Image via Richard Ling

In 2003-2004 I was involved in a mammoth task to explain to people – fishers, conservationists, tourism operators, the community – the benefits of increasing protection to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park through rezoning. This involved years of consultations, public meetings and ‘roadshows’, but in terms of achieving it’s outcome, it was a huge success. One of the biggest indicators of success was the understanding of the need for change in the community, leading to action by community groups, individuals and local businesses along the Queensland coast to do their bit to protect the Reef.

These actions included the set up of Reef Guardian Schools and businesses, Marine Advisory Groups and Community Access Points based at local bait and tackle shops. The general opinion was that no matter what industry you came from, the Great Barrier Reef was too important to lose.

In many places, it was community members – farmers, fishers, operators, conservationists and local leaders – who were driving change, recognising that harm to the Great Barrier Reef is not just an environmental issue, but that there is an economic imperative to protect one of Queensland’s most valuable assets.

The community is still driving this change, even in the face of complex science and resource and economic issues. So why is it so hard to engage people to support the world’s biggest environmental, economic and livelihood challenge – climate change?

Climate Change affects us all.

It’s hardest to engage people on issues that don’t affect them, that are worlds away from their everyday life.

BUT…. climate change is not one of these issues. It affects us all.

We feel the changing climate – the increased prevalence of heat in summer, the weirder weather events throughout the year.

We understand the danger – the reports that show that rising sea levels will likely put some countries under water in the next 100 years or less; the photos of melting arctic ice and the stranded polar bear.

We see the modeling and predictions – the basic science behind what happens to the earth as it heats up, the impacts of dramatic changes in climate and on the ability of flora and fauna to adapt, the increasing acidity of our oceans.

Impacts of Climate Change

Image via MindMap Art 

Maybe… it affects us all too much. Is the problem too big?

I would argue that because both the problem and the solutions to tackling climate change are SO big, and maybe because the push came too fast and too strong for many, a lot of people have decided the problem is too big to be able to make a difference. People have tuned-out because they don’t have any power to create change.

A similar phenomenon exists around issues such as homelessness and poverty. These issues also affect us all, contributing to increased crime, violence and reliance on welfare, but people are far more likely to support health prevention campaigns such as Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Movember than put time and money towards complex social challenges that require large-scale change.

Why? Not because they affect us less, but perhaps because they affect us more. They are challenges that people find it hard to believe we could ever overcome.

Often the argument from my peers is that climate change is going to happen no matter what. We’re all tired of the issue being kicked back and forth as a political football, and when we only hear about what we can’t do, what Governments won’t support, rather than the positive gains (such as solar – biggest uptake recently!) we become lost in the negative hype.

It’s pretty hard to get motivated to take action without immediate reward, and the sentiment remains that changing our own behaviours is likely to have little impact. After all, it’s a global problem and governments should take responsibility at the highest level for it first… right?

In many ways this is justifiable. In Australia we are digressing on national and international environmental policy and action.

Motivating people to commit and act locally

While I don’t agree the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan is enough of a response to Australia’s future environmental or climate change challenges, there is a silver lining. It presents an opportunity to bring back local action into the mix – to engage people of all ages in local responses that might have smaller environmental gains, but could be the catalyst for a larger collective movement.Lowy Institute

I would much prefer to have an effective Emissions Trading Scheme in place and our politicians focused on global solutions as well. But if we agree to take advantage of these opportunities for “direct” action, the next few years may not be lost completely. Motivating people to commit and act locally could be just what we need. When people can see direct action locally, they are more likely to get behind and support a problem and solution.

A bit of old-fashioned “action in our own backyards” attitude. An opportunity to start small again; take the direct action plan (and the funding), and use it to make a difference locally.

If people are tuned out to the climate change issue, local change is surely still alive and well! And local action repeated many times has the potential to influence lots of people – including politicians.

And help make healthy, biodiverse and protected environments the norm!