Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Making Climate Action Meaningful: Communication Practices in the New Zealand Climate Movement

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Making Climate Action Meaningful: Communication Practices in the New Zealand Climate Movement

Article excerpt


Climate change is already causing widespread suffering, and continuing increases in greenhouse gas emissions signal the likelihood of far greater suffering in the coming decades. In order to safeguard the wellbeing of people and the planet, significant social change is essential, and it is therefore up to civil society to take action. As Hoffman & Jennings (2012, p. 59) state, the "generation of a social consensus is an important follow-up to the generation of a scientific consensus" on climate change.

Instead of a social consensus, however, we have "climate silence" (Rowson & Corner, 2015, p. 4). Immerwahr (1999, p. 13) writes that "people literally don't like to think or talk about the subject". While a significant portion of the public expresses concern about the climate crisis (see, e.g., Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, 2015), serious engagement has largely been lacking. As Rowson & Corner (2015, p. 6) put it: "We are changing the climate, but it's not yet changing us."

The climate movement therefore confronts an increasingly urgent problem, combined with an unpromising mix of active resistance, lukewarm concern, lack of engagement, and lack of hope. In the face of this, movement participants seek to bring about a "social consensus" on climate action by engaging with people and communicating their understanding, or 'framing', of the issue, and undertaking actions that draw attention to this framing. If successful in their framing efforts, they influence the public's own ways of framing the issue, with the resulting change in framing manifesting in new ways of thinking, feeling and acting (Benford, 1997). However, there is a large gap between movement framing and public framing, and this gap is difficult to bridge. Rowson & Corner (2015, p. 28) state: "(T)here is no shortage of bright ideas for climate policies that would keep us within a safe carbon budget... The bigger challenge is how do 'we'... go about persuading people (so) that policies like these happen".

This article reports part of the findings of a broader project on communication practices in the New Zealand climate movement that also included detailed consideration of moral and economic framing (Oosterman, 2016a, 2016b). Here, I consider a core dynamic that underlies all climate communication: the balance climate communicators strike between, on the one hand, speaking 'the facts' and 'speaking their own truth', and, on the other, 'meeting people where they are at'.

Research Approach

In this research project, I took a movement-centred activist scholarship approach to research on climate communication decision-making via in-depth semistructured interviews with fourteen members of the New Zealand climate movement. The choice of participants reflects my broad conception of the climate movement (see also North, 2011; Garrelts & Dietz, 2014). Participants included campaigners, educators, permaculturalists, community project co-ordinators, protesters, and politicians. Participants were involved with campaigns and projects based around deep sea oil, fracking, coal, transport, food and farming, divestment, community-building, and broader sustainability issues. I also actively sought a diversity of participants in terms of gender, age, ethnicity, and geographic location. Organisational affiliations of research participants are noted throughout the article to provide context; however, all participants spoke in an individual capacity in the interviews.

In the words of Laura Bisaillon (2012, p. 610), an activist scholar is "(a) person who foregrounds the political aims of the research she or he carries out". Fuster Morell (2009, p. 41) adds that activist research must not be "about" social movements but rather "from and for" them (see also Casas-Cortés, Osterweil & Powell, 2008). In developing our efforts to respond to the climate crisis, the experiences and perspectives of those involved in the climate movement are fundamentally important. …

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