Last week University of Tasmania geographer Chloe Lucas was announced a winner of the Tall Poppy Science Award for her outstanding work with young people switched on to climate change. Of equal note is her study over many years of people who aren’t switched on at all: people who turn away at any mention of climate.
In a 2021 Geographical Research paper about what she calls climate friction – “how climate change communication produces resistance to concern” – Lucas described 62 interviews with people who, in their responses to a City of Hobart resident survey, indicted they were unconcerned about climate change.
Lucas believes that climate action advocates focus unduly on science while giving too little attention to non-climate, real-life concerns which for many are more pressing. That is, the values of someone like me are no more important than those of people for whom climate change is not a high-order issue.
Climate Tasmania, a specialist advisory group which accepts this non-specialist as a member, agrees. It is currently focusing on bringing ordinary, everyday social and economic concerns into the debates about targets and action plans.
Climate change may be real and present, but it’s nowhere near as real and present as the cost of food and energy. Or education, medicine, child and elder care, work and family pressures. Or paying mortgage or rental costs. Or finding shelter for tonight.
Or how to make an impression with that special person, or reach out to a troubled child, or manage our own mental health, or to fix the leaking roof or organise the next meal. Or fill up with petrol – forget about buying an electric one.
I have tried for years to get people to focus on the dangers presented by greenhouse warming. In my innocence, I thought initially that the eminently logical reasoning of the science might eventually carry the day. Of course, it didn’t, and Chloe Lucas’s study of unconcerned people helped me understand why.
In the end I have had to accept that the business of living – of surviving childhood and adolescence, finding independence, partnering with others, raising children, battling sickness and all the rest – are always going to take precedence over something which for most of us is still somewhere out there, in the future, intangible and apart.
Nature is starting to change that. Nothing focuses the mind like extreme weather, and the record-breaking heat, fire and rain events this northern summer must have had an impact. We can be sure that among the millions hit by these events, many more people are now persuaded that man-made climate change is real.
Whether such an experience – which may be our own in Australia next summer – is going to draw people together in a united front against carbon pollution is another matter altogether. One of Chloe Lucas’s interview subjects, a politically-conservative science student, helped me understand why.
As Lucas described this student, he liked to confront people to his left on the political spectrum to stir up a political debate. But he also felt a strong sense of obligation to help people without power, which he exercised by voluntary work, and he was not averse to adjusting his values according to new experience.
Her student told her this: “The problem is that if you’re talking about climate change and it’s a political debate, you’ve probably got someone from the Greens. And it is inbuilt into our political culture that if the Greens are on one side, the Liberals have to be on the other. So, if the debate is about climate change, you’ll hear very … eloquent [Liberal] speeches about how it’s nonsense.”
This has a ring of truth about it. We can go on about how the state of the climate couldn’t possibly be a matter of ideology, but experience says that it is. Even with physical evidence as stark as it is right now, the attitude of politicians will still largely be determined by where they come from and the party they belong to.
Lucas seeks a world in which unengaged people “can be included, respected, and enabled to influence conversations about our climate future” with climate action advocates building common ground and “respecting the importance and legitimacy of values that may be at odds with our own.”
Wherever we look – at local, national and global politics, at race, gender, sexuality, ideology, religion and any other human concern – we see fractures and divisions on a scale I’ve not seen in my lifetime.
Chloe Lucas is absolutely right. No task is more important than finding common ground.