Cover of book: How to Talk about Climate Change

Rebecca Huntley
How to Talk about Climate Change

Watching the news of the 2018 climate strike, Rebecca Huntley suddenly understood that when the young people demanded action from the older generation, they were talking to her. She had, she says, a visceral reaction to this realisation. As a lawyer and social researcher, Huntley had always assumed that reason mattered most to her personal decisions. Yet her “transformative moment”, the one that turned her into a committed climate activist, didn’t come from learning more facts – it came from an emotional response to student activism. She wondered if perhaps arguing the science wasn’t the most effective way to move people to action: many people don’t quarrel with the science, but don’t take action either. She realised that it’s necessary to appeal to people’s emotions. But which emotions, and how?

Guilt, fear, anger, denial, despair, hope, loss and love each get a chapter in How to Talk about Climate Change. There’s no simple or universal calculus as to which emotion or mix of emotions is most motivating, given the wide and complex spectrum of human behaviour and personality. Anger, for example, is “a kind of frenemy” of climate action, writes Huntley – it can get people onto the streets but may also be self-defeating. Guilt is tricky, too, as it can foster resentment or defensiveness, especially when shame is also evoked. Hope is paradoxical in its effects. Love may be, if not the answer, at least a good starting point. There is no “simple arrow from attitudes to behaviour”, Huntley observes, adding that “emotional appeal plus ‘call to action’ doesn’t equal response”.

As a social researcher and author of such works as the Quarterly Essay Australia Fair: Listening to the Nation, Huntley is professionally attuned to the vagaries of social trends, public opinion and mood. To research this book, she consulted a range of experts and activists across the globe. Among other things, she considers the persuasive powers of teenage girls; the relationship between women’s educational opportunities and global climate change mitigation; the role of organised religion (more positive than you might guess); and the importance of helping people discover local, concrete connections to the issue.

Huntley’s research is sound, her arguments intelligent and the strategies she offers convincing. She writes in a voice that’s friendly, encouraging and frankly personal, if occasionally bordering on the prolix. Given the urgency of our need to learn how to talk about climate change, I found myself wishing for slightly less journey, more destination.

Murdoch Books, 304pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 8, 2020 as "Rebecca Huntley, How to Talk about Climate Change".

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Linda Jaivin is the author of 12 books.

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