May 20, 2016

Words matter

My supper last night was interrupted by an automatic telephone survey about how I was intending to vote in the upcoming election and how important were certain issues. I don't mind surveys but I do mind careless wording.

I was given a list of topics – jobs, tax, health… and so on. I waited for 'climate change', but it didn't come up; environment did.

When the word 'environment' is used as an umbrella term, what do you think it means? How green is your suburb; how many lovely old Queenslanders on their spacious shady blocks are being replaced by multiple indistinguishable tight-fitting units; how clean is the water in your local creek; when did you last see a koala in South East Queensland; do you live within a kilometre of uncovered coal-trains; have the mangroves on the Bay disappeared for another marina; do you approve of fracking to extract coal seam gas; do you think the proposed Galilee coal mines should be allowed to obliterate remnant vegetation and ecosystems; how do you feel about such large areas of the Great Barrier Reef being bleached to death?

Oh, hang on, the bleaching is a result of the warmer, more acidic ocean, right? And climate change can be mitigated by not exploiting any more fossil fuel resources, and not clearing land of trees.

And then there's the loss of regional biodiversity throughout your state. Is that because of hotter droughts or habitat loss during development? Biodiversity is not a user-friendly word, we environmental activists are taught. People's eyes glaze over when they hear it; they start to think about what they'd like to eat for dinner; and many of them don't know precisely what it means, nor are inclined to find out.

Politicians of whatever colour know that Australia must live up to its international obligations to reduce carbon emissions globally, but at the same time many of them, and probably the majority of the people they represent, believe that action on climate change remains in the too-difficult box. They don't want to reduce their number of gadgets, cars and flights/year. The economy must transition to renewables, ah but some people get headaches from those wind turbines, and solar subsidies mean higher energy bills for everyone; and other myths.

When Aussie pollies list their priorities in slick, sound-bitey slogans, they tend to stick to must-have-otherwise-I'll-never-be-elected policies: the economy, jobs, education and health; the big four. Those politicians must be brave, however, and include the most pressing issue of all, action on climate change. There's no point in having a job in a landscape that's burnt to a frazzle and won't support food crops. Hand in hand with action on climate change goes transition to renewable energy. And specific environmental issues such as conservation of threatened species must be talked about too because everything is interconnected. If you destroy wetlands so you've got more berths for your boats, migratory shorebirds won't visit and there'll be less vegetation to check high tides when sea levels rise. If you cover more hinterland with concrete not only will there be less koala habitat but the impact of flash-flooding during intensifying storms will be more devastating.

If your candidates only list the obvious, ask them about the protection of dwindling water resources and endangered wildlife; how they intend to persuade Australians to reduce their high per capita carbon emissions; and will they make solar panels and insulation compulsory on new builds in the Sunshine State. Put them on the spot; a hot spot. If they waffle on about 'environment', ask them to clarify their position on 'climate change'. The careful choice of words is key to easier important conversations.

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