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Weaponised Self-Interest

22 May 201908:29PMclimatescicomm

We might not agree on the problem - but we maybe we can agree on the solution.

It's tempting to froth about the majority of voters this election by claiming that they're stupid or irrational for ignoring the climate and voting based on, for example, tax policies instead.

The truth is that they're perfectly rational and intelligent humans. They've very rationally voted on the things that matter to them - their own well-being, and the opinions of people close to them.

They can know that climate change is real, understand what the global effects are, and still make the perfectly rational decision that their, and their children, and their community's immediate wellbeing is more important, because it is. Humans are hard-wired to care about this sort of stuff, because deep down we're just upright monkeys. We need food and shelter, and we need our tribe to accept us, and caring about those is the most rational thing in the world.

Fast Cars And Free Power

So shouting that the planet is dying is not going to work. Everyone that was going to be convinced by that message has been. Shouting it louder isn't going to help. It's time for a different approach.

We need to change the way we talk about climate change - and more importantly, about climate solutions, and the way we do that is by framing the conversation differently.

There's a couple of ways we might approach this. Some of them have even been tested. In particular, we know that it's more effective to talk about climate change in terms of what we can save, not what we're losing, and in terms of local and familiar things rather than abstract and distant things.

We could talk about it in economic terms - it's going to be cheaper to do mitigation now than it will be to build flood barriers in ten years. That it's already costing us, in water trucking and desalination and fish kills and crop failures.

But even here we're still talking about the problem. What if we - hear me out - we started talking up the solutions instead? Becuase here's the thing - the transition to a clean economy isn't just necessary, it's really exciting.. The problems are bad, yes - but the solutions are very, very good. The solutions are independence from unreliable grids, and adding value to your house. They're fast cars you can charge at home, and power that's too cheap to even think about. They're cargo ships with carbon-fiber sails, and electric blimps dotting the sky. And they're the chance to get filthy Elon Musk-level rich by investing in those solutions. The renewable future is awesome, fossil fuels are a dying industry, and anyone who says otherwise is a wowser.

Yes, writing that felt bit gross, but that's the point - these messages aren't for us. They're for the people we've failed to convince. This is hard! It means you have to put yourself in your audience's head, and that's a skill that takes time and practise to master.

The goal here is that in three years' time it is normal and socially acceptable to say "I don't give a shit about the climate, but don't you dare touch my electricity and transport prices or do anything to negatively impact my investment portfolio"

This is how you change behaviour. Not by changing people's values, but by showing how what you want them to do aligns with what they want anyway. You have to make it rational, and then they'll do it.

Elections Are A Trailing Indicator

For the person up the back who's had their hand up for the last paragraph to say that individual actions aren't going to cut it, I see you. Don't worry, we're getting to that. We've got a couple of tricks up our sleeve.

First, we'll be creating more demand for renewable energy, and reducing the market for non-renewables. If we shift demand, shift sales, and start to shift investment, we're starting to speak a language that the big players - governments, corporations, and so on, understand - at least more than they do platitudes about the planet. One of the reasons climate change has gotten this far is that there's no financial penalty for polluting, but as clean energy gets cheaper and supply and demand starts to shift, that will start to change.

They've made this fight about jobs and money, and that will be their undoing, because ultimately this is where the jobs and the money are. Because pretty soon nobody will be buying from or working in coal mines.

Second, in the long run, this is how we change values. We like to think that we make choices based on what we believe, but in reality it's the other way round - we shape our values based on the actions we take. Make it cheap and easy to do, make it obvious that it's what everyone is doing, and you can change people's behaviour. Change people's behaviour, and cognitive dissonance will do the rest

Show people a 5c refund, and they'll become passionate recyclers. Show them free power, and they'll become passionate advocates for renewable energy.

And that's how we change the government next time - whether that comes through changing policy or changing party is irrelevant. We shift the conversation, we shift the behaviour, we shift the market, we shift the values, and then, only then, once voters are clamouring for renewable incentives the same way they clamour for negative gearing, do we get to change the policy. Democracies are reactive, not proactive - they give people what they want, not what they don't. So if you want to change climate policy, you have to make them want it.

This climate election, the people didn't want it. But we can make sure that next time, they do.

Nothing that I've written here is new. It's also not guaranteed to work. But if, like me, you're looking for something to do that isn't just despair and shouting into the void, maybe it's worth a shot.

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