Promoting climate action via vision & progress

Banner: Promote a vision and progress

Here are three models of change that guide my promotion of climate action.

Background: Climate march banners

After a climate demonstration in September 2019, I gradually realised that most of the banners were about:

  • what to stop, e.g., “Stop Adani”,
  • the dangers of climate inaction, e.g., “Welcome to the Age of Fire”, or
  • unspecified action, e.g., “Climate Action Now”.

The banners suggested that people were:

  • frightened by climate change,
  • clear about what needs to stop, but
  • not clear about solutions and what needs to start.

Unfortunately, fears and stop signs are not attractive, and I didn’t see banners promoting solutions like:

  • Australia can be a renewable energy superpower,
  • Industrialise with our renewable energy & minerals,
  • A green recovery for a million jobs,
  • Electrify Now,
  • The big Tesla battery turns me on,
  • Export green steel & aluminium,
  • Legislate to allow “Star of the South” offshore wind, and
  • Use low emissions concrete.
  • See a brainstorm of possible banner slogans.

Three models of change

At first, I thought that we needed more positivity, but gradually, I identified three models of change that gave me a more balanced way of thinking about climate action and these banners:

  • the states of grief,
  • the determinants of change, and
  • the progress amplifying cycle.

Model: The states of grief

Many demonstration banners warn of climate dangers and demand closures. These banners can lead people to fear, loss, and grief. There are several stages or states of grief:

State: Denial

People can deny well-established climate science, e.g., refuse to accept that our current high levels of greenhouse gases are causing the planet to heat, bringing dangers like longer fire seasons with more intense fires.

Another form of denial is, “we all want to act on climate, but we have to be slow incremental and realistic”. This stance denies the climate emergency.

State: Fantasy solutions

People can grasp onto fantasy solutions, like:

  • we can reduce emissions with clean coal,
  • don’t worry; the technology to fix this is coming,
  • arsonists caused these fires, and
  • the Australian Bureau of Meteorology is fiddling the temperature records data to emphasise warming, so what needs fixing is not climate change; it’s the Bureau. This conspiracy theory suggests that the global scientific community is rigging the data.

State: Anger

People can react with anger. For example, they can attack the messengers of the bad news about fossil fuels, saying that greenies stopped hazard reduction burning and caused the recent fires.

State: Depression

They can be overcome by depression or despair, believing things like, “We have already blown it. There is nothing we can do”. They can also resort to “flight” and try to not think about climate, e.g., not watching David Attenborough wildlife shows to avoid distress.

State: Acceptance

Finally, they can accept well-established climate science and support climate action.

Repeated movement between states

These are the “stages of grief” described by the psychiatrist Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. I refer to them as “states of grief” as people do not move through the states in any set order. Indeed, people can flip between these states quickly and repeatedly. For example, even within a brief conversation, a person can flip from a state of denial and anger, fiercely saying that climate change is nonsense, to a state of depression, saying that there’s nothing we can do about it anyway.

Climate grief

This explanation of the “states of grief” focuses on people who continue to resist climate action, on their denial and invention of alternative facts. There is also the grief of people agonised by things like (1) Australia’s mega-fires of 2019/20, (2) the loss of half the Great Barrier Reef, and (3) governments still backing coal and gas expansion. Jonica Newby describes this grief in her book “Beyond climate grief”. One concept Newby explores is “radical acceptance”: facing an awful reality and working towards the best outcome that you can see.

Minimise the action inhibiting states of grief

An effective climate campaign should help people accept climate science by reducing people’s chances of entrapment by the climate action inhibiting states of grief, i.e., denial, fantasy, anger, and depression.

Other models of change suggest ways of doing this.

Model: The Determinants of change

Often, people urging climate action focus on the dangers of climate change. This model of change suggests promoting the dangers and more.

I based these “determinants of change” on an organisation development model used in the petrochemical industry, a model like the Beckhard Harris Change Model.

The five determinants of change are:

Determinant: Dissatisfaction

Change is more likely when people are dissatisfied with the current situation, e.g., concerned about the dangers of climate change.

The difficulty of promoting the dangers of climate change is that frightening people into change increases the chances of those climate action inhibiting states of grief, i.e., denial, fantasy, anger, and depression.

Determinant: Vision

Change is more likely when you have a widely shared vision, e.g., the vision of Australia as a renewable energy superpower could become widely accepted. An inspiring vision draws people into the change with excitement. They want to change rather than have to change.

Determinant: Plans

Change is more likely when you have plans with the next steps for moving towards the vision. We have many plans that are consistent with the superpower vision, plans by:

Determinant: Benefits

Change is more likely when people see the benefits of the proposed change. The superpower vision offers many benefits like:

  • new employment opportunities,
  • a more robust and sustainable economy, and
  • zero-emissions energy for Australia and the world.

Determinant: Costs

Change is more likely when people view the costs as low, reasonable, or inevitable. One example of how Australia could reduce the superpower vision cost would be to strive for a just transition for fossil fuel workers.

Promote each determinant

The “determinants of change” model suggests that you make change more likely by promoting each determinant.

Model: The progress amplifying cycle

Vision, progress, and benefit

The above two models of change do not consider one key factor supporting change, “progress towards the vision”. The more you reinforce progress, the greater the momentum for change.

When you promote progress and two determinants of change: benefits and vision, you make change more likely. This is because vision, progress, and benefit can link, forming a cyclic causal sequence, a progress amplifying cycle.

Having (1) a popular vision tends to lead to (2) progress towards the vision, which can lead to (3) benefits resulting from the progress, which tends to increase the popularity or commitment to the vision.

More popularity for the vision———->.
More benefits<———–More progress towards the vision

When this dynamic dominates, this trio forms a closed cycle of cause and effect, a self-amplifying feedback cycle in which each element tends to keep on increasing. If you support the vision, this is a virtuous cycle as you will value the increase in each component of this “progress amplifying cycle”.

Promoting the self-reinforcing trio of vision, progress, and change is a powerful way of urging change.

Progress amplification & climate action

Australia has already made remarkable progress towards becoming a renewable energy superpower, i.e. the superpower vision. So we can use this progress as part of an evidence-based argument to promote this vision. The progress shows that the superpower vision is realistic, while the resulting benefits show that the progress is valuable.

This model of change influenced the pitch for climate action on the home page, resulting in the reinforcement of these three elements, e.g.,

  • the vision of Australia becoming a renewable energy superpower,
  • the progress of South Australia reaching 60% renewable energy, and
  • the benefit of the reduction of wholesale electricity prices in the state.

A pitch like on the home page:

  • is evidence-based,
  • promotes the economic advantages of climate action,
  • encourages people to reach for a desirable future,
  • energises people to support climate action,
  • reduces climate fears and grief states like the denial,
  • supplies answers to financial questions about climate action, and
  • can disarm fear-provoking questions like “How would a rapid transition to renewable energy not drive the economy into recession?”

There are all too many vicious climate feedback cycles by which global heating leads to further global heating. It is a relief to find a virtuous amplifying feedback cycle that could limit climate change. It is also a relief that we can strengthen the cycle by promoting our vision, progress, and benefits.

The progress amplifying cycle develops the superpower vision’s popularity, which is what we need so that our politicians come to support the vision. We have the technology to limit climate change; we need the political will to use it.

Consistent with Solution focussed therapy

Promoting vision, progress, and benefits is like the approach of one school of therapeutic practice, solution-focussed therapy, which works at:

  • goal clarification and envisioning a future,
  • finding where things have worked well, and
  • recognising what’s working to improve self-esteem and increase forward movement.

(Positive Psychology: Solutions focussed therapy techniques)

Consistent with Dr Huntley

This approach is also consistent with some conclusions drawn by Dr Rebecca Huntley. Huntley has researched how people respond to climate change and the language to use when promoting climate action. One of the lessons she has drawn from her research is to be “solutions-focused and positive”.

(Climate change splits the public into six groups. Understanding them is key to future action: ABC Radio: Big Ideas: Rebecca Huntley: 29 Jan 2020)

Based on Systems theory

The “progress amplifying cycle” is an “amplifying feedback loop” or “positive feedback”, a fundamental concept in systems theory. This cycle emerged from systems theory, grief counselling and organisational development. It should be relevant beyond just environmental activism and political lobbying to other fields like teaching, personal counselling, and family therapy.

Negative campaigns names

Extinction Rebellion flotilla on the Yarra River Melbourne 12 Dec 2020
Extinction Rebellion flotilla on the Yarra River in Melbourne: 12 Dec 2020

Let’s briefly consider several climate campaigns in the light of the models of change discussed above.

Some campaigns with names focusing on what to stop or on fears are:

  • Stop Adani,
  • Extinction rebellion, and
  • Climate emergency.

Names like this make it hard to build a positive vision for the campaigns.

Also, a negative name tends to produce a negative campaign. Let’s consider the “Stop Adani Convoy”. Before the 2019 Federal election, a convoy of cars drove north through the eastern states and into Queensland, aiming to reduce support for the proposed Adani coal mine. The convoy met a lot of opposition. Perhaps the convoy would have met less resistance if they had also supported the superpower vision, promoting renewable energy projects in Queensland and the associated jobs. They could have drawn attention to progress like:

  • solar and wind farms,
  • the electric vehicle charging network,
  • the exporting of electric vehicle chargers by Tritium in Brisbane,
  • mines extracting minerals for batteries.
  • the Wivenhoe pumped hydro plant, and
  • “Beautiful one day, electric the next”

Updated 23 August 2021