By John Lang

From her perch on a chair almost the size of the King’s College Council Room itself, Rosie Fenton, the chair of this intimate discussion, asked writer Tony Birch how best to effectively communicate the enormous problem that is climate change. Especially, she stressed, in light of the powerlessness most people felt about it. Birch had a simple but thoughtful response:

“I would approach it how I approach it with the kids I talk to, that is, by first asking them about the places that they love, whatever guise that may come in.

“Kids love to tell you about the places they love.

“After I get them passionately pondering their places, I go on and ask them how they’d feel if that place changed.”

Most of us can be considered kids when it comes to climate change. Tirelessly complex at every vantage point, from its science to its interpretation to its communication, the difficulties of understanding climate change can make us all feel rather adolescent.

Fenton pressed on. “We’ve got the scientist, the journalist but what about the writer?”

“Sometimes issues have to be communicated in a non-empirical way,” offered Birch.

“To capture people’s attention. That’s where writers come in.

“The scientist has his or her role, the journalist theirs [and] the writer has their own role.”

The power of narrative has always had this wonderful emotional hook. But for issues as “unchanging from day-to-day” as climate change, compared with its more ‘newsworthy’ cousins, this hook’s necessity is elevated.

“The problem with this story is that it’s just so bloody big.”

Like the clichéd but highly relevant metaphor of ‘the boiled frog’ that special guest Wheeler identifies, we are in desperate need of things that wake us up; that spring us out of the lukewarm water before it gets any hotter.

Not only do Wheeler and Birch reassure us that writing can wake us up, they insist on the importance of communicating personal experience, especially when considering such a global and disparate issue. Wheeler (admittedly better known the co-founder of Lonely Planet with his wife Maureen) has got more than a couple of personal travel experiences to his name. A couple will do here: Whether its visiting Bangladesh and witnessing “a country of 150 million a mere metre or two away from being a modern day Waterworld,” or walking from Nepal to China and noticing “the atmosphere change consistency due to pollution,” he has seen it for himself.

Birch went on to entrench Wheeler’s ideas with his reciting of a piece he recently wrote for the Weather Stations project – five writers’ writing collaboration dedicated to climate change. It was about walking down the Yarra River, in Melbourne, with his 16 year-old daughter.

“We need to be provincial. It’s naive to think we can come up with this global narrative around climate change… as I once did.”

By writing something local, as writers, both Birch and Wheeler “have faith that others can take their stories on by themselves in their own locality.”

At about the midway point of the discussion, Birch offered honestly, that as writers, “We all sometimes ask ourselves, does writing really matter?”

Birch unwittingly answered his own rhetorical question 20 minutes later:

“I admit, I’m in a position of privilege. I’m a writer and I have a responsibility to provide hope. We [writers] all do things on our own but it’s a collective action.

“It’s like the pathway alongside the Yarra – you haven’t seen all the other walkers or runners as you’ve gone by, but you know they’ve been there.”

All, it seems, to urgently help the kids overcome the “cognitive dissonance between what we know and what we know we must do.”

John Lang is an Otago law and history graduate. He is the cofounder of Swigit, a soon-to-be released multimedia Wikipedia for helping people understand ‘big’ issues. Visit www.swig.it or email john@swig.it.

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