Inside Story

Climate change and equity: whose language is it anyway?

In his winning entry for the Gavin Mooney Memorial Essay Competition, Sydney GP Tim Senior argues that language, and different ways of knowing, have been getting in the way of action on climate change

Tim Senior 24 February 2014 4290 words

Bushfire at Lithgow, west of Sydney, last October.
Ash Cooper/ Flickr

“I DON’T believe in that climate change.”

I’d just got back from Darwin in early October. I and many of my GP colleagues had been closely following the news of the bushfires in New South Wales. We’d had our first warning of high fire danger in late September. As I returned to work in Campbelltown, in southwest Sydney, a grey haze of smoke hung in the air. Each breath I took left a metallic reminder of the bushfires at the back of my throat. My patients were coughing more than usual. Those with asthma were getting through more inhalers. On behalf of patients, I’d been writing letters to the Department of Housing asking for modifications to keep people healthy, and even safe, in the weather extremes they were experiencing. It was what had been predicted. It was what was happening. So I was surprised to hear my patient say it.

“Oh,” I said. “I definitely do.” We’ve known each other a while, and I know her daughter, granddaughter and great grandson well too. We’d gone through quite a lot of medicine together, revealed enigmatically in small episodes like a slow-moving TV drama. This could become another storyline.

As I asked a bit more, and we discussed it for a short time, I realised that it wasn’t that she didn’t believe in climate change, it was that change in climate as we tend to hear about it wasn’t a thing she experienced. Bushfire smoke and unseasonable weather definitely were. And they did affect her in numerous ways.

If I said I was going to write about climate change now, you’d expect me to write about carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases; of concentrations in parts per million. We might mention farting cows, and have a little chuckle before getting back to the serious business of the perils of allowing average temperature to rise more than 2°C. We’d talk about sea-level rises and debate whether these would be measured in centimetres or metres. We would talk about glaciers and Greenland, polar bears and parasites. And my essay could be confined to the environmental (green-coloured) pages of the newspaper, where it can do no harm to the parallel worlds of business or politics.

My patient’s experience is very different. She’s experiencing the smell of the air, and her lungs are bringing back up the fine particles of smoke blown across from the Blue Mountains. Her skin feels the change in temperature of 10°C from one day to the next, and the pain in her joints tells her this is an unpleasant and undesirable phenomenon. Her jangling nerves still remind her that she slipped on her steps at a time of heavy rainfall, suffering a nasty fracture of her arm.

Perhaps it’s not that she doesn’t believe in climate change. She’s suffered the effects of it more than I have. Perhaps it’s that there are no polar bears to be worried about in Campbelltown. There are no glaciers, shrinking or otherwise, in Queen Street. Almost no one ever experiences the actual average global temperature. The way climate change is talked about just has no bearing on her life.

If I am honest, it doesn’t on mine either. To a lesser degree, I experience some inconveniences. My trains are delayed because of bushfires and I’ve had roads near me blocked by floods, both of which have prevented me from making it to work. I observe changes in the timing of blossom coming out in our garden. I choose to link this to climate change, though, and I choose to worry about it on behalf of my children and their children to come. I am in a privileged position, being paid above average, having a house in working order, and having no concerns about where my next meal is coming from. What else do I have to worry about, apart from climate change? Contrast this with my patient. She has some very real fears about affording the cooling at home, and worries about her granddaughter’s health problems after getting out of a violent relationship. This doesn’t leave much room to worry about polar bears and ice sheets. The irony here is that those, like my patients, who will be most affected by the changes in the climate, those least able to adapt, are those who are already struggling and therefore not worrying much about climate change as we conventionally talk about it.

Some words on climate change

What’s going on here? Those of us who talk, write and campaign about climate change are often dismissed as being out-of-touch, latte-sipping, inner-city types. After all, the inner city is where the Greens have most of their support. In his book The Lucky Culture, journalist Nick Cater describes this familiar bogeyman for the right wing – the university-educated, left-wing elite – talking to itself through the ABC. The stereotype is designed to dismiss these views and make them seem irrelevant, and to ensure that the political and economic changes needed to reduce the effects of climate change don’t find traction in the wider community. It’s easy to rebut the stereotype. I don’t drink lattes and don’t live in the inner city, but I am passionate about doing something about climate change. However, I wonder if there is a kernel of truth in this stereotype. The truth isn’t in the claim that there is a new left-wing ruling elite who think they are morally superior, as Cater claims. In fact, I’d suggest that the left are more riven with self-doubt than the right, who may see themselves as the rightful rulers. The truth is in the language we use. You can almost guarantee that anyone talking about climate change in the terms I’ve described – sea-level rises, ice sheets, average temperature rises, greenhouse gasses – is not in the groups who will suffer most of the effects, either now or in the future. Those affected now talk about bushfires. They talk about floods, hurricanes, drought, crop failure, increasingly salty water, rising food prices. “Ah, yes, you see,” we shout back. “Climate change. I told you so.” For those stuck in the middle of an environmental emergency, it’s not helpful.

This big-picture language distances us from those most affected. And it’s a pattern of behaviour. We see it in the way we talk about the so-called social determinants of health. I’ve never heard my patients talk about social determinants. I’ve never heard them mention the term “food security” either. But I’ve witnessed the tears after another racial bullying episode at work. I’ve heard people reluctantly admit that they’ve not eaten for a few days so the children can. I’ve seen stress that makes people sick from constant arguments with the housing department about getting repairs for the draughts through the house. I can go home, though, and have a sip of chardonnay, debrief with my wife, perhaps write another article for Croakey about the social determinants of health. My patients, meanwhile, have no escape. No need for the words when you live inside it.

We can draw on some good research here, looking at the terminology of the social determinants of health. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which lobbies on health issues in the United States, published a paper on the subject in 2010, A New Way to Talk about Social Determinants of Health. As they say, those working with the problems on the ground “didn’t necessarily resonate with this frame… We had to talk about the topic in a way that people could understand, that was meaningful, and that didn’t align the topic with any existing political ­perspective or agenda.” The researchers discovered that the concepts contained in the terminology of the social determinants of health were ones everyone could identify with, but not the terminology itself. If they used a phrase such as “Health starts in our families, in our schools and workplaces, in our playgrounds and parks, and in the air we breathe and the water we drink,” then there was broad agreement with these ideas. It is striking that anyone who uses the term “social determinants of health” is not likely to be someone who is at risk from them. Again, you have no need for these words if you have no escape from what they hold.

The Robert Woods Johnson Foundation also points to the deep metaphors held by people from different political perspectives. Words such as “equity,” “fairness,” and “justice” are not used by people who describe themselves as conservative. It may be that this is why people like Cater can dismiss campaigners on issues such as climate change and the social determinants of health as being of the left. They see such words scattered through the way campaigners talk, which just produces a gut reaction against those talking about climate change. It’s easy to see why those on the right of the political spectrum could view talk about climate change as a cover for producing a socialist paradise. It’s not that it actually is, it’s that the words we use are not the words they would use to describe a desirable world. The Robert Woods Johnson Foundation points out that those on the right politically prefer to use terms about referring to individual responsibility and opportunity. Ironically, there’s a missed opportunity here. Surely the issue of climate change could be framed as the ultimate conservative cause, the very essence of the roots of the word “conservation.” Action against climate change should be the ultimate conservative policy, preserving the natural systems that our fundamental institutions have been built on. The systems of the market, of buying and selling, depend on stability and predictability. All the predictions about changes to the climate tell us that there will be more weather extremes, with consequent unpredictability about food supply and transport viability. More disasters will lead to a need for bigger government to co-ordinate rescues and rebuilding. It’s not a future a conservative would wish for. Perhaps we could frame some of the solutions as being about taking responsibility in our own areas of influence, about protecting these systems. Taking action on climate is an opportunity for entrepreneurs and small business, if governments enabled it.

Merely knowing about climate change

The problem goes deeper than just a use of language, though. Yes, the language used around climate change and equity distances it from the very people who would be affected most by what is happening. The cause of this disconnect is that we have come to believe that knowing about something is the same as knowing something. It’s a deep Western cultural belief of ours. It is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a double-edged sword. Knowing about things has resulted in a huge increase in knowledge and a massive extension of what is knowable beyond our immediate experience. We know about distant stars and have identified some planets in other solar systems. We’ve discovered cellular mechanisms, with practical implications for making people better from diseases. We’ve come to understand subatomic particles and the counterintuitive party tricks of quantum physics. But knowing about things has also led to a devaluing of personal, subjective knowledge, the lived experience, knowing things themselves. In one sense it’s another version of colonisation, where a particularly successful system of knowledge acquisition dismisses other ways of knowing, and says they should all become more like it.

There are almost too many examples to choose from, but we don’t notice them because knowing about is so deeply embedded. Knowing about underpins the system of academic publishing – that you can write about something, someone can read it and they now know it. The whole education system is built on knowing about things. Education becomes about transmitting a set of facts. If you have a copy of the PowerPoint slides you know the lecture. It is only because we privilege knowing about that we can have lectures about Aboriginal cultures and think we knew what that means. How else could it not matter who assesses learning objectives related to cultural awareness? How could we possibly have Massive Online Open Courses, or Free Open Access Medical Education without equating knowing about with knowing?

Even parenting has become a thing to know about. If you read a parenting book or two, then you’ll know enough to be a parent. I’ve never met a parent yet, though, who says they understood what it would be like before they actually had children.

The whole New Atheist movement is built on knowing facts about religion and finding them demonstrably false. Religion in reply – particularly fundamentalist religion – has tried to contest that these facts are in fact true. Both sides miss the point that, like so many human activities, religion is a practice, and experience, not a set of facts to be memorised.

But how could this be any different? Surely, this is the way things are now, and can’t be changed? Even now, though, there are times where knowing, as opposed to knowing about, is seen as a useful skill. I have listened as one of my (urban) Aboriginal patients describes the gentle outline of the hill he walked up and over to get to the practice. I’d never noticed it, until getting on my bike. Some Aboriginal people still follow the natural rhythms of the seasons. The fluctuations of animal migrations, and the rhythm of foliage, flowers and fruit are all signals to be read for those who know. I have had a tour of a local landscape from an Aboriginal elder, who shared detailed, experiential knowledge about how trees affect the growth of competitors, and detailed observations of the construction of an anthill and what this means about the weather to come. This isn’t described as knowledge, but as culture. I have heard elsewhere that the blooming of the wattle flowers indicates that it is time to fill out your tax return.

Author Karen Armstrong points out that religion is a set of cultural rituals and practices, not a set of disputed facts to be believed. All cultures have rituals that you won’t really understand unless you take part in them regularly. Only in Western culture, where knowing about is valued more than knowing could we jettison many of our communal rituals. I remember as a child at church in England celebrating harvest festival each year. As philosopher Alain de Botton points out, religions mark out time in significant human events like births, marriages and deaths, but also over the year. Our ability to transplant a northern hemisphere Christianity, and its three-year liturgical cycle, to the southern hemisphere is a huge triumph of knowing about over knowing, with the prize a celebration of the midwinter Christmas festival in the hottest part of the year, complete with fake snow.

Think global, talk local, act everywhere

Those who aren’t convinced by the arguments in favour of taking action on climate change sometimes claim that belief in climate change has become like a religion. Even using the word “belief” makes this point. The prophetic fervour about apocalyptic claims is worth commenting on, not because the claims are wrong, but because of the religious archetypes they unknowingly draw on. Like atheists and fundamentalists, though, climate change campaigners have forgotten the central truth of religion. Facts don’t change people’s minds; stories do. Climate change campaigning, like religion, should not be a debate about the facts, though we pretend it is. Here’s your evidence, though. If it were just about the facts, there would be no climate change scepticism. What religion used to do more successfully than any other system was change behaviour, through the ritual and ceremonial retelling and internalising of a series of founding stories. These weren’t just read – in fact when they were read, it was often in Latin, a language incomprehensible to most listeners, just adding to the mystique. The rituals involved participation, art, singing, acting out, ritual movements, silence and, ultimately, emotion.

Perhaps our talk about climate change can draw on this. We are more likely to bring people into action on climate catastrophe through engaging the emotions, with stories, than through summaries of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I’m not suggesting that facts be jettisoned, but it is what you do with them that matters. I’m also not suggesting that the solution is to fall down and worship Gaia either. It’s worth noting in passing that metaphors like James Lovelock’s Gaia theory do get some traction, not because of the science, but because they are stories that some people find attractive.

What I am suggesting, though, is that talk of climate change needs to move from the global and scientific knowing about to the local lived experience of changes on the ground. We might be able to learn again from the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation here. As well as describing how the words traditionally used about the social determinants of health don’t connect with the people working on the ground, or the people who experience their effects, the Foundation also describes alternatives. These alternatives connect with people’s intuitive understandings of the way their workplaces, their schools, their towns affect their health. We can see how different the discussion would be if we were to talk about climate change in these alternative ways, especially for those most affected. What are the concerns of people in this situation currently? How well-built is the house where you live? Will it keep you cool in really hot summers? Will it keep you warm in an extreme winter? Is it waterproof against those rainstorms? Can you and all your family afford to eat three meals a day? What if food prices went up? What if your insurance goes up because of the increased risk of storms, floods and fires? How reliable is your public transport? Will that be affected by bushfires or bad weather? How does the temperature affect your health? What about smoke from fires? How is your mood affected by unpredictable weather?

People across the political spectrum can be engaged by a call to personal responsibility. By walking more, taking public transport, and planting and eating food locally, you save money, get healthier and make it less likely that we’ll get those extremes of weather. People can only take responsibility, though, if businesses and government give them the infrastructure to make choices. So quality public transport is required, as is land for community gardens and incentives for reducing emissions.

I don’t know that these suggestions are particularly good or imaginative, but they start to explore the possibilities. The Robert Woods Johnson Foundation also gives some good advice about using facts. Instead of using multiple facts pointing the same way, use one: “More facts made people feel like they were being sold or spun.” Use a few complementary facts, judiciously placed, and make them memorable. I suspect that the diminishing length of time between severe bushfires may be one of those, but that an average global temperature rise of 4°C is not.

The challenge, then, is to be able to frame climate change problems in a way that relates to everyday experiences. Not just that, but we need to be able to show unequivocally that we care as much for those who will be most affected by climate change, those who are most vulnerable to its effects, as we do for polar bears. We need to demonstrate an awareness of the current challenges faced by those most vulnerable to climate change, because they are also the people who are already the most vulnerable to all the other social problems we create. In short, we need to understand that many of us who think this issue is important come from a position of privilege, but that we stand alongside the most vulnerable, understand their current challenges and are working with them to prevent these getting worse.

Doing this, though, will need a few changes in our approach. It will need us to listen more. We will need to listen harder to those who will be most affected by climate change. We will need to understand, to know, if possible, rather than just know about their concerns and their experiences. This understanding is unlikely to be couched in the academic or political language we are used to hearing, and is all the more valuable for that. It is also likely to go beyond climate impacts – to speak of political marginalisation, of cost-of-living pressures, of the effects of being a have-not in a world that glorifies the haves. This language can appeal to those across the political spectrum. It speaks of responsibility and opportunity as well as equity and justice. Then, we will need to allow those most affected to tell their stories to a broader audience. This sounds easy, but it is a trap we fall into all too easily, allowing the privileged to speak on behalf of the less privileged. We only have to think of the example of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs to know this. This puts an added responsibility on us, though – to ensure the safety of those telling their stories, to stand with them and take heat on their behalf. We only have to note the recent example of what happens when we do something as radical as have a female prime minister to see the heat that generates. Witness also the class-based insults thrown by the privileged from all sides of politics when someone like Rick Muir gets elected to the Senate. We can expect that when vulnerable people talk about what will happen to them, and what is already happening to them, as a result of climate change, their views will be discounted because of their vulnerability. The opportunity is huge – this is the chance to act out our commitment to hear the voices of marginalised and vulnerable communities, and to allow them a say in their future and control over their own lives.

I have argued that we need another way of talking about climate change, one that uses what we know from the science to speak to people’s lived experience. One that draws on story and art and music, different cultural views and ritual and ceremony. We need to use this opportunity to hear from those who will be most affected, and to project their voices. We need to engage reason and touch emotion. And we need to move the debate away from average temperatures, glaciers and polar bears, which can be kept on the environment pages, and instead discuss how to keep the economy operational, the trains running and the power on. We need to say that whatever it is you care about, whether it’s agriculture, schooling, defence or health, the changes we are seeing in our climate will have a profound impact. This is traditionally a left-wing issue, but for those on the right, the institutions they believe in will be profoundly affected too, and this doesn’t depend on “belief” in the science.

Now if a patient tells me, “I don’t believe in that climate change,” I can shrug, and ask what she values. The science is established. Her health depends on smoke-free air, clean water, available and affordable fresh fruit and vegetables, and shelter against the elements that is capable of withstanding whatever the weather can throw at it. Her health also depends on those around her having the same – we don’t need trips to hospitals or funerals for friends and family. But the point is that my health depends on these things too, and so, whoever you are reading this, does yours. We are all living in a shared life-support system. If we want to continue living healthy lives, it’s time we stopped trashing it. We need a language we can all understand, and we need to hear from those who are first in the queue to be harmed. •

Tim Senior works as a GP at Tharawal Aboriginal Corporation in Southwest Sydney and as the Medical Advisor in the RACGP National Faculty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health. He is a Senior Lecturer in Indigenous Health at the University of Western Sydney. He writes regularly for Croakey (the Crikey health blog) and the British Journal of General Practice and is a keen blogger and tweeter (@timsenior). He has previously worked as a medical educator and has practiced in the Northern Territory and Thursday Island, as well as in Britain. In his spare time he grows some vegetables, brews some beer and plays some music.

Details about the Gavin Mooney Memorial Essay Competition and a list of runners-up are available at Croakey.