Beyond Awareness, to Action


Back when I was a high school environmental activist, I used to think that if everyone knew about the problems in the world, they would of course work together to solve them.

If only people understood that the environment was in crisis, they would reduce their energy use, use recycled products and support cutting pollution. If only people were aware that the majority of the world lived in poverty, they would give money to charity. If only they would read New Internationalist they would get active with community groups trying to make the world a better place! It was a simplistic theory of change based on the formula that awareness of a problem leads to its solution. This belief in such a simple theory of change was in turn based on my deep and naïve faith in both human empathy and human intelligence, and my then lack of understanding of political reality, as a 14 year old who hadn’t even heard of Lateline.

But as I soon learned through my first campaign – and in every subsequent one to follow – knowledge alone does not lead to action.

It’s one of life’s hard lessons for a young activist to learn. Not only are our political leaders aware of many of the disastrous environmental consequences of their policies, they have shelves of reports about the situation gathering dust that they were first presented with decades ago. It’s not that they don’t understand what’s happening – they have the knowledge, but they decide it’s not important enough. That the needs of multinational energy companies come before the social contract that says the Government is supposed to protect, not irreversibly destroy, the interests of its people.

When I realised this, I felt the same emotions I had felt when my parents announced they were getting divorced. It shattered my childhood innocence and made me face reality: awareness alone was never going to solve the world’s problems.

This isn’t just the case for activism. Humans are complex creatures, and it’s human nature that information alone, even when factually accurate and compelling, just isn’t strong enough to make us change or to face reality.

Think of the millions of Australians who want to exercise more. They have the information about the health benefits of exercising, and the health risks of being unfit – but it’s not enough to actually get them off the couch after a long day at work. It takes motivation, inspiration and a willingness to face reality. It takes a vision of how their life will be better once they change their behaviour. It often takes partners – a friend or a spouse who offers to go jogging with them. It takes commitment and perseverance as well as resilience.

There’s no simple formula for changing the world, and the role that community awareness, understanding and support plays varies widely from issue to issue. There are some problems that can be classified as “technical” – the problem is known and the solution is known, and it’s relatively easy to fix.

Environmental campaigners put a lot of effort into campaigning on the hole in the ozone layer, and once there was sufficient public momentum it wasn’t too hard for the world’s governments to solve it, though enacting and enforcing the Montreal Protocol. After initial pushback, chemical manufacturers like Dupont eventually realised that they could still make profits despite having to replace chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) with hydrochlorofluorocarbons and hydrofluorocarbons. It was a technical problem – and the solutions involved a set of technical steps. The changes mandated by the Montreal Protocol didn’t require buy in, or even understanding, from the public.

Climate change is different. It’s caused by fundamental tenets of modern Western society – over consumption, endless growth, and unlimited cheap energy from burning fossil fuels. Cutting pollution and making clean energy cheaper threatens arguably most powerful group in Australian society: the coal barons and mining magnates.

Climate change is certainly not a technical problem. We have had the information about the problem, and how to solve it, since before I was born. We aren’t lacking the technology, or even the blueprints or plans as to how to go about weaning our economy off fossil fuels. There are plenty of government departments and non-governmental organisations in every country around the world that have had this work done for years. In Australia, reports and modeling from Beyond Zero Emissions, ClimateWorks and Greenpeace are excellent contributions to this body of knowledge.

But the reason Australia doesn’t yet have a carbon price, and that our investment in renewable energy is so pitiful, is not that the Government doesn’t know how to do it.

It’s because they don’t believe that the public support for action is strong enough yet – or perhaps more specifically, they know there’s broad support, but they doubt how deep it is. Changing the fundamentals of our economy and taking on the polluter lobby takes a lot of courage. It’s bigger than the GST. It’s the kind of thing that can bring down a Government. The polluter lobby has huge influence over the media – especially The Australian – and this trickles down into influencing public opinion, particularly in marginal seats like Western Sydney and South Eastern Queensland where the Government closely monitors attitudes of ‘working families’.

Any Government trying to pass a carbon price needs public support for strong action. We have that in Australia, and have had for at least five years, but we can’t take it for granted, as recent polling shows. The campaign by climate deniers (funded by mining magnates like Gina Rhinehart, who paid for the infamous Lord Monckton to tour Australia) has been successful in confusing the public about basic scientific information. Essential’s recent poll shows that belief in human-caused climate change has waned over the past year — 53% of people believed climate change was happening and caused by human activity in November 2009, but only 45% now. Most of that shift has been into “Don’t Know”.

So whilst University students and inner city residents may think that we’ve won the battle for public support, there are still whole groups of people we’ve yet to reach, listening to talkback radio right now as they drive to work.

That’s where the Australian Youth Climate Coalition comes in. Information – or awareness of the problem – doesn’t change people’s hearts and minds. Neuroscientists, psychologists and linguists alike can tell you that if you present people with facts that don’t fit with their existing conceptual “frames” – the way they see and interpret the world, they will reject the facts rather than change their frame. Take this interaction with a taxi driver I had this week on the issue of refugees:

Driver:“It’s illegal, they should obey the law”.
Me: Seeking asylum has been legal under Australian law and international for a very long time. The first Vietnamese refugees arrived in Australia in 1976. It was legal then and it was legal now.
Driver says, “but they’re breaking the law”.
Me: Repeat my explanation and explain which laws make it legal to seek asylum.
Driver: Silence for about 5kms, followed by: “but they’re breaking the law. If I broke the law and ran through that red light camera I’d get booked. They’re breaking the law.”

He literally can’t hear the information that it’s legal to seek asylum – because the frame inside his head that explains how he sees the issue is so strong.

So because facts don’t get us the level of public support that gives our political leaders enough momentum and “permission” to put a price on carbon, groups like the Australian Youth Climate Coalition focus on  framing the narrative on our own terms. We have to win the battle of the story of climate change and how it connects to pre existing frames and value sets. Research – and common sense – tells us that this is the way forward, no matter what people’s politics

But that’s not to say that AYCC doesn’t have policy, as some people accuse us of. Last year in particular we were very strongly advocating emission cuts of 50% by 2020 and strong changes to the CPRS to make it fairer and more effective. Our staff and volunteers participate in policy forums where appropriate, we make submissions and we lobby decision makers. In doing so, we take our lead from groups that focus heavily on policy formulation like the Australian Conservation Foundation, Beyond Zero Emissions, and others.

But lets be clear. To focus only on policy formulation as campaigners would be to repeat the mistakes that the environment movement made in the 1990s and the start of this decade. After all, these things are useless without a public movement making sure action is taken – that those policies that have been sitting on shelves for decades are actually passed – before it’s too late.

It’s not the role of a youth movement to be sitting behind our desks creating detailed policy while there are still people out there who don’t yet support a carbon price, and don’t understand that their lives and those of their kids and grandkids are threatened by climate change.

CPRS, ETS, RSPT, Co2, UNFCC, IPCC. We don’t win this by talking in acronyms. Megawatts, negawatts, geothermal drills, photovoltaic cells, passive solar, voltage optimization. We don’t win this by being geeks and talking about technology.

We win this by talking about what’s at stake: clean air, clean water, clean soil. The survival of our families, our coastal cities, our farmers, our beautiful country and our incredible planet. We talk about the vision we have of a smart, safe future, and how it isn’t that hard to actually get there.

What’s the Australian Youth Climate Coalition’s theory of change?

To make it harder for our Government to continue with their current polluting policies than it is for them to give in to our demands to cut pollution and make clean energy cheaper.

To get past a small core of inward-looking student activists and build a generation wide movement of young people from all walks of life and from all over Australia to change hearts and minds, and advocate solutions on a local, state, national and global level.

To educate, inspire and mobilise youth people – hundreds of thousands of them in Australia alone – to get involved this struggle, in ways that are meaningful to them and build real power and a critical mass and tipping point.

And to never, never give up – because we’re fighting for our future.

So far we’re over 56,000 members and counting, with 36 very active local groups around the country and a proven track record of mobilising thousands of young people very quickly through a network of effective, well trained grassroots organizers in every state and territory. We’re effective because we use fun, engaging and creative tactics like the Climate Elephant, which was widely credited within the movement, by politicians and by media outlets like The Age and Sky News as the most effective campaign keeping climate change on the election media agenda when both Gillard and Abbott were doing their best to avoid talking about the issue.

In 2011, out of the dust and chaos of the unpredictable events of the federal election, we have a real chance to get a price on carbon passed by the Government, Greens and Independents. There’s never been more opportune moment in Australia to cut pollution and make clean energy cheaper. The youth climate movement has grown exponentially since we got organised four years ago, and we’re now a powerful national force. Our time is now.

About annastarrrose

Author & environmentalist
This entry was posted in aycc, climate change, learning, theory of change, Uncategorized, youth. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Beyond Awareness, to Action

  1. Arm says:

    Wonderful and inspiring, thankyou!

  2. Gideon says:

    Great piece Anna! You keep on inspiring some us even outside Australia. Solidarity from Ghana.

  3. katherinetu says:

    Anna, this is wonderful! It really reinforces to me that the approach by the AYCC is the best. It is really one of the smartest and most effective organisations I’ve worked with. It gets things done.
    Hope you’re well 🙂

  4. Ramya says:

    Excellent blog Anna! Re-energised by reading it 🙂

  5. Dean Steele-Bennett says:

    Some salient advice was provided to me 3 years ago by Lynn Twist (founded the “Hunger project” over 20 years ago and working with Paul Hawken et al on major social change projects. Google her. Her project has easily raised over $1B for poverty alleviation in the developing world).

    I paraphrase:

    “Present a better and more inspiring option of how to live a great lifestyle and show how it is done. Dont talk. Do. Be. Live your life each day consciously and if you look more relaxed, peaceful, healthier and happier, then people will follow you. If you are asking people to change and look like a “burnt out version of the corporate world”, then that does not look like a better option. Change the “narrative and the story” by which people describe their daily lives by presenting a better vision of how to live a great life and how abundant life can be as a result”.

    She also echoed the narrative in this blog post by further saying “dont try to change peoples minds/values/belief systems by providing them with more information…. help them see how they can live a better life with different lifestyle options through their “lens of the world (ie: their belief systems)….. dont try to change their belief systems. Help them see how they can RETAIN their belief systems but live a good life through shifting their daily choices to ones that help connect them to THEIR community and help regenerate the world”.

    Practical examples of how to live a better live on a daily basis are powerful to those around us whether we are Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, from an indigenous background, living in downtown Fitzroy or driving a taxi in Sydney.

    Food for thought.

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