Fiona Coe

Engineer Fiona Coe provides insight into how professionals can engage in the climate change conversation, ahead of The Big Conversation event at UTS in Sydney.

I can remember joking with friends years ago about the ‘s’ word: sustainability. Among ourselves, we knew the best way forward was the most equitable between generations, but we had also had many conversations facing others who were blind-sided by a short-term perspective. Sustainability seemed to be a dirty word to some, but we still tried to push the envelope. We had a passion and we weren’t afraid to talk about it.

Now, we are acknowledging the importance of how we talk about our interaction with our environment. Now, we are also talking about risk and resilience. Speaking as an engineer, I think we just might prefer it. Calculations of risk are not always highly scientific, but we now have numbers we can use to understand the seriousness of the issue. Resilience is also much more tangible: we all have personal resilience, so we can understand the concept. For example, responding to sea level rise may be easier to imagine when pictured together with building resilience against flooding.

I’m not the first to point out the importance of how to convey messages around these issues. George Marshall is a climate change communications expert and has published a video to help people talk to climate deniers. The Climate Council has also published a guide on how to communicate climate change (not to mention a guide on climate myth busting for barbecues!).

For those of us at the coal face (so to speak), we need to know how to talk the talk. The experts tell us to keep it local and relevant, use emotion and story, repeat positive messages and avoid negating the opposing narrative. However, those rules might apply more for the general public. Perhaps, when dealing with engineers and business professionals we need the numbers and not the emotion. Some of us need to hear a logical negation, not just the same story repeated. I’m not a communications expert, but I know we need to tailor our words to our audience. And some of us have a powerful audience who would respond to a nudge in the right direction.

I’m talking about professionals having disruptive conversations about climate change.

Professionals like engineers are in a special position, firstly, because we have training that helps us understand the science, but also because of who we are already in conversation with: managers in oil and gas companies, government officials in charge of infrastructure planning and operators of utilities, to name a few. We may not be communications experts, but we know our audience in these contexts. A nudge in these settings can go a long way.

Some of us are giving a nudge wherever we can. Through my work with Engineers for Our Climate, I’ve seen a lot of hope and readiness to spur change. We are writing emails to CEOs. We are calling them out on social media. We are asking the difficult questions at meetings. I believe we are more and more ready to have these conversations and slowly the tide is turning.

We are ready to have a big conversation.

And just in time, as we are entering into a climate emergency. The Bureau of Meteorology is no longer using long-term means to predict temperature, because they are no longer accurate. Instead, they are relying on three-month weather forecasting models. BoM states that the 12 months from July 2015 to June 2016 were also the warmest on record, at a whopping 1.28°C above average. It looks like we are starting to see the action of positive feedback loops, amplifying climate change. The impacts of prolonged heat are causing the emission of yet more greenhouse gases, leading to yet more heat.

Importantly, once we know how to convey our message, we also need a little courage. A sad irony is that helping to get approvals for fossil fuels projects is lucrative work for environmental professionals. This is even sadder when we look at the scars on our landscapes and the lack of money available for rehabilitation work.

Like whistleblowers, many environmental professionals are afraid to voice their concerns at all. Last year, I declined to do environmental work on a gas project and had some great conversations with colleagues around this. Expansion of fossil fuels is not the answer and every hour spent there is an hour not spent on solving our problems.

Giving a nudge in your professional work environment could be the most important thing you do. Advocacy and political engagement are more important than things anyone can do, like recycling and offsetting your flights. We need to build momentum and political pressure to create huge change, because a minority of people “doing the right thing” will never go as far as a behavioural shift across the board.

My top tips for talking about climate change as a professional:

  1. Speak to the individual. Know their values, their drivers. Some call this “finding the pain button”, but a more positive view is: what kind of legacy do they want to leave behind when they die?
  2. Choose who to engage with. To have the most effect, choose individuals who may be sitting on the fence. Leave the extremists for diehard debaters with lots of time.
  3. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge (even just to yourself) that you are not a climate scientist and may not be in a position to debate. The science is already settled by others.

With special thanks to Earth Hour, who gave me my first training in climate campaigning.

Fiona Coe is chair of Engineers for Our Climate, which is devoted to climate action within the engineering profession. Engineers for Our Climate is supporting The Big Conversation at UTS on 2 August. Fiona also works as a senior engineer in water resources.

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  1. Thanks Fiona, yes good advice on a VERY difficult issue of engaging in the discussion against a wall of dissonance. David, thanks for the further additions – also valuable and thanks for bringing us the BIG conversation – for me Ian Dunlop was absolutely on the money with all of the key issues – what I heard was don’t expect governments to change things – it is going to come from business and from investors seeing the risk to their investment in fossil fuels. I have (almost completely) divested my bank accounts and pension and in the last year the divested pension earnt 3 x – yes 3 x – the average yield so it is not just sending the ethical message to business to change, it is also protecting yourself from the risks of continuing fossil fuel reliance/investment.

  2. Great advice Fiona. I would only add that you must always finish on an uplift, giving hope that we (and I mean engineers) can solve this problem. My plan is always work through three stages varying the time on each stage depending on who you’re talking with, their reactions (do they understand? are they getting angry? do they even care?), and your aim.

    So start with the science and the facts to gauge their knowledge. Move onto the grim stuff (the future likely outcomes of doing nothing), and don’t hold back. I’m often advised not too scare anyone, but hell, we damn well need to. Finally, build back your hope budget with how engineers are solving the crisis. Use examples particularly noting positive outcomes, and emphasise that we must do much more of this positive stuff. And lace your discussions with the need for strong leadership.