How can we have better conversations about solving climate change?

Communicating around negative emissions
23 December 2019

Unfortunately, discussions around climate change in Australia have become polarised and this is challenging our ability to develop and implement solutions.    But as a new area of climate action emerges in the form of carbon dioxide removal (known as negative emissions) what can we learn from this conflicted space?

Dr Bec Colvin from the Crawford School of Public Policy has been exploring this question.  “The use of negative emission technologies will be essential and, because they’re different from what we’ve previously talked about as a solution to climate change, they don’t have to be shaped by the same political and social dynamics that have led to climate change becoming such a difficult space”, said Dr Colvin.  

Her research has synthesised some of the factors that have made discussion about climate change so problematic.   “Issues of ideology, identity and framing have all fed into the fact that we’ve ended up with this binary context in discussions around climate change with people either pro or anti climate action,” said Dr Colvin.   

“We can get so stuck into these ways of thinking and talking, repeating certain phrases like ‘climate change is bad for the economy’ or ‘we can have green growth’.  At the same time there have been groups who have been trying to spread misinformation and uncertainty about climate change.  And the ways in which we discuss this are at the surface level, reinforcing what group we belong to, and what group we’re different from.   And then we get locked into this conflict which is really about which group we are in.  So we need to find ways to get out of this locked-in conflict.”   

Research by Dr Colvin and various other researchers from across ANU and other universities has recently been published and gives some guidelines for how we may be able to avoid some of these pitfalls.

“We need more listening.   The more people can talk to each other and try to get past the predictable and repetitive scripts that reinforce these distinctions, the better.”

So how can we have better conversations?   Dr Colvin’s research explores how we can create the social conditions to prevent this polarization also attaching itself to the negative emissions space.  

A key finding is that it’s important to avoid ideological bundling around negative emissions, in the form of association with a left or right political agenda.   To achieve this, we need to be careful to choose messengers who are not aligned with any particular ideological position.     It’s also vital to understand how different negative emissions technologies vary and bring vastly different benefits and risks, rather than lumping them all together.   Traditional nature-based solutions such as planting trees have very little in common with solar radiation management.   Having a more nuanced conversation that acknowledges these distinctions is essential.

“This research could potentially be useful in reminding us to look for signs of polarization, and also in not closing off different policy areas,” said Dr Colvin.  

The paper “Learning from the climate change debate to avoid polarization on negative emissions” is published by Environmental Communication.