The year we talked about climate change

Nell Azuri, Climate for Change's Team Leader and Mentor, discussing why we don't talk about climate change at Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland.

I’ve done a talk about Climate for Change for the last two years at Woodford Folk Festival.

This year the title of the talk was “Why we don’t talk about climate change”. I was expecting a scattered audience of climate nerds, like the year before, because as the title suggested, people don’t like to talk about climate change, right? Apparently not this year. This year, the tent was packed. 

This year, with the taste of smoke and fear still bitter in their mouths, people are turning to face climate change in unprecedented numbers. Which is why we need Climate for Change, to help them step into action, rather than suppressing their fears when the flames near them are extinguished.

The talk I gave introduced the work we do and outlined some of the initial findings of our review. Here it is:


Why we don’t talk about climate change, and how we can

I’m here today talking about something we would all prefer not to talk about…

Climate change. Specifically, some reasons we don’t talk about climate change, and crucially, how we can. I’m going to introduce you to an organisation that’s all about talking about climate change, that I love and volunteer for, but first, I’m going to tell you how I got there.

In fact, I’m a really good illustration of the way things often go with climate awareness. I knew about climate change since I was a kid, I knew that it was something that someone would have to do something about someday. But I certainly didn’t think it would be me.

Then in 2007, I read a book by George Monbiot, and it really broke me open to the urgency and seriousness of the problem. But I didn’t know what to do, and when the Copenhagen climate talks ended so badly, and I turned away, feeling entirely hopeless and helpless.

I ignored climate change for the next 7 years. I actively suppressed my concern about it. I avoided it. I didn’t act. I was passive at the same time as being increasingly concerned, increasingly despairing. In retrospect I can see that this took a lot of energy.

And then three years ago Donald trump was elected, and I read a report that catastrophic fire danger was going to come north, to QLD, where I live. These two things triggered an urgency and immediacy that overrode my suppression and turned me to face this thing I’d been running from. And the energy I’d been using to supress my concern was now available for me to use to act. I went from zero to a hundred. Within months I was leading online groups and going to Canberra to meet with MPs. I’d stepped into a leadership space.

And it felt great. I wanted to share it with people, I was sure that they would be as relieved as I was to begin doing something and I would build this great network of people who wanted to act... But when I spoke to people it seemed like they didn’t want to hear.

I found myself grappling with my sense of extreme urgency about climate change, while trying to operate in a world that seemed largely oblivious to the danger we were facing.

It was strange, a kind of double vision – I’m sure many of you have had this experience too. I would have people at school drop off talking to me about normal things, their holidays, school lunches, soccer training… and it was a real struggle for me at first - because at what point is it appropriate to interject, and how would one actually say, “um… I hate to interrupt, but unless we all start insisting on systems change, climate change will drive us to an apocalyptic future in which soccer training may well be cancelled”? Unless the other person is already aware of the climate emergency, it’s a tricky message to deliver in that context without sounding a bit crazy. But when it’s the truth, and you don’t say it, you’re not helping, are you? You’re just feeding the denial in society. 

Because even though at the last poll, taken just before this terrifying summer, over three quarters of Australians agree climate change is occurring, and even more than that are worried about its effects, life pretty much goes on as usual. 

And how can it possibly be true that the world is ending if nobody is acting like it is, if soccer practice continues. We are social creatures and we watch our communities to see how we should act. And while society is in denial, the major parties don’t really have to act, do they, in fact with the pressures they face from vested interests, it’s very hard for them to. 

The fact that we cannot bear to look at the possibility of this disaster makes that very disaster more likely with every day that passes. 

There’s a theory that explains part of this. It’s called Terror Management theory. We, like most animals, have a strong instinct for self-preservation. It’s built into us by evolution, because those that didn’t have it so strongly weren’t as likely to survive and didn’t pass on their genes.

That means the idea of our own death disturbs us so greatly that we avoid thinking about it, avoid believing it. And yet, as humans, we are smart enough to understand that our death is inevitable. 

How do we hold these two things? Adroitly. With a little sleight of hand, we manage to hide what we know about our own death from ourselves. And yet there are costs to this. We have a tendency live dulled lives, fretting over things that seem to be, when we actually consider how briefly we will be alive, very small beer indeed. Near misses with cancer or accidents often change us profoundly because they strip this lie back and leave us facing a truth that has the potential to transform us. We go forward willing to engage with life more fully, to be more present, to love as if one day we and all we loved would no longer exist. Because it’s true.

And similar to my fear of climate change, Terror Management theory argues that our fear of death is not merely hidden, but actively repressed. We think we get it, we say ‘yeah, of course I’m going to die’, ‘yeah, of course climate change is happening’. But we actively repress the fear that naturally arises when we consider this, which means we do not act as if it is true. It takes energy to keep a lid on it. 

Tell the truth, Extinction Rebellion says, and then act as if the truth is real.

We aren’t just fighting the fossil fuel interests here, but our very own brain. It’s tricky. But surely there’s a way we can use our brains other natural inclinations to help us – our sociability, our willingness to listen to our friends. 

And so I want to introduce you to a group called Climate for Change. 

I trained as a volunteer facilitator for Climate for Change in early 2018. 

We run conversations in people’s homes about climate change. The aim is for them to be both frank and empowering. But the interesting thing is that we find our next conversation by utilising people’s social networks, and the fact that people are inviting their friends to share their concern ramps up their effectiveness.

The process is generally that I find someone who’s willing to host one, and I support them to invite their friends along. At the end we ask the guests if they’d like to host their own gathering – our founder, Katerina Gaita, was inspired by the Tupperware party model. We aim for two new hosts from every conversation. And in this way we move through people’s social networks.

Climate for change is a small not for profit out of Melbourne. It was launched about three years ago, so just a new kid on the block. We operate in Melbourne, South East QLD, and now Darwin.

At this point we’ve had over 8500 guests, in nearly a thousand conversations. More than half of these people were not on any environmental mailing list. More than half! Each year we do a crowdfunder, this years’ crowdfunder we raised over $200,000, mostly small donations from individuals – so you can see we’ve reached a lot of people already, and they like what we do enough to support us.

Think for a moment about these people we’re reaching who’re outside the bubble of acute climate concern. They’re parents, they’re young professionals, they’re retirees, they think climate change is a problem, but they’re too busy to really engage with it. They have their own problems, and who wants to think about something that seems so scary and so far out of their control? I imagine, like I did, many of them scroll past that article about climate change on the news site.

But when their dear friend or family member asks them to come along to have a meal and a talk about climate change, it’s not quite so easy to say no. They’re still not always super keen. And yet often enough it works – guests come, they listen and talk about climate change and what we can do about it. They hear how worried their friends or family members are. If they have been worried, they feel less alone. If they haven’t, they start to see it as something that matters to them personally, because their friends care about it. 

The conversation itself is mostly very guided. I share why and how I got involved, which allows people to connect with me, and models the kind of action we’d love to see them take. We watch a video about climate change, and while we’ve included plenty of hopeful solution bits, we don’t pull any punches. The reality of climate change is confronting. As I see it, the video brings up all this energy for people – grief and anger and fear, like a big explosion. We encourage them to talk about it. They hear themselves saying how scared they are, how much they want to see action. And this is important, because research has found that 1. most people don’t talk about climate change, and that 2. the way that we process things like this and figure out what to do is through conversation, particularly with people they trust, AND 3. we are far more likely to believe what we hear ourselves say, rather than what we hear other people say.

So we spend the rest of the conversation funnelling that energy down, moving it towards action, we look at the scale of action that’s required, I outline our theory of change, we talk about actions they can take. At the end, I ask people what their next steps are, and, all going well, they hear themselves say: “my MP’s got a mobile office this weekend, so I’m going along”, or “I’m going to talk to my sister on Tuesday about hosting a conversation”.

And how to they find the conversations? We gather data at the end of the conversations, and the results we get are impressive: 

  • An overwhelming majority, 89%, of attendees say they have an improved understanding of the actions they could take after the conversation – and we focus on the scale of action that’s actually required, on how they can contribute to systemic change. I remember one woman saying to me, “I’m just so relieved you didn’t suggesting getting a keep cup. I’ve already got a freaking keep cup” It’s not that we’re against keep cups, or beeswax wraps, it’s just that we know that those things aren’t going to get us where we need at the speed we need. 
  • Another overwhelming majority, 86%, leave feeling more empowered to take action on climate change. And of course empowerment is the difference between action and despair – as I spent seven years finding out, something like climate change can feel so big that we don’t act, even after we know the truth. 

What does that look like? It looks like the young woman at the end of one of my most recent conversations who thanked me: “I was feeling so hopeless”, she said. “I just needed someone to tell me what to do. I’m going to get in touch with my MP, and I’m going to get my whole family to do it too.” And there were tears in her eyes as she said this, but there was steel in her voice.

So is our approach any more powerful than conventional techniques?

We partnered with the Australian Conservation Foundation last year in the run up to the federal election. ACF are the largest environmental organisation in Australia. Based on their extensive experience conducting conversations through doorknocking, ACF said they would consider the partnership a success if we managed to get between 10-25% of our attendees to sign up to their election campaign, and if 70% made a pledge to vote climate. 

In fact, during that partnership, 40% of our attendees signed up to their campaign, and 80% of them pledged to vote climate. 

When you think about the difference of a stranger turning up on your doorstep unannounced to talk about climate change for 15 minutes, maybe half an hour, or your friend inviting you over to a special dinner for a two and a half hour conversation… it makes sense that our model has impressive results.

But the measurable results we’ve had up until now have only been based on the data we gather at the end of the conversations. How does it play out longer term? Do people change the way they’re acting?

We’ve actually taken time off expanding the conversation program to conduct a review, including an impact study, following up on whether people have changed since the conversation they attended. It’s early days on this yet, so we don’t have the full results, but I can give you a sneak peak, and what we’re finding so far is hopeful.  

Based on publicly available polls, we have classified Australians into 6 potential audiences. The three under the blue bar are our target audience. Not those guys on the end who don’t believe climate change is a problem and are against taking action. We actively discourage our hosts from inviting people in this category. If they hold this view strongly already, it’s unlikely the conversation would change their mind, and they disrupt the conversation for the other attendees. 

The audience next to them are cautious about climate change. They might say “climate change should be addressed, but its effects will be gradual so we can deal with the problem gradually. Australia is doing enough to address it.” 

The next group are the first of our target audience. They’re wavering. They largely agree that climate change is a serious, pressing problem and we need to take action now, but they can’t support policies that significantly impact people’s jobs, electricity costs or the economy. 

The next three groups, passive, active and leaders, are all really worried about climate change. They believe must do all we can to stop it. They believe that whatever the economic impacts of the action, the costs of not taking the action will be far worse.

The difference between these three groups is in how much they’re actually acting on their beliefs in the political sphere. 

We categorise people as passive if they are taking civic or political action very occasionally or never. It’s likely they would vote climate, maybe sign the odd petition.

People who are active engage at least occasionally in civic actions such as volunteering, donating to climate organisations or attending rallies and in political advocacy actions such as contacting their MP.

And people who are leaders engage regularly in both civic actions and in political advocacy.

People who are already leading are not really our target audience, as they’re already fully engaged and don’t have space for much more, though they can be useful to spread the model as hosts. 

The first thing we found was that we’re reaching our target audience. The chart on the left shows the audiences we've been reaching. The vast majority are in our target audience, wavering, passive and active. You can see passive is the largest and nearly three quarters of the attendees are in the lower two groups, wavering and passive. The two highest groups, active and leaders make up around a quarter. 

The next chart is when we followed up with them: Passive is still the largest group, but this is a different picture altogether – we’ve moved from active and leaders making up a quarter, to making up around half! That’s a lot of people we’ve shifted.

In fact, when we dug deeper, we found that almost half of attendees changed categories since the conversation, and many of those that didn’t became more active within their existing categories. 

One of the things I hear regularly in my conversations is “why didn’t anyone tell us is was this bad?” That’s the sound of someone who was wavering stepping into that space of realistic concern. It doesn’t always stick. For some it’s too much. They close back up and stay where they are, probably now with an added awareness, but many move up into the concerned categories… and occasionally they’ll leap straight into leadership roles, like the young woman who stepped up to become an organiser for Australian Parents for Climate Action Organiser after attending two conversations with different friends.

The other thing I hear all the time is “of course it’s awful, I’m so afraid, but what on earth can we do”. These are the folk paralysed by fear, by overwhelm. They’re usually passive – so our aim is to empower them so they can become more active. And remember, the vast majority of our attendees say they leave our conversation feeling more empowered. These are the folk moving from passive into active, or moving back into a leadership space after a break from engagement. Some of them find, like I did, that turning to face the reality of climate change releases a burst of energy and purpose.  

 

Of course we can’t attribute every action people take to attending a conversation, however when we followed up with them, 77% of people said that the conversation at least partially influenced a change in their behaviour, and nearly 40% said that it influenced their change in behaviour a lot. Again, when we think of what the model looks like, friends sharing their deep concerns, and then potentially taking action together, it makes sense that it would trigger lasting changes for people.

And this model has the potential to move quickly, and to be even more powerful with the right support. Part of it is the quality of the people involved, their dedication, creativity and care. We have amazing staff, we have amazing volunteers. One of them is Jenny, a scientist and remarkable volunteer that I met at the start of this year. 

Now we ask that facilitators try to do about one conversation a fortnight – we all have busy lives. Jenny facilitated her first three conversations in one weekend, and then continued on like this for months, right up until the election, booking multiple conversations every weekend and recruiting new facilitators left right and centre. 

I don’t want to give you the idea that this is all plain sailing. This model makes a real impact and we’ve got wonderful people involved, but there are many challenges. Our volunteers are incredible, but without enough paid staff we can’t move forward with anywhere like the speed we need. It’s been a struggle growing our reach in Queensland without any paid staff here. Part of the importance of this review is so we are able to show funders the difference we’re making. This is the space we’re all watching with bated breath.

And there are exciting ideas that are coming out of the review. What if, when we found facilitators as strong as Jenny, we could fund them to focus on this work, generating leads for other volunteers and providing support for a local team? What if we were able to package this model up in a smart and easy way so that any climate organisation who wanted it could pick it up and use it? What if we created a special version of the conversation tailored for groups with particular influence? 

We’re going to be gearing up to have a lot of conversations before the QLD elections next year. What if we had the resources to focus some of our work in the regions? It would be amazing, too, to have the resources to support the conversations in the places and at the times when the climate itself is overriding everyone’s suppression mechanisms with the urgency of its message. The unprecedented fires mean that recent attendees here in QLD are feeling super passionate about climate change. This would be a perfect time to launch in Sydney too!

So watch this space. We’re poised on the brink of new directions. If you want to get involved, do so through the website. As I mentioned, Facilitator training is paused at the moment while we do our review, but should start up again in around May.

I did a talk here, at this stage, a year ago, about Climate for Change. Listening to me was a woman who I didn’t know then, Jodie Minton. She got in touch on the website afterwards and registered her interest to train to be a facilitator. I was her mentor. She hosted her first conversation here, at Woodfordia, at a Treehugger weekend. She subsequently went back to Darwin, and took the model with her, proceeding to take Darwin by storm. She’s now started mentoring new facilitators up there. Like Jenny, she’s given the rest of us so much inspiration. Her last conversation was the one that tipped us over the 8500 mark. She’s also now a very dear friend of mine, and she’s back here today, just over there, partly because she and I are going to be running climate conversations on Sunday the 29th at the WorkShop. They are booked out, but if you’re really interested, come along and see if we have any no-shows. 

So, I look out at you, and I wonder where you live, what your local community is like, and if you think that when it comes to climate change the people in your community need to move from passive to active, from active to leaders. And I wonder if one of you is going to be the next Jodie, or the next Jenny. I hope so. We need every good person we can get. 

Staring into this blazing summer, with our country burning around us, it’s obvious there is no guarantee of any kind of success, but it’s important to remember that in some fundamental ways, there never was. Every one of us was always going to die. And impermanence is the rule, not the exception, when it comes to species as well. More than 99% of species that have ever lived on this earth have died out. You might think it’s depressing. Strangely, I think it’s freeing. 

Because the question is, what are you going to do with your short time here, in your fragile and precious body on your fragile and precious planet?

In my experience, engaging with groups like Climate for Change provides a powerful, meaningful and fun way to spend a part of that time, and the work that we’re doing, attempting to awaken our society to act on behalf of the life on our wondrous planet, is something that’s difficult and satisfying and important. So I look forward very much to meeting you, whoever you are, and doing things that matter together. Thank you.




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