I tend to keep quiet during group discussions, preferring to listen and go with the flow rather than compete for airtime. In other words, I count myself as an introvert, who mainly listens in group conversations rather than contribute. When social media arrived a decade ago, I didn’t know how to participate, just as I didn’t know how to participate in group discussions. But as an academic, we have an impetus to contribute our expertise to the global discussion to create advances on our societal challenges. I was wondering how I can apply my expertise, as a scientist and as a supervisor of research projects, to an important area where I am a non-expert.
Stage 1: Confusion
I had a topic in mind: climate change. I was baffled about why, in Australia, we elected a government that was perceived to be climate change deniers. My regular news outlets all got the pre-election polls catastrophically wrong. I concluded that these news outlets have a particular bias, and I sought to find a source that had an opposite bias.
Stage 2: Hypothesis and action research
I chose The Australian newspaper for this source. At the time, climate change coverage was starting to come to the forefront with schoolchildren protesting for climate action. I initially thought that the articles in this outlet were balanced, but the anonymous, moderated discussion section in the newspaper had highly negative comments when regarding climate change.
Using a methodology similar to action research, I sought to improve the quality of the discussion around climate change. I was also using a part of operant conditioning theory from animal training: positive reinforcement. I had a set of principles when engaging with other readers:
- Find something I agree with
- Identify when a discrepancy is due to a different world view
- Stay true to myself
- Choose my battles
- Have the right to change my mind based on new evidence
- Aim for a funny surprise relevant to the discussion
- Destroying someone personally is an indication of the weakness of the destroyer’s argument
- Aim to have a positive experience
- There’s no such thing as common sense
- There’s no such thing as a stupid person
- Aim to deposit into the “trust bank”, by showing we have similar goals, just different lens
Through this process, I learned a few things:
- Psychological safety through anonymity. People say what they actually believe (but could be exaggerated), they don’t tend to lie. Exposes many points of view
- If you need to convince someone by stating you’re an expert, you’re not using your expertise
- People are unforgiving if you’re (1) factually wrong, (2) inconsistent, (3) don’t promote Australian values
- Know when you’re talking science and when you’re talking opinion
- Short, focused comments work better
Stage 3: Insight
I was commenting on a non-climate-change topic, when I realised something. There was a lot of contempt in the climate change article comments, and the non-climate-change article inferred that contempt is earned, not an initial position.
It made me dig a little deeper about why people were angry. They were angry about how much it would cost to transition to renewables. How much money we’ve used already. How it would afffect their lifestyle. How other important issues in Australia were not being directly addressed such as the drought, humanitarian issues and the economy. How our total contribution to CO2 emissions is only 1.3% as a nation, and will make little difference globally. How climate change is a scam to reallocate money from rich to poor.
I realised, that these people have had their fill of governments who were using the money they’re contributed as taxes, into seemingly unending spending into a single issue. There were other things to worry about and to spend the limited money on.
Stage 4: Concept
After having this revelation, I developed a concept: the resources lifecycle. Each person, community, company and nation has a finite set and amount of resources to contribute. When one resource is spent, it is unlikely that others will be used. This includes
- Raw materials
- Skills and expertise
- Infrastructure and industry
I moved my participation into The Conversation.
Stage 5: Developing an identity
I started commenting in The Conversation, which is one of my regular news outlets. While The Australian mainly had right-wing commenters, The Conversation tended to have left-wing commenters. People were still angry there. Although this time, they were sick of apparently nothing being done. Their patience was spent. This was in stark contrast to The Australian, where people were angry about too much being done.
I developed a theme of comments promoting solutions to the issue rather than rehashing the problem. I also developed a position that you don’t need to convince everyone, rather you just need to convince enough people in order to take action. But I don’t consider sustained protesting to be an effective action.
I had another hypothesis. To convince the right people to act, we need to show that we are taking matters into our own hands, and show that we are taking climate action ourselves. In other words, we were taking action using our own resources, and not telling other people to use their resources. Could I contribute to a shift in thinking, by showing that there is progress for the resources that were being used? Could I find a middle ground for both sides, one side being those who thought nothing was being done, and the other being those who thought too much was being done?
Stage 6: Hashtags
I moved into twitter. I found a couple of hashtags that haven’t been used before: #climateWorkInProgress and #resourcesLifecycle. I started to collect news articles that came up on my news feed relating to these hashtags. I don’t have many followers, so I was mainly using twitter as a way to track my research from the news. I found a unique voice in the global discussion through my hashtags.
I think of climate action to be similar a global multidisciplinary research project. We need enough people with a variety of skills to work on the solutions, whether it be technical, social or otherwise. While it’s still early days, I think the resources lifecycle concept is a way to understand different points of view, and therefore de-polarise the debate on climate change in Australia.
My personal, non-expert position is that human-induced climate change is a problem, and we need to act both in the short-term and the long-term, while considering our resources lifecycle. From my research of the news, companies are already taking action, the Australian states already have a net zero emissions target, and researchers are working on future solutions that we can adopt.
Being a research scientist, I remain optimistic about what’s possible, and I see this as similar to a global research project. Each person has their own unique set of resources, including points of view, that they can contribute to climate action. What can you contribute? Maybe try to talk to someone with a different point of view to you, with the principles I outlined above.