Lisette Collins speaking at the University of Sydney series Small Changes by Sydney Environment Institute and Sydney Ideas, hosted by The Fifth Estate managing editor Tina Perinotto.

There is massive variability in local council responses to climate change, a nationwide database of local government climate adaptation plans has revealed, and the politicisation of climate change is a key culprit.

The University of Sydney’s Lisette Collins, whose PhD research has uncovered the variability of responses to climate change, believes that communication is paramount to effective adaptation planning.

“Our inability to be able to talk openly about climate change in a rational and constructive way has negative implications for the development of successful adaptation policy in the future,” she said.

The politics of climate change

The ongoing debate around the science of climate change is having real effects on developing appropriate and timely policy responses.

According to Ms Collins, “a lot of Australian political leaders in recent years haven’t helped the situation”. The continual shifting of the policy agenda, in response to where political parties stand on the issue is leaving question marks in the public’s mind, who assume there “is still some debate to be had” about the science of climate change.

As well as this, Ms Collins notes that the confusion is born from “a human struggle” to come to terms with what climate scientists are saying: that climate change is real and urgent.

While this information in of itself isn’t new, it does set the context for how councils, who are at the “forefront of action” on climate change, are framing and responding to it.

The language of climate change

Across Australia, local governments are preparing responses to climate change, but a pattern of communication-sidestepping is emerging, leaving the public largely unaware or confused about what is actually happening and at stake.

“It is no coincidence that most Australians don’t know what a climate change adaptation plan is or whether their local council has one,” she said.

In an attempt to distance themselves from the “political baggage” of climate change, Ms Collins research has uncovered three techniques used by local governments to frame the issue, which are effectively minimising community concern about the seriousness of this global phenomenon.

In some cases, climate change is being framed as a variation in weather, leaving communities relatively unperturbed about its long-term implications. Rather than educating communities about the potential gravity of climate change impacts, councils are emphasising the “benefits” of action, including economic, health and lifestyle. In many areas, communities are being pulled into “micro-narratives” asking them to identify the value they place on where they live, using emotion to support engagement.

These techniques, according to Ms Collins, are confusing the public and rendering effective policy responses difficult.

“The media and key political elite make it difficult to have an open discussion, yet this is such a pressing issue.

“People really get engaged [with open dialogue on climate change] and they really want to process this information if you give them the opportunity, they really do want to have a say,” she said.

Framing appropriate responses

Across Australia, the councils who stood out in adaptation planning were those who recognised not just the biophysical impacts of climate change, but the social, emotional and economic vulnerability of their communities.

Increasingly, the nation is coming to understand how extreme storm events, drought, inconsistent weather patterns and global warming affect people’s wellbeing and health.

In Victoria, numerous climate change adaptation plans included sections on mental health, largely driven by the impacts of the millennium drought and bushfires in recent years, including a spate of suicides among farming communities. This sense of urgency does not as yet translate to the mindset of regional Western Australians, whose stoicism has resulted from a longstanding tradition of communities understanding themselves as living within a continent of extremes. Ms Collins notes that the “Aussie battler mindset” may very well shift as extreme weather events increase in frequency and intensity.

Of particular note, the cities of Sydney in NSW and Frankston in Victoria have developed plans that incorporate the socioeconomic impacts of climate change. In Western Australia, the Peron Naturaliste Partnership in the south west, as well as regional partnerships in the southern metropolitan region, have led to the development of comprehensive adaptation action plans.

In South Australia, the culmination of concerted regional approaches has led to a unique state-wide response to climate change.

Paris and beyond

As 175 nations signed the Paris Agreement on climate change on Earth Day this year, it appears there is growing international consensus on the need to act. Though the agreement won’t be bound under international law until at least 55 nations who represent 55 per cent of the earth’s emissions ratify the agreement, the uncharacteristically eager international response to the agreement heralds a potentially new era of action.

Hope

Though there is an inconsistency in approaches across Australia, Ms Collins has hope for the future.

“It wasn’t four years of [dark and depressing research]. I was quite heartened. As many bad stories as there were, there were just as many stories of people who cared. [About] 12.6 million Australians are covered by climate change adaptations action plans and most of them don’t know it,” she said.

See the database of local governments.