Considering the modern pressures and context of environmental regulation, this conference asked the critical question: Is being right enough?
Do we need more than the traditional regulatory tools (i.e. legislation, regulation, incentives and information) to achieve good outcomes for the environment and the community? Do we need to rethink how we use these tools? Are there other things we can be doing to better achieve our objectives?
The conference theme was posed as a question to encourage thought and discussion on the topic throughout the entire program.
Below is the link to the conference plenerary sessions, presentations and posters, please note you need to be an AELERT member to access these resources.
Genevieve Jacobs was the Master of Ceremonies at the recent 2018 AELERT Conference in Sydney. With over 30 years of experience as a radio and print journalist, 10 of which were on 666ABC Radio in Canberra, she offered a keen and thoughtful review of the three day conference program. These are her closing remarks.
"Its been a brilliant few days packed with big ideas. That began with Mark Gifford, who urged us to look beyond standard approaches to regulation and ask ourselves the key conference question - “Is being right enough”?
Tim Flannery was a galvanising presence as the opening keynote speaker as he reflected on whether environmental activism was in some sense becoming harder than it used to be amidst the social malaise and declining trust in institutions. He asked us to consider whether this is, in fact, a post truth society - a sobering question for scientists everywhere.
However Flannery believes that ordinary people do have plenty of brains and common sense if we open the discussion with them. He pointed out that the battle over the reality of anthropogenic climate change is all but won, as is that for the value of renewable energy. So how then do we pull the levers at all levels of the community from grassroots to legislation to ensure that the momentum for dealing with climate change continues? Emissions certainly need to be cut hard and fast, but Tim said that we also need to energise the new ideas and new industries that will meet the climate challenge proactively.
That created a starting post for a conference that focussed both on sharing practical ideas and experiences, but also understanding how to effect behavioural change - and you cannot have one without the other. The breakout sessions examined these two ideas through three themes - retrofitting our toolbox, technology and headspace. It seemed to me from these sessions that you are on the cusp of huge challenges and change in your sector. Technology has a great deal to offer you - people are extremely enthusiastic about drones! - but there were also a lot of in depth conversations about the value of intelligence, how to maximise its usefulness to inform rather than only to enforce, and how to marry that with cognitive behavioural understanding.
So Genene O’Neill, for example, asked how to manage a situation where multiple prosecutions have had little effect and some local governments refuse to innovate. Could behavioural insights be a valuable tool for fixing that? Stefan Kauffman and Nicholas Faulkner were considering similar issues, making the point that if you invest time in really understanding the metrics and drivers of a problem, including making sure you’ve assembled the right team to deal with it and ordering your own priorities then you’ll deliver a specifically tailored response where both the communication and engagement reflect what you already thoroughly understand.
Although sometimes when things go badly wrong as they did at Hazelwood in the La Trobe valley, that communication becomes a very tough task when the community feels they’ve lost any control. The same issues pertained in Port Augusta, where the community had little resilience left before they were faced with a major environmental issue. Community unrest and anger - outrage - then gathers around the regulators who carry the blame for a reaction that is about both the issue at hand but also the deep existing problems.
If you don’t understand and can’t communicate with the community, you’re in real trouble. Citizen science can be a solution. At Hazelwood, a co-design project brought the community back through a deliberative process that reaped huge relationship changing results and has been very profitable for working on ongoing issues.
How to carry out that engagement was a major theme. Canadian PR guru Jim Hoggan’s keynote told us emphatically that communications and engagement are central, not an add-on. Sometimes, its every bit as hard as the science or the legislation for several reasons: we are inclined to act tribally, to adjust evidence to suit our own beliefs, and to judge people as good or bad based on whether they agree with us or not. If you add the powerful influence of public relations to these deeply embedded human behaviour patterns, this creates polarisation, disrespect for others and a polluted public space where people increasingly believe that nobody is wholly right and that everyone is acting in their own interests.
In that situation, the facts alone, simply being right, won’t change people’s minds because if they’re not in control they will feel fearful and risk averse no matter what the facts are telling them.
So, what to do? In the words of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, how do we “speak the truth but not to punish?”
Jim Hoggan suggested in his workshop that shaping a narrative, personalising it, creating a story that was inclusive and even emotional could be a powerful mechanism for bringing about change in a way that the facts alone could not. People who are emotionally engaged are open to change and new ideas because their trust has been gained.
We saw the power of that storytelling from Natalie Isaacs, formerly a cosmetics manufacturer and now a climate change activist and the founder of One Million Women. She had a personal transformation and then turned that into a catalyst for change in her movement , emphasising that she doesn’t talk about guilt, but empowerment. Natalie says “once you get the message in your heart, it becomes a transformative proposition front and centre. Action on climate change becomes central to your life, not an adjunct to the way we live”.
I understand that this is not easy, and I admire the way in which you are setting yourselves up to face these big challenges for yourselves, your staff and the workplace cultures that you have to bring along with you. But if you can step up to it, then you are very much front line troops in a major battle that affects us all. And on that, I’ve been struck several times throughout the conference that many of you do face a dearth of scientific knowledge in the general community, so the communications become ever more significant
Ben Eggleton looked at some of the exceptionally sophisticated technological tools at your disposal for a range of functions - detecting minute particle ranges for example, but also to make that technology accessible, available and inexpensive. Pragati Shahi and Jack Kinross (speaking from Nepal) talked to us about both the fascinating detail of wildlife conservation around big cat species, in particular the leopard, but also gave us an insight into how social determinants affect conservation across class demographics.
I have so much enjoyed being with you all, I’ve learned a great deal and its made me think that being an environmental regulator might be pretty cool. Thank you for the opportunity."