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Let’s harness the powers of persuasion AND technology for climate health advocacy

Just three days after last week’s Federal budget documented the scale of cuts to climate spending (as outlined here), the latest update to the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory was released, showing that Australia’s greenhouse gases rose for a third consecutive year in 2017.

The report was released “without fanfare”, according to a Sydney Morning Herald article warning that the 1.5 per cent increase in emissions between 2016 and 2017 may be an under-estimate because large-scale land clearing – particularly in Queensland and NSW – is not being accurately represented.

Does the release of such data present an opportunity for health professionals to engage in advocacy that melds evidence-based concerns for health, as well as the powers of persuasion?

And perhaps public health advocates should be engaging with apps developers to build new tools for real-time monitoring of emissions, as a tool for engagement and persuasion?

These and other reflections on climate health advocacy are explored in two related articles below by Adjunct Professor Lucie Rychetnik, an Australian public health academic now based in Geneva and working probono with the Global Climate and Health Alliance.


Part One: Science-based advocacy and values-based persuasion

Lucie Rychetnik writes:

In many parts of the world the changing climate is already having major health and social impacts; due to weather extremes, reduced food and water security, and the spread of infectious disease. Over the past decade many in the health community as well as lead health organisations have prioritized action on climate change.

Over the past year I have spoken with many health professionals who campaign on fossil fuels, air-pollution and climate change.

Across different settings I’ve identified some commonly shared views that I’ll summarise here as follows (in my words):

Health professionals can be trusted messengers on politically sensitive issues like climate change. The trust comes from being seen as motivated by improving the health and lives of others, being objective and informed by evidence, and not being aligned with vested interests or political parties.

It allows their voices to be heard by a conservative public and politicians when others (perceived as aligned with ‘greenies’) often aren’t. However, to retain this trust, health professionals need to be careful not to step too far from science-based activism, and be wary of values-based political arguments. 

It’s a challenging task. We all know that health, like climate change, is grounded in science and inherently political.

Despite the revolution of ‘evidence-based medicine’ (EBM) there are gaps between ‘evidence-based’ guidelines and ‘real-world’ practice across the health sector. A prevailing lesson of EBM is that while the evidence is essential, it is rarely enough to create change.

The role of science and scientists is further diminished when health policies informed by evidence are contested by powerful interests, such as Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, Big Soda, or the junk food and gambling industries. Those who seek to address the fundamental (socio-economic) determinants of health inevitably rub up against neoliberalism itself.

But while health is important – a ‘wrong turn’ in national health policy is relatively contained and usually reversible. In contrast, the predicted impacts of climate change are global, potentially catastrophic, and their reversibility is totally unknown.

As part of my recent studies in Climate Change Management, I have come to appreciate the enormity of the challenge. Many aspects of the problem seem familiar – but hugely magnified. Particularly the chasm between the rational and scientific ideals embodied in the study of climate change; and the financially corrupted political systems on which we (humanity) depend to prevent the dire predictions.

I recently reflected on this chasm while watching the Carbon Debate 2018 – a fascinating in-depth discussion on the plausibility of modelling published in Nature GeoScience. The researchers’ disagreements were grounded in data – and notably courteous.

I then read the news on how the Koch brothers will spend US$400 million in the 2018 mid-term elections to push their rabid climate-denying agenda.

One planet – two worlds.

Alternative frames needed

George Lakoff has written extensively about US politics; including why rational science-based arguments always struggle to win against the values-based framing so effectively used by those on the Right.

His thesis is that it is impossible to successfully challenge neoliberal (or climate denying) arguments with facts and evidence alone. Arguments that use evidence to challenge false claims merely reinforce the power and dominance of the frames used in the minds of the public. His answer is to communicate via alternative frames and values.

I am in awe of the scientific achievements of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the political watershed of the 2015 Paris Agreement, but it’s also been a revelation how much the UNFCCC system relies on grass-roots activism to persuade governments to implement their national pledges – let alone be willing to commit to the further actions required to meet the targets of the Paris agreement.

This activism is often led by civil society, NGOs, communities, enlightened business leaders, and a self-selected minority of scientists / academics. Some of it is funded by philanthropy – but much is done on a voluntary basis/ProBono.

I’ve been inspired by climate scientists who have taken to social media, podcasts and blogging to share their ideas and expertise. I’ve particularly enjoyed Gavin Schmidt‘s RealClimateMichael White‘s Forecast and work by Katherine Hayhoe.

Others like James Hansen and Michael Mann are even more bold and explicitly political – a stance possibly arising from decades of frustration, combined with the freedom achieved through a long and distinguished career.

And initiatives like ‘Is this how you feel‘ connect the science with researchers’ emotions about the planet.

Extract from Is This How You Feel? project, documenting scientists’ feelings

I understand the motivations of those who wish to remain within the bounds of science and empiricism. However, shared values are essential for effective communication and large social change. There is much consensus on the science of climate change, and a wealth of publicly available facts, empirical models and data-based projections.

But if Lakoff is right, we also need more and better communication of values and hopes that challenge the status quo. The work of Thomas Picketty and Kate Raworth demonstrates that values such as equity and sustainability can be presented as powerful moral and ethical arguments, that are also empirically and academically rigorous. In Australia, we have great leadership on these issues from groups like Doctors for the Environment Australia, and the Climate and Health Alliance.

I believe advocacy on climate change via a health frame also communicates values; such as the sanctity of life, and government responsibility to protect the public. As health professionals we can and should embrace the effective confluence of evidence-based advocacy and values-based persuasion.


Part 2: Power at our finger tips: tools for advocacy

Lucie Rychetnik writes:

In the first weeks of taking a course on climate change mitigation I came across a smartphone app called GridCarbon.

This seemingly simple tool reports live (updating every 5 mins) the average grid carbon intensity (CI) of the UK electricity grid (gCO2/kWh of energy consumed). It includes data on the relative contributions of different fuel types, generates 24hr graphs (by turning the phone on its side), and allows selection of which fuels are included/excluded in these graphics.

The wonderful simplicity of the app’s outputs relative to the complexity of the task seems incredibly impressive.

What also struck me was the great advocacy potential for this kind of reporting of live data relevant to carbon management.

Traditional energy reports are both static and retrospective, often by several years – whereas there is something particularly appealing about live data that is available in simple, visual forms – particularly via our phones.

I found the GridCarbon app while searching for average grid carbon intensity data to see how Australia performed compared to the UK.

As expected the CI of Australia’s electricity supply is appalling compared to most other developed nations – primarily due to our excessive reliance on ageing, inefficient and dirty coal-fired power stations.

On many levels this is inexcusable given our vast continent, ample supplies of sun and wind, and several decades of (relative) economic resilience and prosperity. With the right policy levers to support investment, our natural resources could have enabled Australia to lead the world decades ago in renewable energy technology innovation and development.

Instead, successive Governments have been addicted to our abundance of cheap coal – and even now that coal-fired power is no longer economically sensible, or even reliable, federal and state Governments have continued to bow to the lobbying power of the mining peak body, the Australian Minerals Council.

Indeed much of Australia’s climate policy has been mired in toxic politics. For example, a carbon pricing scheme introduced by Labor through the Clean Energy Act in 2011 came into effect 1 July 2012, but was repealed in 2014 by the incoming conservative coalition government (led by climate denier Tony Abbott). This was after a highly divisive election campaign in which sloganeering about the ‘toxic carbon tax’ played a pivotal role.

The Abbott government also attempted to disband the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (or ‘Green Bank’) despite its success and profitability, and when this was blocked in the Senate, they announced they would prevent the CEFC from investing in wind or roof-top solar. But I digress.

My discovery of the cool app did get me thinking about how valuable (and politically powerful) live data can be in the context of coordinated public campaigns – either to demand that governments act (if they are being recalcitrant), or to build support for those seeking to implement good climate policy.

GridCarbon itself was developed by Alex Rogers, a Professor in computer science at the University of Oxford and Dr Oliver Parson from British Gas.

I’m not sure how widely it has been taken up, or if it’s been linked to specific campaigns or strategies – but when I shared it on Twitter I got a reply from someone at the UK National Grid about their own API* (CarbonIntensity) that combines energy and weather data to both report and forecast CI as a means of informing consumer behavior.

The idea is that (i) people can use the website to plan discretionary energy use for times when electricity grid CI will be low; and (ii) tech developers may use their data to create new consumer-friendly apps.

I then wondered about the value and feasibility of live-reporting CI by fuel types (ideally with forecast data) for electricity grids around the world.

Visually dynamic data could be used to engage the public and encourage healthy competition between states and nations. We aren’t quite there yet – but this global ‘Electricity Map’ is already live-reporting average CI from many national grids and is the closest thing I’ve found to date. It also has a phone app.

And while the global coverage is far from complete, and there is no direct forecast capacity, the CI ratings can be viewed against live solar and wind ‘power potentials’. This not only highlights renewable energy opportunities, it also points to the poor performance of countries like Australia that are not tapping into that potential.

The state-based reporting in Australia is also politically useful, and confirms that NSW, Queensland and often Victoria are some of the dirtiest electricity grids in the world; whereas South Australia and Tasmania are doing much better. Our favourite rival New Zealand’s electricity supply is consistently green because most of its electricity is generated by hydropower.

In public health, reporting ‘live’ location-specific data is also being harnessed to alert, campaign or inform on air-pollution e.g. the global BreathLife campaign, and work in China.

It has also been suggested that air pollution monitoring and alerts will become increasingly localized, with personal monitors feeding information back into a central database, thus closing the loop with enriching crowdsourced data. Exciting times ahead.

*NOTE: While preparing this blog realized I was pretty fuzzy about the distinction between an app and an API. If you are the same, this brief video may be helpful.

• Adjunct Professor Lucie Rychetnik is an Australian public health academic now based in Geneva and working Pro Bono with the Global Climate and Health Alliance. These articles were prepared as part of her current studies in climate change / Carbon Management (online) with the University of Edinburgh.

• On Twitter, follow: @LucieRychetnik

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