Slogans, dogma and labels from the paths of resistance

The bad news is relentless. Let me briefly refer to two widely reported items and then offer some assistance to those of us who have to face deniers and resisters.

Given I grew up in a fire prone area, first up is Greg Mullins, a former head of Fire and Rescue NSW and a self-proclaimed frightened man.  He was in California recently, assessing damage after a recent fire. In a story on the ABC News website, Mullins said he spent most of his career trying to calm people down.

“When you have people like me who have been around for half a century doing this work getting frightened,” he said. “And I’m frightened, it’s time for everyone else to be, particularly politicians in Canberra.”

Mullins is a member of the Climate Council and Emergency Leaders for Climate Action and they are battling to get a meeting with someone in the Federal government.

“The most fire-prone parts of the planet are burning more and more,” Mullins said. “Here in California, 18,000 homes last year, 9,000 the year before. Previously 3,000 was the biggest they’d think of. They’re just shaking their heads saying, ‘What the hell is round the corner?'”

He also pointed out something that those of us who follow fires around the planet are aware of, and that is that the northern hemisphere fire season is starting to overlap with that in the southern hemisphere. In the past, resources have been shared, particularly numbers of firefighters between Australian and the US.

On the same day, the BBC News reported on its website that 11,000 scientists endorsed research that claimed the world was facing a climate emergency.

The report continued:

The study, based on 40 years of data on a range of measures, says governments are failing to address the crisis.

Without deep and lasting changes, the world is facing “untold human suffering” the study says.

The researchers say they have a moral obligation to warn of the scale of the threat.

Some days my blood boils and it isn’t always helped by people I know. In my family there are climate change deniers who claim they are yet to be convinced, that the science is not yet clear, that there are grey edges to the arguments. And among friends, there are also heads ready to shake. Their denial is not all they have in common.

They often turn against the young.

With the rise of Greta Thunberg and other school students who are willing to strike for climate action and Extinction Rebellion’s habit of stopping traffic on city streets, many climate change resisters have ceased to follow, or re-examine the science and evidence readily available, rather, they have turned their attention to the “screamers, who are probably driven to the rallies by their parents in 4-wheel drives.”

Here are several common comments.

“They should be in school, learning.” “It’s wrong to disrupt the lives of others trying to get to work, or attending a conference.” “They are being led by agitators. I’ll bet most of them know nothing about the issues.” “Tell them to turn off their mobile phones, their computers, and get on their bikes to school, then I might listen.”

On occasion, I have asked climate change resisters about their relationship with their doctor. They, inevitably, answer that they trust her: “She knows what she’s talking about.”

“Have you asked to sight the science behind her diagnoses?”

“What?”

“Yet you are questioning common threads in reports by at least 97% of the world’s climate scientists who say that humans have had a detrimental impact on the earth’s climate and if we don’t take immediate action we are looking at a catastrophic future?”

“Now hang on ….”

And when you remind them of the warm, northern water fish now in the cold southern ocean, the dramatic decline in rainfall in their region, the increase in extreme weather patterns, the all year round bush fires that once only raged in summer, they offer blank stares.

“But these kids storming in the streets …”

It is important when in conversation with a resister, to try and remember to listen, to acknowledge, to allow them to vent, at whoever, whatever. When silence falls, I tell the story of the brook that ran through my hometown, the one I crossed every day to and from school and could plunge my hand in and pull out native fish and crustaceans. Today it is a ditch full of human debris.

As calm as I can, I suggest the resister might think of that small town of roughly four thousand people, the damage the inhabitants have inflicted on the rivers and creeks and bushland, then imagine the rest of the planet, the heavily populated areas, the constant encroachment of cities, mines, deforestation for palm or soy plantations, the pollution caused by pesticides, fertilisers, vehicle emissions, the loss of animal, insect and plant species and the decline of cultural connectedness to natural rhythms.

Luckily, I do find resistors who have long admired Sir David Attenborough and I ask them if they are paying attention to his current utterings, his concerns, his fears. Sometimes their resistance fades.

But many of them return to the “kids”.

In a developing tactic, I try agreeing with them.

“About the violence,” I say. “It is not helpful if you are protesting about degradation if you degrade the city you live in by breaking and entering and looting, or spitting on people you do not respect.”

It is not an easy path, the one of least resistance, when arguing with a resistor, but it does help to try and find common ground, to remind them that we are all on the globe together.

In his book, The Righteous Mind, social and cultural psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes that all too often righteous minds shift into “combat mode”. And we all know too well, once you have two righteous minds banging against each other, there is no shifting either party.

If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle, as well as your own, says Haidt. Then, you might have a chance and you may “even find your own mind opening in response”.

Trouble is, for those of us who accept the science, there is no moral or political issue and there should not be any sides. And usually there isn’t when it comes to admitting human impact – the signs are all too clear, even for the most disconnected. It’s the climate change terminology that triggers the combat mode.

There will always be people, of course, who will admit to nothing and it is best to expect total denial. Tony Taylor, Associate Professor of History at Monash University in his book Denial, History Betrayed, opens the book’s first paragraph with the sentence:

As defence mechanism, denial is perfectly normal; we use it every day.

In his next he offers the following.

Denial becomes troublesome when the game is stepped up a notch or two, when the defence mechanism turns into a self-deceptive refusal to accept significant, life affecting realities that are obvious to the world at large.

It is not surprising then that many deny the changing climate, or that we humans have had anything to do with it, because if they admit it, it could destroy them, their future, for their children, children’s children, the planet. And if they do nothing, and some of the worst consequences occur in their lifetime, guilt and depression are logical consequences.

Most people I count as resisting, usually admit to varying degrees of human impact, and so I propose to them that if we all change our behaviour, then there will be benefits and if the worst scenarios never eventuate, because the predictions prove inaccurate, at least we have altered our behaviour and that can only be a good thing.

Recently, after another face-off with a resistor, then watching, again, Professor Brian Cox throw a stack of paper towards Queensland Senator Malcom Roberts, one of our most insistent deniers, I visited the website of the Australian Academy of Science website.

It is known that human activities since the industrial revolution have sharply increased greenhouse gas concentrations; these gases have a warming effect; warming has been observed; the calculated warming is comparable to the observed warming; and continued reliance on fossil fuels would lead to greater impacts in the future than if this were curtailed. This understanding represents the work of thousands of experts over more than a century, and is extremely unlikely to be altered by further discoveries.

Here are two phrases that might help in discussions with resistors, although Senator Roberts would be quick to dismiss them as guesswork, or the rantings of scientists with agendas: “human activities since the industrial revolution have sharply increased greenhouse gas concentrations; continued reliance on fossil fuels would lead to greater impacts in the future.”

Might I suggest that one of the problems with the way we modern folk debate and argue, on both sides, is that discussions and arguments are peppered with slogans, dogma and labels. Many, as soon as they hear the words “climate change” let their denial neurons loose and they resist, but if we listened, then explained, maybe used scientific evidence provided by bodies like the Australian Academy of Science, then we might have more success.

There is, also, perhaps, another way. Find out who their heroes are, or were, men and women they looked up to in their lives and listen hard for names like Sir Mark Oliphant, Sir David Attenborough, Cate Blanchet, David Suzuki, Bill Gates, Angela Merkel, Pope Francis, Ross Garnaut, Desmond Tutu, Christine Lagarde, Margaret Atwood, Harrison Ford, Buzz Aldrin, P J O’Rourke, Dalai Lama, Naomi Klein, Richard Branson, then find their climate quotes and deliver them.

Footnote: For those not sure who, or what, the Academy is, here is a bit more from the website:

The Academy is a not-for-profit organisation of individuals elected for their outstanding contributions to science and research. It was founded on 16 February 1954 by Australian Fellows of the Royal Society of London with the distinguished physicist Sir Mark Oliphant as founding President. It was granted a Royal Charter establishing the Academy as an independent body with government endorsement. The Academy’s Constitution was modelled on that of the Royal Society of London. It receives government grants towards some of its activities but has no statutory obligation to government.”

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