Dr Rebecca Huntley has spent the past 15 years listening to Australians talk about climate change. The insights she has gained from her extensive social research — including as director of the Mind & Mood Report, Australia’s longest-running social trends report — have been turned into a valuable guide for us all as we confront the realities of climate damage.

How to Talk About Climate Change in a Way That Makes a Difference is as much a guide for how to have meaningful conversations as it is a form of therapeutic guidance for what’s going on inside all of us.

Whether you’re already alarmed and engaged with the issue, concerned but disengaged, a passive sceptic or an active denier, Dr Huntley says understanding our emotional reactions to climate change — why it makes us anxious, fearful, angry or detached — is critical to coping on an individual level and convincing each other to act.

Portrait of Rebecca Huntley

“It’s human to be sad, anxious and angry,” she says.

“I’m not a psychiatrist, but I can see very clearly through my research that denying those feelings or not using the energy of them to move into some kind of action is very demotivating. It feeds disengagement and resignation.”

Dr Huntley points to the New South Wales south-coast community of Cobargo, devastated by bushfires in January last year, as a valuable case study where such feelings were channelled toward something constructive.

“It's human to be sad, anxious and angry.”

“We’ve all seen the images. The smouldering ruins of Cobargo’s main street, the scorched landscape and the furious reception the Prime Minister received when he visited the township a few days after the fire.

“The trauma people felt then is still real now. That grief and anger could have torn the Cobargo community apart, but a year on the Cobargo Bushfire Resilience Centre has been set up and is engaging locals in a genuine conversation about the future, about renewal and hope.

“People have found a way to channel those destructive feelings into constructive action, and it’s making a difference.”

Photo of bushfire damage

Photo of additional damage.

Different opinions, common concerns

Dr Huntley urges us all to value differences of opinion, but to also understand that even those apparently furthest away from taking any action on climate change are also likely to share core concerns about the issue.

“Even someone disengaged from the issue of climate change is likely to feel alarmed about it. There are very few people left in Australia who don’t understand it is real and is here, now.

“But what’s really important for us to realise and listen for when engaging in conversations with someone like that, is that their disengagement is probably the result of disillusionment with the political system — that it can or will act to solve these big issues.

“Further, many of those who are disengaged believe that even if politicians do do something, it will probably come at the expense of their material needs. They don’t feel listened to or respected.”

"There are very few people left in Australia who don’t understand [climate change] is real and is here, now."

The experience Australians have had over the past year, particularly during the pandemic, has had a positive rather than negative impact on peoples’ view about the relevance or importance of climate change and environment issues more broadly, Dr Huntley says.

“What I have seen and heard in research is that people think, ‘well, we have actually been able to massively change our behaviour and some of the behaviour change has actually been quite good, like working from home so that you don’t have to spend two or three hours in traffic and then being able to go for walk at lunch time’.

“There has been a willingness to say, ‘we’ve already had this kind of traumatic event that has forced us into some behaviour change where we’ve seen a positive environmental outcome. How can we keep the things that we like, and keep that environmental outcome?’”

Photo of many vehicles congested on the road

Emotions matter

The key to effective communication about climate change — well, any and all communication, really — is emotional connection. For Dr Huntley, as she writes in her book, this came into sharp focus in late 2018.

“It was early December and while I woke up with my morning cup of coffee and watched the TV news, I saw hundreds of teenagers skipping school and protesting in the streets about climate change.

“They were holding hand-made signs with slogans that spanned from the serious and angry to the humorous and profane: ‘There are no jobs on a dead planet’, ‘Act now or swim later’, and my favourite, ‘Why should we go to the school if you won’t listen to the educated?’

Photos of School Strikers for Climate

"I thought to myself, ‘good on those kids telling the powers that be, the older generation, that they need to do more about climate change’. And then it hit me. I am part of that older generation, part of the generation in power, with the platform and a voice these young people don’t have.

“It was at that moment as if those teenagers, their signs both funny and dramatic, were speaking to me. Do something. And just then something shifted inside me, a sensation hard to describe and yet I can recall it now with clarity. It actually felt physical. Those truant teens were telling me to do something.

“And so I am, at every level, in my work, in my life as a parent, consumer, citizen, in my decisions about energy, transport, food and superannuation."

Photo of young school children protesting

“Looking back on this moment, what’s now obvious to me — and fascinating — is that watching these young protestors on the streets didn’t mean I suddenly believed the scientific consensus on climate change more than I did the day before. Instead, it was clear that environmental concern was not at the centre of my worldview. I had registered it rationally but not emotionally.”

This transformative moment — the moment Dr Huntley tipped from being concerned about climate change to genuinely alarmed about the threat — didn’t happen because she’d read an intergovernmental report or sat through a presentation from a climate scientist about CO2 levels. She reacted to a crowd of children holding up signs in the streets, girls who were only a few years older than her eldest daughter. Suddenly it was personal.

“That I can make a contribution to this movement, probably the most important in our history, is such a relief to me and helps me manage the angst that overwhelms me from time to time in the middle of the night, as I ponder how best to equip myself, my children, my community, our nation for the challenges already on our doorstep.”

"That I can make a contribution to this movement, probably the most important in our history, is such a relief to me..."

How to talk — and listen

Dr Huntley advises us that our first task is to maintain our own enthusiasm and optimism — and this includes taking steps to look after our own mental health and wellbeing — as we move deeper into a climate change-affected future.

You can protest, change the terms of your super fund, install solar panels, vote for parties with strong climate policies, but one of the most important things you can do is understand why people who aren’t like you feel the way they do about climate change.

Two people looking across a sunset

“Learn to talk to them effectively. What we need are thousands, even millions, of everyday conversations about climate change. That will help enlarge the ranks of the concerned, engaged, the disengaged and make the cautious more convinced of the need for action.

“This will then expose those who dismiss both the science and the solutions, the denialists — who are today a minority, albeit still a powerful one — as what they are. Out of step with the rest of us, determined to put our collective wellbeing, our way of life, at risk.

“We must not let their voices be the loudest in the public arena. We must create a chorus of different communities united in asking, indeed demanding, that we act now to preserve a liveable world and a viable future.”

"We must create a chorus of different communities united in asking, indeed demanding, that we act now to preserve a liveable world and a viable future.”
Dr Huntley sees a central role for women leaders in forging the way out of rational-ego discourse that has inhibited progress on climate change, like many other issues.

“It’s the ability of teen girls, in particular, to make emotional connections and talk persuasively to others that makes them such effective climate change campaigners. It’s clear that young women are front and centre of this movement. Most of the time, they’re the ones speaking at the rallies and to the media.”

Dr Huntley dedicates a chapter towards the end of her book to the notion of love and why that emotion is our tool going forward.

“Basically, by opening ourselves up to love, we open up our ability to share the load,” she says.

Smiling youth at a protest

Raise your voice

Our state and federal governments hand over $22,000 every minute in public money to the polluting coal and gas industries, which are fuelling climate impacts like more extreme floods, fires and droughts.

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Photos: Ryan Chenoweth/James Thomas Photo; Rebecca Huntley/Supplied; Annette Ruzicka/MAPgroup; e2dan/Shutterstock.com; SeaRick1/Shutterstock.com.

Story originally published in habitat magazine, Volume 49, No.1 (April 2021).

Paul Sheridan

Strategic Communications, Public Affairs, Media Relations, Research and Policy