’s important for me to be on a social media platform that she wants to be on. And I do a bit of Twitter, but I think one of the things about Twitter is that people know it’s a combative arena where people kind of yell at each other. Facebook presents itself as a very kind of, “oh, it’s a marketplace of ideas.” 

Allie: And we’re all friends, aren’t we?

Rebecca: Yeah. We’re all friends on Facebook. We’re really not. So, I think it is incredibly difficult. The research on climate change and social media is mixed, so, in terms of its impact on attitudes. One of the things that’s really interesting is that the more that ‘deniers’ are much more likely to get their information on climate change from social media than any other, Which I think is really fascinating.

People who’ve surveyed social media, particularly Twitter, have said, look, there’s as much useful and important information on climate change on Twitter than there is ‘denier’ propaganda and in fact people of all kinds of who access information about climate change that is useful and factual can get that from social media and have found it useful.

I think what people fighting each other on social media about climate change does—and I think this is incontrovertible—is that it makes everybody who is concerned about climate change, but silent, feel that they need to be a champion debater with the grasp of climate science like a professor to be able to talk about it. So, I think what it does is it has a silencing influence. Because it makes out that it is so contested and so angry and so fraught, that any normal person who doesn’t really get off on that, which is most of us, feels like, “oh, I can’t enter this arena.” So, I think it has that impact on people. 

So, I think it is really tough, and you know, right wing ideologues would have a real problem with this, but one of the counter balances to this polarising effect on climate change and social media is to make sure that climate change and the science of climate change is taught in schools, in curriculum, and in fact, a lot of countries around the world have mandated as part of their curriculum. So, Italy is one country, but a number have.

And what has been interesting in the research that I have included in the book and a lot of the activists I talked to, is that it was…and there was one fantastic climate change activist from Fiji that I interview in the book, Lave Seru. And he said he was at school and he learned about climate change at school and the science of climate change in his early 20s., and then went to his village, his ancestral village, and saw what was happening to his village. And the connection between understanding the science and the lived experience for him was the beginning of, you know, climate change career. 

Similar thing to the wonderful Australian Anna Rose who learned about climate change at school, but also saw the impacts of it on her uncle’s farm and grandparents’ farm. And again, created a kind of activist that bridged that understanding at school and through the facts, and also had that lived experience. 

So, I think the antidote to seeing climate change through social media is actually spending time in nature. Go out, spend time in nature, talk to people who understand the land and understand the environment, hear about it at school, hear about it on television shows and other shows that actually listen to what the C S I R O and the Bureau of Meteorology are telling us and make the connections and we can do that. And then it means that when you do engage in social media that you’re able to filter what gets told by all that other information. 

Allie: Yeah, absolutely. And so, of those people who are the climate ‘deniers’ who get all of their climate information from social media that you mentioned earlier, is there a way to reach them, do you think?

Rebecca: My general view is that if you’re a hardcore climate ‘denier’, you’re unreachable. 

Allie: Yeah. Okay, sure. 

Rebecca:  By the mere definition of who you are. I mean, interestingly, Yale, they update their Six America Study quite regularly, and they’ve actually seen a slight contraction of ‘deniers’ in America. So, it’s 3%. From a low base, right, they’re always less than 10%. In Australia, they’re less than 10%. So, I generally feel that—and I know, having had climate change ‘deniers’ and engaged with them in different ways and had them in focus groups—is that, you know, talking to them, they really, really, really want to argue with greenies about climate change. They kind of really like it.

Allie: Laughs. Yeah, sure. 

Rebecca: And you know, I just generally say there’s just a limit to how much energy…I think it’s about where are you going to get your return on investment, right? We all have a limited amount of energy to expend in our daily lives when we’re not sleeping, fighting the children about socks and you know, going to the occasional yoga class. So, I believe, and I really strongly believe, and this is our greatest challenge, it’s not the people who are climate ‘deniers’ in the community. Our greatest challenge is the people—if we’re talking about the community—the people who are ‘cautious’ on climate change, who believe it’s real, but doubt that we can make the transition quickly enough. 

So, for these people, you don’t have to fight with them about climate change being real; they believe it’s real. They just think, “oh, it’s going to be a problem in the future and we can’t, you know, go to renewable energy anytime soon. And you know, we can’t live without the mining exports” and all the rest of it. If you’re going to try and crack a difficult nut, that’s the nut to crack.

We do need to get climate ‘deniers’ out of parliament. And we need to make sure that those climate deniers who are peddling false facts in the public sphere, particularly in influential newspapers and all the rest of it are challenged effectively. So, we do need to do that, but I think the bigger challenge is saying to people who are ‘concerned’ or ‘cautious’ on climate, but unconvinced that we can make the change in the time possible or think, oh, you know, we’ve got to go slowly, or we can’t deal with covid and climate, then that’s the challenge, not ‘deniers’ so, I would say to any activist out there, just ignore the climate ‘deniers ’in your life and focus on some of these other challenges.

Allie: Absolutely. And so, you talk about relevance in your book a lot, in terms of talking to them and trying to get them to step up to maybe being active, rather than watching from the sidelines and feeling like they can’t do anything. If the messaging is around relevance or keeping things relevant to them and their life, is that what you would say would be the most effective way to reach them?

Rebecca: I think it is, and I think that one way to do that is to illustrate to them in really kind of concrete ways how it is already being done. I’d be interested to see how broad its reach was, but the 2040 documentary (2019 Australian documentary) that Damon Gameau did, I thought one of the things that was really effective about that was that it looked at things that were already happening in the world that we live in now.

So much about climate change makes people think, “oh, this is a massive, you know, massive problem and we don’t have the tools to fix it” right? It feels overwhelming. But I think the thing that I really liked about that film is it centred the solutions in today, in communities that are already being challenged, like already challenged in many kinds of ways, but they’re still doing it. And so, a really important lesson for people in an affluent country like Australia to realise is, well, actually the people in Costa Rica are doing a lot better than we are with renewable energy. And the people in Bangladesh have actually got these incredible macro grids and are selling energy to each other in a way that we don’t really do in Australia.

And we’ve got not only the technology, the appetite, the capacity, the environment to do this, why aren’t we doing this? So, I think part of it has to be about relevance, but also part of it has to be about centring it in the world today. I mean, certainly one of the things that a lot of people who aren’t already ‘alarmed’ on climate change find really difficult is when you start to project into the future and say, in 20 or 30 years, this is what’s going to happen.  And they find that extremely difficult to do. They resist it. So, I talk very much about what is being done and what can we do right now? Like what’s within our grasp and what could that then open up for two-years-time or three-years-time or five-years-time? And there are some great examples around Australia and around the world, but particularly around Australia because we need things that are relevant and real to people in Australia as well, that show what’s possible.

Allie: Yes, absolutely. Yeah. Well, I think that’s entirely what I’m trying to do with my show, is just show examples of what local communities can do because our federal government’s not doing it. A lot of local communities are starting to do it for themselves.

Rebecca: And that is really exciting. I mean, interestingly, coming off the back of the book, a lot of my work, not surprisingly, is with local governments from all around Australia, some of which have declared climate emergencies, but some of which haven’t. There is just nothing like the power and determination of a community that have decided to come together on a point of interest and get something done.

And talking to local communities, you realise that regardless of where anybody sits on climate change, there’s always something that binds that community together in some way. It could be a place; it could be anything really. Something that they love, something that they value, something that makes them think their community is worth preserving. And then it’s about working out, regardless of where you sit on climate changes is this something that needs to be protected, augmented…

Allie:  Future-proofed. 

Rebecca: Exactly. And climate change threatens these things. So, what can we do about it? This is where the groundswell from the bottom-up movement is so critical, but of course you know there’s a ceiling on that. This is why we do want the federal government to provide a larger framework because no matter what local communities do, unless they don’t have that leadership at the top level, there’s a limit to how much they can do.  But they are actually punching above their weight, so many communities around Australia in relation to this, at that local government level.

Allie: Yes, absolutely. And I think the more that each local community does it, the more their neighbour sees it and goes, “oh, we could do that.” 

Rebecca: Exactly, no, that’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. 

Allie: So, I don’t know if there is an answer to this, but what do you see as… Okay, so living in Victoria and living in my bubble of like-minded folk, I often see time and time again as a federal election comes up where like, “oh, they, they won’t possibly get back into power this time round,  people are disgusted with what they’ve done”, but then they get back in power because our bubble is not the whole of Australia. And I guess the question is how do we get people to change their perspective on what they need in a government? People who aren’t me is the question! Laughs.

Rebecca: Yeah, well part of this is about the tyranny of low expectations, Laughs… which was not a phrase that was invented in the context of Australian politics, but I think it’s just something that I’ve noticed over time, which is that people don’t think that they’re voting for a whole raft of promises that a government’s going to make. They’re just, you know, how pissed off do I need to be to get rid of these guys to take a punt on these other guys ‘cause they’re all the same. So that kind of low expectation narrowing of issues of concern, and then it all becomes just about whether or not I like the leader, or whether or not they’re going to bring in this tax or they’re going to do these other kinds of things.

I mean, in context of the last election, I said that, you know, it’s pretty clear that when a politician says, I’m going to tax you, people believe them. When he says, I’m going to give you all these things ‘cause I’m going to tax you, they don’t! Laughs. 

Allie: Yeah. That’s interesting. 

Rebecca: So, I think it’s really hard, it’s a really difficult thing to do, is to expand people’s sense of what they should believe government can do and what they want. And it is just one of those things where in Australia, particularly at the federal level, not so much at the state level, we’ve got to be really, really ‘jack’ of the other crew and really, really certain that a change is warranted to be able to make that change.

So, we just need to keep, you know, tapping away at it. There are no easy answers at a time where globally people’s politics is becoming more polarised. People of all political persuasions are becoming far more paranoid about their leaders and far more uncertain about the benefits of democracy. But with no alternative as well, so it’s pretty hard. There’s no easy answer, so we just have to keep tapping away; keep tapping away at it in the best way that we possibly can. 

Allie: All right. Well thanks so much. 

Rebecca: Thank you. They were wonderful questions. It was great to speak to you.

Allie: That’s alright. Can you tell me if you’ve got anything else coming up on the climate topic, are you going to take this further?

Rebecca: Look. So, the moment on the couch where I decided that this is what I was going to do was serious. So, this is pretty much it for the next 10 years. Once I started reading that we do have a 10, 15-year window to be able to make that transition to renewable energy and start to bring about those kinds of changes.  And I’m nearly 50, so 10 years is not what it once used to be. 10 years can go by pretty quickly. That’s pretty much all I do. So, it’s pretty much all my writing, all my thinking, all my paid work, all my spare time, and yeah, all of my energy. And look, I still forget my keeper cup, although a lot of places aren’t taking keeper cups now because of covid.

Allie:  I know, because of covid!

Rebecca: Yes. I’m still recycling and you know, and composting and walking places, and I’m still doing all those kinds of things, but this is just pretty much my life now, and it’s one of the really critically important ways that I manage my anxiety about climate change and feel like I’m doing the right thing by my community and my country and my kids in this kind of work.

So, post the book, it’s basically talking about the book, working with lots of different kinds of organisations, big and small, and working on this climate compass project, which will be a five-year project. A bit of detailed data is always great to be able to share with people who are trying to change the world.

Short musical break: bird calls and guitar

Allie: So that was Rebecca Huntley, author of How to Talk About Climate Change in a Way That Makes a Difference, discussing all of the difficulty and nuance of communicating about such a huge and complex problem as climate change. You can buy the book from the publisher, Murdoch Press, or any good bookstore. I have links in the episode description @saltgrasspodcast.com.

For those of you listening on MAINfm or 3MDR please note that you can listen to all episodes of Saltgrass on your preferred podcasting app.

You can follow us on Facebook and Instagram and YouTube and please subscribe to our e-mailing list to get reminders and updates about the show.  Again, you can do that by going to saltgrasspodcast.com/contact

This program was made possible with support from MAINfm and the Community Broadcasting Foundation. Find out more at cbf.org.au

My name is Alison Hanly. Thanks for listening.

Saltgrass theme plays: Salt of the earth people, grass roots change. Listen to all episodes of Saltgrass on your podcast app.

Transcription by Robyn Walton

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