So last night (April 26th) I had the pleasure of watching the ABC’s climate special. This involved their documentary, “I Can Change Your Mind…On Climate”, in which delayer Nick Minchin and advocate Anna Rose flit about the world talking to climate scientists who accept the climate science, and recreational bloggers or political pundits, who dispute it. As it happens, no minds are changed on climate, although there is a touching, Truman-esque conclusion, in which Minchin and Rose agree that, just maybe, it’s a bad idea in general to burn dirty fuels that are finite, costly, and cause untold health problems.
After this was a Q&A special, featuring our two heroes, as well as three others: mining magnate/Jabba the Hutt impersonator Clive Palmer; Dr. Megan Clark, of the CSIRO; and Rebecca Huntley, whose bio seems to suggest she is a social scientist.
I’d like to reflect on and analyse last night’s happening in the context of the climate movement and communication tactics in particular. That said, I can’t possibly do so objectively. Anna Rose and I aren’t in the wedding invitation league of friendship, but it’s fair to say she has had a not insignificant direct impact on the course of my life. As legend goes, it was her instinct that had me selected for the AYCC’s COP15 delegation; she was the one who proposed that I become the AYCC’s SA Coordinator.
But hey, here are my thoughts:
What most struck me in the Q&A was Rose’s use of new language on climate change. The language of the panel’s sceptics was very much staid and predictable, straight from their playbook. This is in many ways our failure – opponents of climate action are singing from the same songsheet, and their frames are well-established in the public.Rose however, had a comparative advantage – it seems to me she is writing our verbal playbook. Thus what she had to say was fresh and new and, while this is a disadvantage in terms of influencing decision-making, the establishment of these new frames is vital and necessary. Examples of this include Anna’s excellent analogy between the carbon budget and a household budget, or the comparison of Australia (the largest per-capita polluter in the OECD) to a pack-a-day grandpa who wants his teenager to give up smoking.
I want to emphasise this point – the climate movement needs to be better at simplifying complicated things, and that’s what analogies are for (Lakoff would say metaphors). A metaphor enables you to explain something unfamiliar by comparison to the familiar. It takes something that means nothing to most people – carbon budgets, climate justice – and expresses it with reference to the everyday. Christopher Pyne does this successfully with the discussion around mining and a two-speed economy – “You don’t speed up the slow lane by slowing the fast lane”. Organisers try to do it with metaphors to house insurance or planes that are predicted to crash, but I feel that those two particular examples come across weakly. We need new and better analogies, and Rose offered some last night.
Secondly, Anna demonstrated a new way of relating to sceptics. This includes both soft sceptics, people who don’t accept climate science but aren’t dogmatically driven, and hard sceptics (deniers/delayers) who reject climate science on ideological grounds. Anna engaged with this people with an openness and empathy that, it pains me to admit, the climate movement can learn from.
As Drew Westen has pointed out in his excellent book, The Political Brain, decisions are substantially influenced by emotional feelings towards individuals. That is, somebody’s choice to vote for a politician is primarily about how they perceive that politician emotionally, with reference to qualities such as empathy, credibility, and security. Voting decisions aren’t to do with policy. They absolutely are not to do with policy. And we can take this a single step further – when there is a deep neural connection between a person and an issue, as with, say, Al Gore and climate change and, potentially, Anna Rose and climate change, feelings towards that person will influence feelings on the issue.
So this is what happened last night. 1.7 million people watched Q&A. Many of these people must have been soft sceptics, open to having their
mind brain changed on the issue of climate change. Many of these people would have negative emotional associations with climate change or climate activists. In Anna Rose, people saw somebody empathic, erudite, selfless, and interested in them, who advocated action on climate change. People saw somebody likeable. And that makes them more likely to like what that person is about.
What does this mean for us? You can’t change minds, of climate sceptics or anybody else. Decisions are largely subconscious (the truer word is irrational, but it has a pejorative connotation). While talking to a soft sceptic, the most important thing you can do is come across well. Listen to them, show respect, acknowledge and empathise with their concerns, without necessarily legitimising them. No, this doesn’t mean listening to a hard sceptic rabbit on about conspiracies; yes, it is still important to address concerns or questions. Ultimately though, nobody’s mind is changed in an encounter, but everybody’s brain is changed a bit. If you are associated with climate change action, and you, during outreach, give people positive experiences, you are helping the cause.
I’m getting near the end! I’d like to wrap up by offering some observations about things I think Rose could have done better:
- Anna was too polite. Anna was perhaps too true to my point above – too concerned with coming across well. Without being rude, there is space for a speaker to be assertive, to take a stand when a line has been crossed. Strategically speaking, this may not mean yelling out “bullshit” while Wyatt Roy speaks. It does seem to me though that if the stakes are as high as activists keep telling society (and they are) then there is a time and place for calling bullshit.
- Anna was at times a tad inauthentic. There were definitely some who found Anna condescending. This wasn’t me, but it did seem to me that at times she was expressing ‘set pieces’, not spoken from the heart. This is vastly preferable to making like a typical activist and either being unable to say anything to the media, or being unable to say less than too much. But there’s definitely room to improve here – to be able to speak confidently and controlledly while offering authenticity.
- Where were the stories? I know that Rose knows how effective personal stories are for changing brains. So I imagine she exercised her own judgement about how suitable it was to tell stories. Recall however, when Rose spoke up to respond to that boor, Palmer, who was prattling on about developing countries as if he were Fred Hollows and not a self-interested billionaire who owns several state governments. Rose cut-through here when she popped Palmer’s altruism balloon; the next step should have been to tell the story of someone from the Majority World who is facing climate impacts. Rose has met such people at UN events, and their stories have affected her personally – I regret that 1.7 million Australians weren’t given a chance to hear what Anna has heard.
In all, last night was some great programming. It was challenging, but Anna rose to it. Australia’s soft sceptics were exposed to a likeable, effective climate communicator. Australia’s climate-concerned were exposed to likeable, effective climate communication. And Clive Palmer was outright exposed.
Over the next few months I’ll be part of a team of volunteers working with Anna Rose to promote her new book, Madlands, and engage with soft sceptics around Australia. I’m immensely excited about this opportunity, and you can look forward to more exclusive, well-formatted, and entertainingly punctuated blogging.