Julie’s lived in Glenbrook, in the lower Blue Mountains, since the 1970s, when she moved her young family up from Penrith. It’s obvious to her that the heat’s been getting worse. It starts earlier and lasts longer and makes life just that extra bit harder. Especially when the fires come. There’s nothing that compares to that fear – will the kids be alright? The grandchildren now, up at Blackheath and over at Bilpin. Of course, we’ve always lived with fires, but you just can’t ignore that they’re getting worse and they’re coming so much more often now. What will the future hold? It seems so wrong at people keep fighting about climate change instead of doing everything they can to stop it.
The State of the Climate report from the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO is just the most recent in a long line of scientific reports about global warming which sets out detailed scientific information without any serious attempt to engage its audience in what it all means. And the media reporting of the report, little as there was of it, was also just the latest in a long line of stories about emissions and temperatures and rainfall instead of about what these mean to us all.
We all know the power of story. It runs very deep in human nature that we are attuned to understanding and responding to stories far more than we are to facts and figures. Why else do fairy tales old and new, from Cinderella to Star Wars to Frozen, hold such sway? Why else would every religion be based on ritualised retelling of stories? Why else do we use mnemonics? ‘My very elderly mother’ is so much easier to remember than Mercury – Venus – Earth – Mars.
Depressingly, repeated studies have shown that using facts and figures to try to change people’s minds can actually rebound, and reinforce previous beliefs.
Indeed it’s one of the great ironies of our time that we now have clear scientific evidence that stories are vital for communicating facts and figures and yet scientists themselves – and those who pride themselves on being aligned with a fact-based world-view – are so reluctant to embrace them.
Greg’s been running boats up the Queensland coast his whole life. When the fishing industry consolidated, he moved to tourism, figuring the Great Barrier Reef would be there forever. At first he didn’t buy the bleaching scare, but you can’t ignore it anymore. The tourists all talk about it openly. He and some other operators discuss it amongst themselves. It’s hard to imagine what this part of the world would be like without the Reef. A lot poorer, in every way, that’s for sure.
In so many areas, it is now standard practice to use stories to communicate aspects of detailed reports. Budget summaries routinely come with pre-prepared outlines of what tax and benefit changes mean to Janet and John and their 1.8 children.
In journalism it is long established practice to find people whose stories represent issues being discussed. It is almost unthinkable that a rate rise would be let pass without every media outlet finding a family with a mortgage to tell their story, or that an industrial dispute would be reported without a focus on people affected. It’s impossible to imagine Tony Abbott’s anti carbon price campaign in the absence of his daily appearances with business owners saying they’ll have to lay off staff or parents worrying about how to pay the bills.
If a young man is king-hit and dies, we tell his story and launch a political campaign to change the language and change the law. If a tree limb falls and tragically kills a young child, we tell the family’s story and use it to drive a political agenda.
Yet with global warming, far from being established practice, it is actually taboo to tell stories about the people facing climate change impacts today. If somebody dares to mention climate change while bush fires are burning, they are shouted down and told not to politicise the issue. If we raise the number of people who die unnecessarily in the heat waves which are becoming more severe, longer and more frequent, we’re told to stop being emotional and to drop the scare campaigns.
This is not an accident. It’s not a conspiracy theory, either. It is part of a very deliberate and open campaign over many years by the anti-environmental right to narrow the discourse, to limit what we can talk about and how we can talk about it, as I wrote here just a few days ago. And in this case the campaign quite deliberately plays into the desire of scientists to be unemotional and fact-based as well as the desire of the left to be unimpeachably rational.
This land’s been in Barnaby’s family for four generations. And, yes, it’s always been tough. Sure, we’ve always had droughts. But this is different. If you’re not burying your head in the sand, if you take a look at what’s in front of you, you can see how the hotter days and nights and the shifting rain patterns have changed the land. It’s disappointing to Barnaby that the farmers’ federations are taking such a narrow view, but he won’t let ideology cloud his thinking. The Greens might be strange people, but they’re right about this.
People say environmentalists and scientists need to learn to communicate better. On one level, I clearly agree with that. But on another level, there are some great projects and pieces of work going on that tragically go unreported and unnoticed. One of the best recent contributions to the debate has been Tim Senior’s prize winning essay, Whose language is it anyway? which sets out the importance of story telling and working with the people who’ll be most affected in ways which apply to their lives. Plenty of people and groups are already doing this.
The most amazing thing happened when Tony said renewable energy drove up energy prices: his nose started to grow! He wasn’t expecting that. Maybe it wasn’t really happening. He decided that the best course of action was to keep going and the problem would disappear. But when he made the claim that solar and wind power were so variable that they needed the same amount of coal or gas power to back them up, it grew even longer! “What’s happening?” he howled? “Simple,” replied Gepetto, the adviser from the International Energy Agency. “Every time you tell a lie, your nose will start to grow. Better start telling the truth before everyone looks and laughs at you.”
Climate change is an amazing story, and there are so many wonderful tales deep in our culture that we can relate it to. Let’s go out and tell them!
Image: cc licensed Tim Keegan