This is the second in a series of blogs from our Guest Editor Kate Heath, an ex-humanitarian worker now based in Paris – exploring how to have constructive conversations about climate change.
How do you conceptualise climate change and energy issues? Disaster has been my day-to-day for the last 8 years. I appreciate this isn’t very normal.
Working as a humanitarian, I’ve been trained and paid to live within and respond to it: conflict, Ebola, earthquake, drought. To operate day to day has required a certain emotional acceptance of it; deconstructing of the complex interactions within it; and dispassionate codifying of our response to it to fit within a ‘logical framework’. I’ve also been root-less for most of my adult life, arriving turtle-like to my loved ones with my infamous gargantuan rucksack and relishing the opportunity to wear something other than the seven tops it contains. Home itself has been wherever I’ve blutacked the pictures of my family – the one of my mum in a train driver hat photographing herself in a mirror; the one of my brother and sister-in-law emerging grinning from their wedding. DR Congo, Liberia, Bolivia, Nepal, Ethiopia: ‘The world’ has felt more conceivable as our neighbourhood than any one place within it.
No wonder, then, that ‘global disaster’ is how I naturally framed climate change. One of my key learnings this year has been, however, that catastrophe is a poor lens if you wish to discuss the issue constructively with most other people. Ecosystem collapse, massive displacement, no-way-back thresholds: the ‘fear’ narrative that persisted through many years of climate campaigning has been proven to switch people’s buttons to OFF, rather than mobilising to action. All the guidance out there calls us to move beyond it – and indeed, many of the formal communications on it now have. The impacts of climate change also suffer from being perceived as something distant that will happen in far off lands, rather than here and now. Even if very familiar to me, I realise sharing a view of global impacts from the perspective of very poor, foreign countries only serves to reinforce this distance for people I meet back in Europe.
But how I had to tussle to change this – I think in part because it’s been something I’ve been very scared about! Moving beyond such a vision was one of my first major grapplings as I tried to understand how to usefully talk about climate and energy issues with other people. How could you possibly talk about it without using global apocalyptic terms? On a podcast looking at Climate Despair a climate scientist expressed something similar: “I have an appetite for apocalypse” that most other people don’t have. As this brawled about in my head, I finally sat down and wrote the poem below to try and make sense of a different way of looking at it.
A scientific humanitarian returned home grapples with the new research findings on effective Euro-centric carbon conversation
It seems I am different from you.
Linked to space are you
(I am told),
I am European!
But I uncoupled somewhere,
I am transient.
I who breakfast with suitcase and a pouch of minor quantities of unchangeable currencies.
To persuade the average European that carbon-neutral is great above all else
They that know say, “Evoke what will be lost, otherwise,
From those places you love,
To which you are tied.”
Local impacts in western Europe
That leave me unflatteringly cold
When weighed against immediate survival needs elsewhere.
It seems I became different from the Europeanrooted,
Became the Europeantransient.
I care because the whole global ecosystem will collapse into disarray.
You can care too, I understand this,
But cataclysmic descent and peril do not quiver your whiskers
(I am told).
Am I still rooted, in a way?
When I come home,
(For deep home is still home for the Europeantransient),
There is a beach and a sea that always tugs.
A beautiful English, Norfolk beach,
One in flux,
A sand-mile of childhood lagoon now a samphor salt-mud steadying itself in the mist.
Saltmarsh or no, this beach will be eaten by the sea
If we fail to reach carbon-neutral.
“But don’t talk of failure”, say they that know,
“But of shared values”.
Oh me, oh my.
What about the utter chaos ensuing if London is swamped?
The unstoppable spiral if the permafrost melts and cooling ourselves is no longer an option?
The system is a spiderweb in my head,
A theoretical diagram
In which the connecting strands are visibly trembling,
Junctions threatening to dissolve,
Pathways snatched out.
In my head,
But to the Europeanrooted,
Life is not a theoretical diagram
(I am told).
May I invite you to breakfast?
“The way messages about climate change are framed matters – not because there are ‘magic words’ that somehow transform someone’s views, but because starting a conversation with people in terms they are comfortable with is the first step to building (and sustaining) their engagement”
A hit-home discovery which cemented my commitment to stop talking catastrophe was this: reminders of our mortality, even subconscious ones, potentially serve to promote big carbon living.
It turns out we humans respond to intimations of death by defending further our existing cultural norms (see Marshall’s book listed below for a summary of research). In industrialised societies, this can drive people to focus more on “status, money and improved self-image” – corresponding with higher carbon output. Subtle mortality reminders also make people display a “greatly enhanced sense of the superiority of their own social group”. At a time when these issues have become hugely politically divisive (political views are now the best indicator of attitudes towards climate change issues), the continued pervasive use of death-invoking imagery when talking about climate change is potentially also nourishing the extreme polarisation of views.
My viewpoint has finally opened itself to allow more affirming, empowering and upbeat framings to come through: stories of positive action, hope of strengthened relationships and belonging, celebration of Life. Perhaps from living in a non-disaster-affected context for a while; perhaps from taking systematic action to reduce my emissions, so an action-oriented perspective has come out naturally; or perhaps, simply from talking more about it, and connecting back into local loves. Good conversation needs laughter too.
One way or another, I’ve come to see how climate change and energy issues are SO broad and complex that viewing them in a new light is infinitely possible: when combined with the will and commitment to release ourselves from whatever blinkers we have on.
I’d love to hear your experiences and reflections on this:
- How life-giving is your tongue on climate change and energy issues? Are you also prone to a danger-based viewpoint on it? Why do you think this is? What reactions do you get from others if you talk from this standpoint?
- Or have you naturally proffered a hopeful, can-do, active take on it? What’s helped you to do so?
- What’s the overall frame you tend to apply to climate change (e.g. a disaster/science/social/engineering/environmental/economic issue)? To what extent is the way you’ve framed it something which those around you can relate to?
Some resources I’ve found useful in thinking about how I frame climate change, and whether my frame on it is inclusive for others:
- Books: Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, Marshall, 2015; Talking Climate, Corner and Clarke, 2017
- Guides: Public Engagement with Climate Change post-Brexit – A Centre Right Perspective, Climate Outreach, 2017 (also earlier ‘New Conversation’ resources from 2016 and 2013); Faith and Climate Change – Talking with People of 5 Major Faiths, Climate Outreach, 2016
Meet the author
Kate Heath is a mishmash hodgepodge originating from Norfolk. Over the last 6 years she has worked overseas as a humanitarian worker, having trained as a water, sanitation and hygiene engineer – including responding to the earthquake in Nepal, to Ebola in West Africa, to conflict in eastern DRC and most recently to drought in Ethiopia. She started out, however, by training as an actor, before reskilling in her mid-20s in Environmental Sciences. She writes poetry to make sense of stuff and is increasingly intrigued by how the arts may help open up the issue of climate change. Along the way she’s worked with various marginalised groups, including substance users, sex workers and homeless people. She currently lives with her husband in Paris, where he works for a French humanitarian agency. She now works for an NGO supporting freedom of information and quality of media in developing countries, including improving environmental coverage. She is mid-way through a year-long experiment making the invisible visible: holding herself accountable for her carbon emissions by writing them daily in a visible place on her body for others to see.