Climate change books aren't usually what I'm drawn to, partly because I think the environmental movement has a PR issue. It comes off as too woke.
That means there are only two such books in my entire ridiculous library. But from the first time I picked up Rebecca Huntley's inclusive and thoughtful How To Talk About Climate Change in a Way That Makes Sense, I was so hooked that I've read it twice.
I was expecting to get growled at, or that the book would be overly emotional. Instead, the pragmatic Rebecca makes the really complex global issue of climate change accessible. Her mission was to talk about how we need to get prepared for when climate change really starts to bite in 10 or 15 years, and in her hands, it feels like a personal journey.
And turns out, it was a personal journey—being a mum to three young children—that was behind Rebecca's decision two years ago to devote her entire professional and private focus to climate change.
“I spent years getting them to brush their teeth and learn to swim and do their times tables and make sure I have enough savings to help them get a house," said Rebecca when she joined me on #Perspectives podcast No Planet B.
Then she realised she needed to prepare them for the future they face.
"I have a responsibility as a parent to do everything I can to ensure there is an actual viable world for these children with good teeth, who can swim and know how to do their times tables.”
A social researcher who has degrees in law and film, a PhD in gender studies and is an ABC broadcaster, Rebecca even flashed me the permanent motivation she carries on one hand. Recently done, the small tattoo of the initial S (all her kids' names start with it) is "a reminder that this is a fight I've got to stay in."
Right here and now, I'm sure some of you are slipping away, disengaging, thinking—like I have—that the environmental movement makes you feel as if you're part of the problem and being judged.
Greta Thunberg concerns you more than she inspires you. You think this summer might be much milder than last year's terrible Australian tinderbox heat. You carry a keep cup, you never use plastic water bottles, you recycle—surely you're doing your bit?
Put plainly, I think the messaging and marketing around climate change hasn't done its job. Where there is blame and shame, it’s not turning people onto wanting to be a part of it. Being yelled at is not the way to win my heart.
Norwegian psychologist and politician Per Espen Stoknes agrees. In 2016 he called climate change the "largest science communication failure in history" and two years ago wrote about the five psychological barriers to climate change.
“Absolutely," says Rebecca, who started her career in commercial and market research for financial institutions and is taking that skill and knowledge into the environmental movement.
Like Espen Stoknes, she says "the level of threat that climate change poses to everybody on the planet has been proven by science to the greatest degree. That being said, there’s something about the nature of climate change that makes it very different to a World War, an extreme weather event or a pandemic.”
Right now, amid COVID-19, there are daily triggers—hand sanitiser in shops, masks, infection rate bulletins—to remind us of the pandemic, as well as social cues and government rules around changing our behaviour.
"Communicating about climate change and the solutions to climate change is a massive marketing challenge. It’s not like selling someone a new Scotch Finger biscuit, it’s really tough: ‘I know I want the biscuit now but I don’t know why I want renewable energy now.’
"It’s a massive challenge which is why it’s both exciting and terrifying at the same time.”
I'm not sure that I entirely share Rebecca's cautious optimism about the world's future, which means what I'm about to say is a real downer and vitally important that you know about.
We all know climate is different to weather, and that the Earth is at the tipping point. Scientists have agreed since the 1970s we can’t let the world heat up more than another two degrees Celsius without experiencing surging and wild weather events—and the melting of the polar ice caps. Once that starts happening, it can't be switched off.
Over an hour, we discussed political inertia, celebrity endorsements, climate action groups, why who you choose as your insurance company could affect climate change, renewable energy, bird watchers and the small group of Australians who are climate change deniers: “Very few of us are of the view that this will all be fine and that it’s great we have slightly higher temperatures so we can grow different types of grapes in Tasmania.”
Asked how she would approach having a reasoned scientific conversation that shifts minds and actions, Rebecca said it's really important we are all aware of the individual decisions we make in our day to day life, whether we use plastic bottles, whether we cycle or drive to work.
"They can collectively bring about a shift, but when you start to make saving the world come down to whether I have a disposable coffee cup … you are really not getting a sense of where the responsibility lies," she says.
"We all try and do our best, none of us is perfect and finger pointing about not being the absolute perfect green consumer is not going to be helpful and will turn people away from environmentalism because they think the price is too high.”
Research shows the group in Australia most disengaged on the climate issue is disproportionately women on low incomes who are renting, work part time and looking after kids.
“It’s not that those women don’t care," says Rebecca.
"They are just overwhelmed and if you say, 'Climate change means buying these products and being a vegan', they are already struggling. How is it their responsibility for saving the planet and why would you continue to shame them when they already are under an enormous amount of stress?
"It has no place. The only people we should be trying to shame are the politicians actively stopping progress on renewable energy.”
For her, getting people “to understand as a collective that we are responsible for the Earth we live on," is key, "but responsibility is not the same as crushing guilt and shame.
"We do need to give people a sense of connection between how we live our lives and the consequences, and then we need to move very quickly to effective action. What can you do about it and how can you work to save the things you love, stop too much of the loss of things you love and build a liveable future.”
What solutions did we come up with? Our wish list: We’re going to get Elon Musk on board with solving the problems here and bringing his genius mind to the problem we’ve got instead of bailing out to Mars.
We are going to get political will through action, acting locally and getting politicians to pay attention to it. We’re going to let the coal mines fizzle out, get really clear messaging on what an alternative source of renewable, clean, recyclable energy is that is like for like if you capped carbon emissions from coal mines, and not yelled if someone says they don’t necessarily believe it.”
My last suggested initiative is that if mothersunited.com became a thing, where every mother signed up and said ‘I am joining on behalf of my children’, if a billion voices became one voice that would matter.
I was assured by Rebecca we have the economic, political and social capital, but need to work on the emotional resilience, the strong community ties, that sense we live in a society that values our natural environment and values everybody’s life.
"Because right now the ice caps are melting and the Torres Strait islands are falling into the sea on our doorstep," says Rebecca. "I have a lot of anxiety but I also feel a moral obligation to remain optimistic while there is still a time chance and an opportunity to do some things.”