Not everyone cares about climate change, but reproach won’t change their minds


Chloe Lucas, University of Tasmania; Adam Corner, Cardiff University; Aidan Davison, University of Tasmania, and Peat Leith, University of Tasmania

So much for Australia’s “climate election”. In the event, voters in last month’s federal poll didn’t put climate policy at the top of their wish list.

Contrary to opinion polls predicting a groundswell of support for Labor’s relatively progressive agenda on climate and economics, the election results revealed that Australians are more divided on climate change than we thought.




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Voters for progressive climate policy were dismayed at the re-election of a prime minister who famously brought a lump of coal into Parliament. Perhaps understandably, one of the immediate responses among these progressive voters was to express anger at those who don’t share their concern.

But anger feeds a divisive politics that cannot help us to address our big collective challenges. By retreating into social media echo chambers where mockery and disrespect are the norm, we risk losing entirely the social cohesion and trust needed for democracy to work.

A whole-of-society discussion about our collective future is urgently needed. Now is the time to reinvent how we communicate about climate change, particularly with those who don’t see it as an urgent concern. Here’s how.

Addressing the ‘climate-unconcerned’

Contrary to the assumption that unconcern about climate change is evidence of selfishness or politically motivated denial, our research shows that people who resist climate concern are just as likely to be caring, ethical and socially minded as anyone else.

While there is a small minority of people who actively campaign against climate action, within society at large, those who are simply unconcerned about the climate crisis encompass a broad range of political views and levels of political engagement.

Far from being prejudiced, unreasonable, apathetic or ignorant, our studies in Australia and the UK show that many people who are unconcerned about the climate nevertheless care about issues including justice, the common good, and the health of ecosystems.

Belonging to a social group that doesn’t have its own narratives of climate concern is one of the most common reasons for unconcern. People who are unconcerned about climate change often see it as a “greenie” issue. If they identify themselves as opposed to green politics, they are unlikely to prioritise calls for climate action.

The rural/city divide also plays a key part in polarising narratives of climate action, as regional and outer-urban Australians, who are more likely to be economically dependent on natural resources, feel ignored and devalued by policies designed to appeal to capital city electorates. If we want to break down polarisation on climate change, we need to understand what matters to rural and conservative social groups.

Bridging the divide

Our findings suggest a set of principles for engaging with people who are unconcerned about climate change:

  • Respect difference. Don’t assume that being unconcerned about climate change is a moral failing. People have other active concerns that are no less valid.

  • Listen. Build relationships with people who have different life experiences to your own, by asking what is important to them. Appreciate that some people may find social change more threatening and immediate than climate change. Empathising with this feeling can foster understanding of the core concerns that underpin resistance to change, and potentially help identify ways to address these concerns.

  • Value values. Avoid arguments based on appeals to the authority of science, or the consensus of expert opinion. “Debating the science” is a red herring – people’s responses to claims about climate change are motivated primarily by what they value, and the narratives of their social group, not their acceptance of scientific fact. Focus on values you might have in common, rather than getting caught up in disputes over facts.

  • Move beyond Left and Right. Don’t conflate political ideology with stance on climate. Showing that climate is not a defining issue for social groups is really important to avoid polarisation. We need to work against the idea that action on climate is an exclusively left-wing or “greenie” agenda.

Adopting these principles can help to build a political culture around climate science and policy that responds to the different priorities of Australians, all of whom are simply seeking a safe and secure future. This approach recognises that no action on climate change is possible without public trust and involvement in democratic institutions.

What can we learn from the UK?

Australia’s parliamentary system and media environment have much in common with that of the UK. Although the UK has not been immune to political divisions on climate change, with levels of concern typically higher on the political left than on the right, Britain has maintained a bipartisan approach.

With the help of intiatives supporting a pluralistic approach to climate policy discussions, the UK Climate Change Act passed into law in 2008 with almost unanimous cross-party support.




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Research in the UK has provided an evidence-based set of language and narratives to use when discussing climate change. This is focused on core socially conservative values such as maintaining the status quo (protecting it from a changing climate), avoiding waste (of household energy), and investing in secure (renewable) energy. There is also a push to reinvigorate democratic debate through citizens’ assemblies on climate change.

Now is the time for Australians to listen to each other, and develop a pluralistic approach to discussions on our shared future. The alternative is to sink deeper into partisan hostility and recrimination. And after a decade of division on climate policy, is that really the best way forward?

Join author Chloe Lucas at 3pm today for a live Q&A. Post your questions about #ClimateChange politics in the comments section below and she will answer.The Conversation

Chloe Lucas, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Tasmania; Adam Corner, Research Director, Climate Outreach & Honorary Research Fellow, School of Psychology, Cardiff University, Cardiff University; Aidan Davison, Associate Professor, University of Tasmania, and Peat Leith, Research Fellow, Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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5 ways the government can clean up the Murray-Darling Basin Plan


Barry Hart, Monash University and Martin Thoms, University of New England

The health of the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia’s largest and most complex river system, is in rapid decline, and faces major challenges over the next 30 years as the climate changes.

In our view, there are still major problems with the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. These must be addressed to make sure the system is resilient enough to have a reasonable chance of bouncing back from future shocks to the river’s ecosystems, particularly due to climate change.




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Here are five ways the government can clean up the Murray-Darling Basin Plan so the river system has a chance of surviving in the long term.

1. Allow the rivers to spill into the floodplain

There are restrictions in all states on deliberately using environmental water (water set aside to keep the rivers healthy) to go over the river bank and inundate the floodplain. When this happens, it’s known as “overbank flow”, and is restricted to areas and times of year when it’s permitted.

Overbank flow is the connection between rivers and their floodplain, and is essential for two reasons.

Populations of water birds like pelicans are not recovering as well as they used to after drought and flood cycles in the Basin.
Shutterstock

The first is to ensure floodplain wetlands and forests are resilient. For example, without additional water, the current red gum forests along the River Murray are likely to die and be replaced with black box trees, which need less water.

The second is for the exchange of nutrients and organic matter between rivers and floodplains. Without these inputs from the floodplain, the river system would only be able to support a much smaller number of fish.

Governments have been reluctant to work towards increased overbank flows, largely because of a potential backlash from landholders who don’t want their floodplain land to be flooded.




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But in several regions, such as the Edward-Wakool system in New South Wales, landowners and government officials are working through the issues that infrequent flooding has on riverside agricultural land, such as stock being unable to graze flooded areas, crops being innundated by floodwaters, and loss of access to parts of their property through road flooding.

We hope their discussions will lead to a balance, where overbank flows can still occur with minimum impact on landholders.

Still, without changes to state policies on overbank flows, parts of the Basin’s floodplain systems are unlikely to have sufficient resilience to absorb future stresses.

2. Better management of the rivers

The Commonwealth and states now have almost 3 trillion litres (3,000 gigalitres) of dedicated environmental water, purchased from irrigators, many of whom have made significant water savings by upgrading their irrigation equipment.

This is called “held” environmental water. Currently, there is around 3 trillion litres of held environmental water, and 13.7 trillion litres of water allocated to irrigators in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Management of this environmental water is relatively new, compared with the management of water for irrigators, which has been occurring for the better part of 80 years in rivers such as the Murray, Goulburn and Murrumbidgee.

There is a major difference in when environmental and irrigation water is needed through the year. Farmers have their highest water demand for irrigation in late spring and summer, while the major environmental water demand is often highest in late winter and early spring. This is when high natural inflows would have filled river channels and spilled into floodplain forests and wetlands.

The use of the river channels to deliver irrigation water has lead to large flows in the summer when naturally the river flows would have been low. This has resulted in environmental problems, such as bank erosion and the wrong triggers for fish breeding.

3. A greater focus on river refuges

During periods of low or no flow, many of the Basin’s rivers exist as networks of waterholes. In such dry periods, these waterholes are vital habitats, or “refuges”, for fish, frogs, waterbugs, and other species that need permanent water.

Changes in land use, flow regimes and the condition of riverbank vegetation all threaten the ability for these waterholes to act as refuges for these species. These waterhole refuges also need a full set of structural habitats, such as snags and riverbank vegetation.




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Maintaining a “mosaic” of refuges with different levels of connection is required for the full suite of species to be able to survive droughts.

4. Better protection of planned environmental water

Runoff – rainwater that drains from the land and into the rivers – will be seriously affected by climate change.

A predicted 20% reduction in rainfall is expected in the southern Basin by 2050. This would translate to a 40-50% reduction in runoff, and would impact on all water in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Disturbingly, the current policy in the Basin Plan safeguards the entitlements to irrigation water and held environmental water, but not the rest of the flow – which is largely also “environmental” water. Currently, this makes up around half of the total flow (32.5 trillion litres per year) in the Murray-Darling Basin a very large volume.

Drought stricken wetlands of the Murray-Darling Basin. We need a more coordinated management of all of the Basin’s natural resources.
Shutterstock

The effect varies over the basin, but by 2030, overall losses are predicted to be two to three times greater for water that is outside of these entitlements, compared with irrigation water and held environmental water.

Unless this policy is changed, climate change will have an excessive impact on the river’s health. Entitlement-holders will continue to take the same amount of water while the overall river flow drops dramatically. This deficiency must be addressed when the Basin Plan is reviewed by 2026.

5. Linking water and other natural resource management

The Basin’s water resources do not exist in isolation from other “natural capital”, such as riverbank habitats, floodplain land, and the surrounding catchments.

Before the Basin Plan, the Murray-Darling Basin Commission had in place an integrated natural resource management strategy, but this has now been discontinued.

River scientists know “the catchment rules the river”. But the water and catchments are now managed separately, despite many calls over the years for better integration.

Poor agricultural practices result in sediment, nutrients and salt entering the rivers in runoff. This reduces water quality and harms the Basin’s ability to provide essential “ecosystem services”, such as water quality improvement and the effective functioning of the ecosystem.




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We believe a more coordinated management of all natural resources in the Basin, and attention to other complementary measures, should be addressed when the current Basin Plan is reviewed in 2026.

We submit that continuing with the existing Basin Plan, it’s unlikely the Murray-Darling Basin will be resilient enough to withstand future climate impacts, and we will see major detrimental changes to the basin’s ecosystems.

At the very least, we must properly implement the current Basin Plan by addressing the first three issues above, and also make the necessary policy change to ensure the other two issues – protection of planned environmental water and better links with other natural resources – are addressed in the next Basin Plan in 2026.The Conversation

Barry Hart, Emeritus Professor Water Science, Monash University and Martin Thoms, Professor – Faculty of Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences and Education; School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences , University of New England

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.