Will Steffen: phoney debate is over, now for the carbon policy

Will Steffen (left) in conversation with academic Will Grant (right): “The misinformation campaign that’s been prominent in the media … really is having an impact.”

Welcome to “In Conversation”, our series of discussions between leading academics and major public figures in Australian life.

Today, we’re In Conversation with the academic whose research informed the upcoming carbon tax. Dr Will Steffen, Climate Change Commissioner and Executive Director of the ANU Climate Change Institute, talks to Dr Will J Grant of the Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science at the ANU.

Will Steffen is a climate science expert and researcher. He is on the panel of experts supporting the Prime Minister’s Multi-Party Climate Change Committee and he is also a Commissioner on the independent Climate Commission. Previously Steffen served as the Science Adviser to the Australian Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency.

This conversation is not intended as a traditional media interview: it is a discussion between a leading academic and a senior figure in Australian climate change science and policy. It touches on a wide range of themes including:

  • why the Copenhagen climate meeting was a success

  • whether it’s time for scientists to step out of the climate debate

  • how business is leading the way in dealing with climate change

  • why scientists need to stop talking to the public and starting listening to them instead

  • how climate change could make the world a better place.

We’ve also included some short videos.


Grant You’ve been talking about climate science for the last many years. Today we’d like to talk about something different: where the communication of climate science is up to, and getting your feel on what’s going on.

Steffen One of the things that I’ve noticed, and that I’ve really enjoyed in my role as a Climate Commissioner (which is a fairly recent one), is going from the idea of communication to the idea of engagement.

And that’s an interesting idea for me in that, as we go around the country to various regional centres, we’re spending a lot of time in listening mode and interactive mode rather than me giving a science presentation.

It’s interesting: when we go out to, say, a town hall meeting we invariably get a couple of kinds of responses. I’ve got a ten minute presentation on the basics of the science: some audiences want to hear that as background before we start talking, other ones say, “no let’s just get right into the Q&A, let’s get stuck in”.

What invariably happens though, as the event progresses, is it’s really the engagement, it’s people being able to get their views forward. And sometimes if they’re, you know, wrong, it’s quite a nice opportunity for us to be able to go through what the science actually says, why they can be forgiven for misunderstanding, whether it’s a lot of misinformation that the media’s thrown out or whatever it is.

It actually gives a much better interaction between those that may doubt the science and those of us who work in the science and are trying to communicate it accurately.

So I think having a face-to-face format is a good way of communicating accurately, but in the mode of engagement rather than imparting information.

Grant There’s a really stimulating article in the new journal Nature Climate Change on strategic listening in climate communication and the role of listening to people and engaging with their ideas.

Steffen Yes absolutely: I think that’s essential. When you do that what you find, and what we’re finding around Australia, is that the misinformation campaign that’s been prominent in the media for quite a while now, really is having an impact.

A lot of stuff that people say you know exactly where it comes from, you know exactly the misinformation that’s triggered such thinking.

Grant The talking points?

Steffen Exactly. So in a way that shows that there’s been some pretty effective communication on the sceptics’ side as well. But when you scratch underneath the surface it’s clear that the people promulgating those don’t actually understand the science, they’re just parroting stuff that they’ve heard.

And it’s good to actually have some time to sit down and talk through the science, why what they’re saying is wrong, what the evidence is for it and so on. Because you can do it that way, you actually get a better understanding and relationship with the person who is challenging the science.

Oftentimes I’ve had people write to me afterwards who’ve been very antagonistic towards the mainstream climate science during the forum itself, but then as we discuss – and particularly sit down and have a cup of coffee afterwards – and then follow-up email afterwards, it’s a much more cordial and civil exchange.

Grant I think that’s one of the really interesting processes that you’ve been doing with these town hall meetings: this chance to deal with people as individuals. It’s recognising that probably a lot of these sceptics have a lot of real concerns about what’s going on in the world, they’re just misinformed.

Steffen That’s right. And when you go around to various parts of Australia you feel the concerns surrounding the broader issues of climate change very strongly because of the regional context, which I think is fascinating.

If you go down to places like Geelong, for example, what you’ll find is that there are a lot of people who work in emissions-intensive industries. They’re quite clearly worried about the future of their jobs, and what happens if a carbon price comes in, and the level of that carbon price and how does it work and so on.

If you go to Port Macquarie, where over half the population are retired people, generally with fairly good superannuation, they’re aware of environmental issues, they’re keen to do something – they have the biggest uptake of the feed-in tariff. There the issue is how do you rejig an energy distribution system to be able to take in a very large fraction of renewable energy?

So you get very different feelings for the issues from around the country.

Grant Would you say that that work has been converting people? What has been the impact on people, do you think?

Steffen I don’t know whether converting is the right word, but I think the impact has been that people, when they come face-to-face with the Commissioners – and that’s more than scientists: we’ve got people from business, from the fossil fuel industry, we’ve got an economist, we’ve got a science communication expert, Susan Elliott from the Australian Science Media Centre.

When people come face-to-face with us they find out that there are a lot of real people that actually understand a lot about the climate issue, including the economics, and it does tend to soften a lot of the mistrust and a lot of the antagonism toward it.

One of the interesting things we would really like to learn and get a feel for is how a public event of a few hundred people, plus local and regional media coverage, plus meeting local business and community leaders, how that filters out through the communities. We don’t have a good feel for that yet.

I think that’s a critical issue: how does five or six of us spending a day in a community, engaging a lot right throughout the day, how does that compare to say just electronic media interaction?

Grant I think that’s a critical science communication issue.

One of the other things you and the Commissioners have been doing is talking with business leaders, providing them with both the scientific picture on the climate and what mitigation measures mean in terms of providing certainty for the economy. How has that been going?

Steffen That’s a really interesting aspect of engaging people on climate science and other climate issues. What we find when we talk to the business community is that they have a much more sophisticated understanding in general than what you tend to see in the media.

Grant A sophisticated understanding of the science?

Steffen Of the science, and of the implications of the science. Yes, there is some questioning of the science, but because they’re in business and because they’re in our economic system they have to make a profit, because they have to make a business that’s successful, it’s critical that they get accurate information in order to make investments.

So with them there’s no bullshit about the science, they say, “tell us really what you know, what are the risks” and so on. They want to know that to make business decisions.

There are a couple of aspects of the climate science that come into the business perspective. One is the risks. If you’re going to invest, and you’re investing in coastal infrastructure, you need to actually know a lot about sea-level rise: what are the projections, what are the ranges, what are the risks associated with sea-level rise? Because it affects your business.

It’s not an ideological issue about whether you believe in climate science or not, it’s a very hard business decision.

Grant In our Long Conversations project it was interesting hearing the questions people had. There were certainly questions about the science, but it was more, “OK, what is happening in our particular area?”

I assume a lot of the questions business leaders put to you are very precise: they’d like more certainty on the impacts on this crop or this region.

Steffen I wouldn’t say that they’d like more certainty. They’d like more information, including all the uncertainties. And I think that’s something that’s good for us scientists, because we are concerned about simplifying things and not overstating.

We’re concerned about being as accurate as we can. And that’s why I don’t like to talk so much about climate predictions and we prefer to talk about climate information. Which includes of course what the models are projecting, but it also includes the limitations of the models.

It also includes the observations that we already see. It includes paleo-climate science: what has happened in the past. And it includes process-level understanding, so it includes the whole package of what climate science is about.

People in business are very good at picking up that sort of information. They understand uncertainty because they deal with it all the time in their investment anyway. They can’t predict what the stock market is going to do, they can’t predict what futures prices are on agricultural products. They understand this: they know how to hedge bets.

I think they’re really adept at taking uncertain climate information and factoring it in a realistic way.

Some of my most rewarding conversations are actually with the business community because they’re very focussed, hard-headed, realistic about what they need to know to keep their businesses profitable.

I don’t have to try to either dumb it down or make it more certain than it actually is. They’re able to take all of the caveats.

Grant So shifting into political issues: now that both major parties have said that they accept the science, and much of the mainstream debate is more about policy solutions to climate change in Australia, do you think that there is a gradual shifting out now of people like you?

Are climate scientists saying, well, we have established enough of this now in the popular discourse that we can now pass this over to the economists and the politicians to talk about? Or do you feel that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done?

Steffen I do think there’s a shift. I think there will always be a role for climate science – for example, in explaining the nature of the risks. We simply have to know more about sea level, we need to know more about how the polar ice sheets are behaving. We certainly need to know a lot more about how rainfall may shift around Australia.

So on the risk side I think there’s still an enormous amount we need to do that’s both scientifically really challenging, right to the fundamentals of how the climate system works, but also really practical in terms of informing risk.

However, I think what happened about a month or so ago when we released this report, The Critical Decade, was that shifted the agenda towards the policy side and away from this futile, phony debate about the science. Because all sides of politics in Australia accepted the science as put forward in that report.

Now this phony debate about the science, fuelled by the media, is being pushed over to the side. And the real debate, which is about what should the policy response be, is coming to the fore.

We see this shift now as we go around with the Climate Commission. I’m getting fewer questions on the climate science and my colleagues who are talking from an industry and economics perspective are getting more questions. I think that’s actually a very good sign.

I’m happy to turn it over to the experts on the economics and for them to talk about the instruments and for the industry experts to talk about what’s the effect of a carbon price on investment.

Grant When I’ve talked to you previously, and to other Climate Change Institute people and PhD students from around ANU there is a view that Copenhagen - as a marker in our movement towards getting a global agreement on what to do about climate change - was a fairly successful moment. That it was a time when people came together, and it achieved outcomes that it wanted to, and that we pushed a little bit further along.

But there’s a meme in the media that it was a clear failure and that we’re never going to get that agreement. I’m wondering why that is.

Steffen I think the immediate response after Copenhagen happened was there was a big expectation of a single big global agreement and that didn’t happen. So, immediately: failure. However, when I look back on it now I think it was a really amazing success.

It brought together over a hundred leaders of countries around the world. I think many of them came in thinking this was an environmental issue. When they got head-to-head with what it actually means - where it cuts down to economy, innovation, industry, social issues - it’s a pervasive issue of how humanity relates to the environment around us, how we organise our economy, how we organise our technology.

I think what struck them is how thorny, how complex, but fundamentally how important the climate change issue is.

A lot more countries have got engaged, China has got a lot more engaged. I think it’s become a more important issue in Australia, ironically, after the failure of the first CPRS legislation. It’s a big issue in many parts of America even though there isn’t cohesive federal action.

The action at different scales has actually increased and a lot of that is due to Copenhagen, due to the fact that the seriousness of the issue came through, the fact that there may be more than one way to skin a cat and maybe we start going at different levels, building up action.

We’ll get some sort of global coalescence down the track, but the important point is, let’s start moving towards solutions. And that has actually happened since Copenhagen.

Grant A lot of what you’ve said is really quite positive, but we were talking about this before: are there things you wish people would ask? And, if you were in a position to decide things, are there other things that as communicators we should be doing more of?

Steffen There’s a challenge that we face as communicators, as scientists, as engineers, as social scientists, and that is that there’s a part of the narrative that’s missing in all this.

The science narrative is now pretty well understood; the major points of the science are now really well understood despite the noisy false debate out in the media. But they can be easily interpreted as a negative message: we’ve got big risks ahead, the climate is shifting. That can be read as a negative message.

The narrative we’re missing is, what would a two degree or less world look like? What would a world that our children and grandchildren will live in, where we have got emissions close to zero by the middle of the century, where we have decarbonised, where we have constrained temperature increase to two degrees or less: what would that look like?

We may have even worked out ways to economically efficiently pull carbon out of the atmosphere and store it; who knows, we’re a very clever species, very good at working out how to do things.

The sort of world our children and grandchildren may live in, where we’ve effectively dealt with climate change, may actually be a better world. They may be leading better lives. They may be just as wealthy, they may be using cleaner and better technologies, just like we live much better than people in the medieval ages.

What we’re missing is the confidence that we can change, that we can innovate, that we can use our creativity to build a better world by most definitions of what better is, and get on top of the climate issue.

Right now it’s, “why should we change? This is the best of all possible worlds”. It isn’t the best of all possible worlds: once you think that you stop being human.