ON A FROSTY winter's afternoon in a coal town in the middle of the Hunter Valley, New South Wales, a motley group of Year Ten students slouch into a dimly lit room. They sit, sprawling almost on top of each other, and wait while their teacher ushers in the stragglers. Their friends take their turn finding a patch of floor. Some pick at the faded blue carpet. Others send rapid-fire text messages; later they confide to me that there's gossip too important to wait until after class.
For the next hour, I have a conversation with them about climate change and what it means for their futures. First they stare at me. Then they ask questions. As they start to engage with the science, the ice is broken and they laugh at my admittedly lame jokes. They understand the seriousness of the situation.
But this is the heartland of the New South Wales coal industry. Many of these kids only live here because their parents are employed in the coal industry. If we weren't talking about it so openly, coal would be the elephant in the room.
But there's no point avoiding the issue. I've thought about what I want to say. After all, I have deep roots in this area, and I care about its future just as much as anyone else in this room. My mum was born just outside of this town and went to a school down the road. My family are scattered throughout the Hunter region. I grew up less than two hours away from here in the coal port town of Newcastle. The Hunter is my home too.
A long-limbed boy with his back leaning against the wall shoots his arm into the air. He's been joking around with his mates up until now – I get the feeling he doesn't normally talk too much in class. But when he starts talking he sounds serious. His dad works at the mines. Is he going to lose his job because of the carbon price?
I'm totally honest. 'This is a shitty situation for you guys,' I say. 'Your dad might lose his job, yes. It is totally unfair and it shouldn't be happening. It's not your fault or your parents' fault that climate change is happening. When people started burning coal for electricity in the 1800s, they didn't know that it would send ecosystems into chaos. They didn't plan it this way.
'But that's what's happened. Now we know. And we can't keep doing something that we know is making climate change worse. It's going to be harder for you guys to make that transition than it will be for communities without coal at the heart of their economies. And that's unfair. But you know what? As young people, it's going to be much harder for you in the long run if we don't transition.'
We talk about it more with the whole class. We go through the downsides of transitioning away from coal – for their families, for the community here, for their future. And then we go through the downside of not making the transition; of continuing to rely on dirty energy. We talk about what runaway climate change will mean for their futures; the world they're growing up in.
At the end of the class, the boy who asked the question comes up to me and signs up to get involved in the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. A few others join him. I warn them it will be hard being young climate activists in a coal community. The boy agrees, but says he reckons it's worth the cost.
I THOUGHT A lot about his courage in the weeks and months afterwards. If a high school student in a coal community can be brave enough to step outside his comfort zone and join a climate change organisation, how can we shift thousands of others into making similar decisions despite the change and personal cost involved?
Recently, during a class I co-convene in leadership and influence at Australian National University, my students started arguing about the nature of human progress. The class is made up of fifty of ANU's brightest students, so there are probably fifty different views on how to best bring about change.
Change and progress are inevitable, said one. Injustices will be righted in the end and the human race will move forward inevitably towards a better future. Other students disagreed. Social progress is never guaranteed, they said. The forces at work to maintain the status quo are far stronger than the forces for change. Change only comes when you fight for it. You can't take it for granted.
But if there's one thing we've learned this semester about the role of individuals in leading and influencing social change, it's that it's never easy – even when it feels like you're on the right side of history.
Looking back on past struggles and campaigns, the personal cost of creating progressive social change is hard to miss. Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years in prison. Gandhi was beaten, imprisoned and ultimately assassinated. Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy's assassinations also show that too often, activists pay an enormous price for creating change. This year is the centenary of the death of Emily Davidson, the suffragette who died after throwing herself under King George V's horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913, protesting for women's right to vote.
There are tens of thousands of people who have made similar sacrifices. Their names are rarely written in our history books, but their contributions are remembered in communities around the globe.
Some have died for their causes, but most have lived for them – long, fruitful lives of passion and courage. As Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International, says: 'It's not giving your life, but giving the rest of your life.'
Giving the rest of your life certainly sounds easier than giving your life. But we can't be naïve about the high costs and enormous difficulties inherent in trying to influence system-wide change in societies where the default position is fear and resistance to change.
AT THE START of this year a friend of mine from my hometown of Newcastle suddenly and unexpectedly made national headlines with a prank press release purporting to be from ANZ bank. The release aimed to highlight the environmental and economic problems with ANZ's $1.2 billion loan to Whitehaven Coal for the controversial Maules Creek mine. The mine is set to damage farmland and water on the Liverpool Plains of New South Wales and there is a strong community campaign against it. Prank press releases are a regular tool in the activist tool-box. When they're picked up by the mainstream press, they can be effective in drawing attention to contradictions between power holders' stated policies (for example, ANZ's sustainability guidelines) and their actual practices. The fact that financial journalists fell for the release, believing it was credible for ANZ to withdraw the Maules Creek loan on environmental grounds, made the anti-mine campaign a national news story in a way that no rally or march could match. As a result, Whitehaven's share price dropped and conservative commentators howled in protest. A few days later, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) seized Jonathan Moylan's computer and phone and announced it was investigating him under Section 1041E of the Corporations Act. This section deals with making false or misleading statements to the stock market. If found guilty, Jonathan Moylan, who is only twenty-four, faces the possibility of ten years' jail and fines of up to $495,000 for his prank.
Some commentators have compared Moylan's situation to that of another climate activist: Utah student Tim DeChristopher. DeChristopher has just been released from jail after serving twenty-one months for interfering with a 2008 oil and gas auction. After being asked if he was there to participate in the auction, he made a spur-of-the-moment decision to bid on a number of land parcels to protect them from oil and gas extraction. His actions also served to highlight questions around the auction itself, which was held as a last-minute move of the Bush administration and later overturned as illegal – a fact that DeChristopher's lawyers were prevented from revealing to the jury. DeChristopher hasn't given his life – as I write this he is a free man canoeing in Minnesota. This summer he will begin studying divinity at Harvard. But he will never get back those twenty-one months.
While Jonathon Moylan and Tim DeChristopher's stories speak to us of lost years of youth sacrificed for a cause, there's another young man who lost more than freedom as part of his life's work trying to change the status quo. Earlier this year, the world lost one of its brightest technologists and activists – and I lost a friend. Aaron Swartz, involved in the development of Reddit, RSS and Creative Commons and founder of the organisation Demand Progress, was being pursued by the US Prosecutor's office. In 2011 he had placed a laptop in a cupboard at MIT that was running a code to download academic journal articles from web archive JSTOR.
Aaron believed academic knowledge should be available to everyone. He acted on this belief. He was charged with two counts of wire fraud and eleven violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. He was facing US$1 million in fines and up to thirty-five years in prison. Despite being widely criticised for its attempt to make an example out of Aaron (even JSTOR pushed for the charges to be dropped), the US Prosecutor's Office put so much pressure on him that it proved too much for the 26-year old to bear. On 11 January he hanged himself. Shortly before his death, JSTOR announced that it would make 'more than 4.5 million articles' available to the public for free.
These are not stories from the history books. These are people I know. They work on campaigns and issues that I work on too. The cost of making change is as high now as it ever was.
WHILE MY LEVEL of courage is of course nowhere near the extraordinary bravery shown in the activism of Jonathon, Tim or Aaron, I can share some personal experiences of the costs involved in trying to create social change. Sometimes the costs are financial – especially when you're a 'freelance activist' working on campaigns that are at times funded and other times aren't. Sometimes the costs are personal – like when you emerge, eyes blinking, from a campaign you've been working hard on from dawn to midnight for months, and realise you haven't seen your closest friends for the entire time. Sometimes the reaction to change from your opponents can be disconcerting. I was temporarily disoriented after opening an email during the UN climate change negotiations in Copenhagen to find a graphic death threat, which my team promptly reported to the Australian Federal Police.
And sometimes it just gets creepy, like a situation that happened just before my first appearance on the ABC's Q&A program. I'd been having dinner with my fiancé (now husband) at a restaurant in Sydney. Just before I was due to get a taxi to the ABC studio I received a text message from a friend. 'Check Twitter,' she advised. 'Now.' I did and was shocked to see a whole series of offensive and sexist Tweets from someone who'd been watching us closely at dinner. He called me a 'paid for piece on the side', alleged I was being 'fed lines' and insinuated that I couldn't think for myself. He tweeted about our location, what I ate, and even the way I kissed my husband. Stalker? I don't know. Unsettling? Definitely. To have been watched and written about in such a public and demeaning way while having a private dinner with my husband made me feel violated. But I put on a brave face and did the panel regardless. Only later did I write about it on my blog as an example of the concerted campaign against women's voices being heard in public – an action that then prompted a whole new slew of disgusting and sexist responses from anonymous trolls on my blog and in my inbox.
BUT THE 'NO pain, no gain' slogan applies just as much to activism as it does to elite sport. There's no easy way to try to shift the power relations in society. There is no quick fix to climate change, which involves deep changes to the status quo in our economy, energy production and values.
As Gandhi said, 'First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.' But when we talk about the long road to progressive social change, it feels too easy to simply point the finger at vested interests and say: 'it's all your fault.'
Yes, they pour billions of dollars into communications and lobbying to maintain their profits. Yes, they deliberately raise the stakes for those fighting for change.
But there's more to the story. Humans are inherently resistant to change, at a deep and fundamental level. Because all change involves loss. That's not to say it doesn't also involve gain. Change might lead to a future that is brighter, better, bolder and safer than the status quo. Indeed, many changes will be in our best interests. But that doesn't mean we like it, on either a personal or systemic level.
It isn't the change itself that hurts. It's the fact that something that used to exist no longer does. And no matter what new things happen, new things can't fill that exact, now empty, space.
A wise person once told me that the two most important questions in life are 'What do I want to hold on to?' and 'What do I need to let go of in order to make progress?'
As a society, it's the second question that we collectively struggle with. Letting go puts us face to face with the concept of loss at a systemic scale. As a society, we don't like to be told we need to change the attitudes, values and behaviours that we may have held for a long time – even if the context has changed and they're clearly no longer useful in helping us make progress. Jarod Diamond's best-selling book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking Press, 2005), gives a range of examples showing that for many societies in the past, fear of the loss involved in change was so great that entire civilisations ceased to exist rather than muster the necessary courage to adapt to new information and circumstances.
Vested interests wouldn't be anywhere near as successful in stymying change in democratic systems if they weren't able to tap into this group fear of loss. Humans feel deeply even small changes and the loss of attitudes, behaviours and values that accompany them.
Maybe this fear of change makes sense from a survival standpoint in privileged western democracies like Australia. Unlike poverty-stricken countries, we don't have the attitude of 'everything to gain, nothing to lose'. For many Australians, we have a lot to lose. When we compare our economy to the rest of the world, many Australians feel complacent and relaxed. 'Why change things?' we ask. 'Everything seems fine.'
But this fear of change and the associated loss goes deeper than concern about possible inconveniences. As babies, we feel separation anxiety when our parents leave us alone. We go through suffocating pain from the death of loved ones, broken friendships and break-ups.
Change is hard even when there's a strong positive reason to transform behaviour. If it wasn't so difficult, the diet industry wouldn't be worth anywhere near the $800 million that it turns over in Australia each year.
In psychology, this resistance to change and focus on the downsides is referred to as the 'negativity bias'. Humans pay more attention and give more weight to negative information.
So it shouldn't take us by surprise that there's so much resistance to change at a broader systemic level. When a society is faced with a gap between its values and reality, there is an opportunity for change, but only if we can get past the collective fear.
As change agents, we won't have long-term wins until we start acknowledging that people are scared of change; that it's natural to be fearful, that change does involve loss – but that despite all of this, not changing is harder and change is ultimately worth it.
Putting these concepts into practice is much harder than it sounds. But I have been trying to keep them front of mind in my own work with communities and young people around climate change. I spent a good part of last year having many conversations in rural and regional Australia that were along similar lines to the talk I did with the school kids in the Hunter Valley. I've given more than two hundred talks and workshops in the past twelve months – many of them to tough audiences with real fears about the change required in tackling climate change.
Indeed, climate change is perhaps the clearest example of why we need to get past short-term fear in order to achieve long-term gain. Sir Nicholas Stern, an eminent UK economist, found that effectively tackling climate change will cost 2 per cent of global GDP. This figure was revised upwards from 1 per cent because the longer we delay the more expensive it gets.
But Stern also found that the economic impact on the global economy of not acting is greater than both world wars and the Great Depression combined. The potential risks in the worst-case (and increasingly likely) case of runaway climate change are far greater than the potential risks of the worst-case economic impacts from policies like a carbon price or renewable energy target.
This is the premise of the video that went viral on YouTube in 2007 called 'The Most Terrifying Video You'll Ever See', in which an American high school science teacher presented a simplified version of risk management. Using a 2x2 grid, he outlines possible scenarios based on the worst and best case scenarios involved in (a) whether we choose to take action on climate change or not, and (b) whether human-induced global warming turned out to be a threat or not. Ten million views and a book deal later, it's clear that the 'let's be honest about the risks and benefits of both acting and not acting' approach is working for a lot of people. The video doesn't argue that there are no downsides to taking action on climate change. It just shows that the downsides of not taking action have the potential to be much more serious – and therefore despite the potential risks, it still makes sense to cut carbon pollution.
PEOPLE OFTEN ASK me why there's been a backlash against action on climate change since the 'high point' of concern about global warming in 2005. Why, despite the evidence, we haven't solved it yet. In my experience, the responsibility lies partially with vested interests and the media, but also partly due to the way the human brain isn't well equipped to deal with climate change. In my book Madlands: A Journey to Change the Mind of a Climate Sceptic (MUP, 2012), I write about what I learned about the psychology of responding to climate change on my journey around the world with climate sceptic and former federal finance minister Nick Minchin. The work of Harvard psychologist and best-selling author Dan Gilbert was particularly enlightening. In 2006 he wrote:
No one seems to care about the upcoming attack on the World Trade Center site. Why? Because it won't involve villains with box cutters. Instead, it will involve melting ice sheets that swell the oceans and turn that particular block of lower Manhattan into an aquarium. The odds of this happening in the next few decades are better than the odds that a disgruntled Saudi will sneak on to an airplane and detonate a shoe bomb. And yet our government will spend billions of dollars this year to prevent global terrorism and…well, essentially nothing to prevent global warming. Why are we less worried about the more likely disaster? Because the human brain evolved to respond to threats that have four features – features that terrorism has and that global warming lacks.
As I talk about in my book, Gilbert and other psychologists argue that since climate change isn't an intentional evil designed to hurt us, we're more likely to place it lower on the list of threats we consider. 'If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire,' writes Gilbert, 'the war on warming would be this nation's top priority.' Second, climate change doesn't violate our moral sensibilities. 'Although all human societies have moral rules about food and sex, none has a moral rule about atmospheric chemistry,' says Gilbert. 'The fact is that if climate change were caused by gay sex, or by the practice of eating kittens, millions of protesters would be massing in the streets.' Third, says Gilbert, we see climate change as a threat to our futures rather than our afternoons. 'Like all animals, people are quick to respond to clear and present danger, which is why it takes us just a few milliseconds to duck when a wayward baseball comes speeding toward our eyes.' Climate change is a much longer-term threat. And lastly, the rate of change in our climate, although more than fast enough to alarm the worlds' national scientific academies, is slow enough (in human terms) to go undetected. It's the old frog in boiling water dilemma. 'If the low hum of a refrigerator were to increase in pitch over the course of several weeks, the appliance could be singing soprano by the end of the month and no one would be the wiser [until it breaks down],' says Gilbert. Since the climate system changes slowly and gradually – until we reach tipping points, at least – many people don't notice there is a problem until it's too late.
Despite these psychological impediments to society tackling climate change, most nations – including Australia – have still made significant progress over the past few years. Despite Tony Abbott's calls for a 'people's revolt' and his 'blood oath' to repeal the carbon price, a recent poll showed that only one in five undecided voters (35 per cent of those polled) wanted the carbon price repealed. This number rose to 45 per cent when people were given basic information about how the carbon price supported renewable energy. WWF-Australia's Climate Change National Manager Kellie Caught said, 'Once Australians understand the benefits of the carbon price they are willing to give it a fair go.' It may well be the case that the media's own negativity bias is hiding a story that shows Australians starting to understand the need to undergo adaptive change. As global temperatures rise and extreme weather events hit us hard, maybe the alarm bells are finally being heard.
Sometimes I'm hopeful that this is the case. But then I'm reminded, too often, of the vested interests trying their hardest to make sure Australia doesn't change our energy system. Climate deniers still exploit every opportunity to reject the science. Anti-wind campaigners have grown in influence as they've garnered more financial support from powerful individuals and organisations opposing the transition to renewable energy. When these interests are successful in cutting through, they perpetuate short-term thinking and the negativity bias. Their campaigns often lead to people feeling like victims of change – victims of the carbon price, victims of the transition to renewable energy. Even people who will objectively be winners from change in the long run can still be made to feel like victims in the short-term.
When people feel like victims, they get defensive – and as my psychologist friends have reminded me – this often leads to aggression. When you're on the defence, you lose the ability to rationally weigh up the risks and benefits of different courses of action. You go into 'fight or flight' mode. You focus on the negatives. You can't see past the fear into the opportunity – your brain literally won't let you. And the phenomenon of confirmation bias, when you only seek out information that supports your own position, means that this way of thinking gets entrenched.
People can be pushed – and are being pushed – into victim mode by fear campaigns launched by vested interests. But focusing only on the vested interests only tackles half the picture. We need more psychologists, more professionals who focus on managing processes of change – not just lobbyists and political campaigners – working on the biggest global issues of our time.
MY THEORY OF how you make change happen is simple. Make it easier for politicians and business leaders to give in to your demands than it is to continue with the status quo. This means actively identifying and naming fears and barriers to change, exploring the worst and best-case scenarios of different courses of action, and using small steps and pilot projects to show that change doesn't have to be as scary as people are worried it will be.
We can remind people that they aren't victims and that they can – and should – shape their own futures. We can encourage them to realise that the responsibility for weighing up these tough choices should lie just as much with them as it does with anyone else.
Fear of loss is alive and well in Australia. As I talk to people in communities around Australia, I see and hear a lot of fear. I have just returned from King Island, where anti-wind advocates have been whipping up terror about the supposed health impacts of wind turbines. There is no peer-reviewed scientific evidence that shows wind turbines make people sick, but there are two scientific papers showing that health-based fear campaigns about wind turbines can induce people to start feeling the symptoms that anti-wind campaigners describe.
We can all feel fear's presence when we read polls and opinion pages on Australians' attitudes to asylum seekers, the carbon price and transitioning our economy away from mining. Politicians and vested interests play to this, but they don't create it from thin air. It's always there beneath the surface, and as campaigners for change we forget this at our peril.
Einstein once famously said that if he had sixty minutes to solve a problem and his life depended on it, he'd spend fifty-five minutes determining the right question to ask.
We know about the urgency of the challenges we face. We understand the innate human resistance to change and fear of loss. And we understand the way vested interests play on the negativity bias to prevent progress. So perhaps our key question to help this country move forward is this:
What will it take, what can we do, to make Australia braver?