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Eric Knight on why we argue about climate change

With speaker abstracts for Green Cities 2014 rolling in, we sat down with Green Cities 2013 keynote speaker, Eric Knight, who has recently released a new book: Why We Argue About Climate Change.


At Green Cities 2013, you told the audience that we had failed to communicate a green climate change message and as a result, we’d lost the hearts and minds of the Australian public.  Is this still the case, or has the public attitude shifted with a new (old) prime minister?

"I don't think the switch to Rudd has changed much. Frankly, I think there are probably a handful of people who truly understand the intricacies of a carbon tax compared to an emissions trading scheme. Even then, schemes operated so differently across energy markets and regulatory settings that it is virtually impossible to know how the Australian scheme will play out exactly.

"We are schizophrenic on this issue – entering it either through the crudeness of the weather, or the obfuscation of bureaucratic jargon. We need to change the way we think about this issue and focus on two things: who are we really trying to speak to? And what is the benefit we want to communicate to those people?"

The issue of climate change has, as you said recently, profoundly influenced the rise and fall of both Labor prime ministers and the fortunes of at least the past two federal opposition leaders. Why has climate change wrought more damage on the Australian political landscape than any other issue?

"It has wrought so much damage because we are actually arguing about freedom - not science or morality. Freedom is one of the most fought-over ideas in history. It has powered revolutions, sent countries to war, and divided political classes for generations. A complex version of the freedom challenge lies at the heart of this issue – and unless we address it in our own minds we will never put this issue to rest.

"Fundamentally there are two freedom questions at stake. How free should we be as consumers to live the material lives we have reason to value? And how free should we be as voters to decide environmental policy?

"In the book, I make the case for how we must solve this problem in a way that is both safe and free."

In the green building sphere, we know that good environmental outcomes can only be achieved at the ‘sweet spot’ of good design (technology) and good operations (behaviour). Should we place all our faith in technology as the solution to climate change? 

"I argue we need to be more customer-centric in how we think about technology so that it is more consistently engaging, interesting and interactive. That's why I'm really interested in information and data-led technology as a way into this problem. It is partly about the gadgets, but more importantly it shapes behaviour.

"At Green Cities I talked about how desktop devices could begin to change consumption patterns in the home, and how data visualisation could let consumers know the origin of a product before they bought it. We need to take these ideas and develop them further. They are much more consumer-facing than wind farms, tidal technology, geothermal, etc which are harder for people to engage with.

"We still need both. But consider this: if we change the curvature of electricity demand, we can profoundly cut carbon emissions by shifting the run rate at which coal-fired power plants operate."

Green building is a positive solution to climate change.  What should the property and construction industry be saying to reinvigorate people’s interest in taking action on climate change?

"Two things: It should be talking about the benefits. And it should focus on the benefits to customers now. As much as there may be benefits to future generations, you have to sell the benefits on a 2-5 year time frame.

"For commercial property, that might includes things like increased workforce productivity, better utilisation of existing space, and a feel-good factor around smart design. The more quantitative we can get the better. For retail property I suspect the most important benefit would be cost savings.

"People of my generation will be the beneficiaries of an increased uptake in green buildings. But the industry should be selling customer benefits in the here and now. That is hard – but it's the right challenge to be focusing on."

What can readers expect from your new book, Why we argue about climate change?

"You can expect a fresh, positive perspective on one of the world's most diabolical problems.

"I don't shy away from the fact that climate change is divisive, controversial and complicated. Frankly, that is what made this book so interesting to write.... and hopefully to read!

"This issue is ripe for political analysis but we need a new vocabulary for talking about it. If my readers don't feel challenged by the end of reading my book, then honestly I haven't done my job properly."

Eric's book Why We Argue About Climate Change is available in bookshops or online.