Finding Common Narratives is the Key to Climate Action

By Izzy Tolhurst


In 2016, a survey conducted by the New South Wales Nature Conservation Council (NSW NCC) revealed that most people in NSW thought coal mining was doing more harm than good. It was a significant shift, up 9.5% from when the same question was asked in 2013.

So what sparked the change?

Kate Smolski, CEO of NSW NCC says “one of the main shifts in public opinion was actually just a huge increase in knowledge on the issue.”

She’s right, coal seam gas (CSG), mine expansion and the legitimacy of many exploration and extraction licenses were some of the biggest and most volatile issues of the 2015 NSW state election. Across NSW, farmers and the communities felt their concerns about the impact of CSG projects hadn’t been taken seriously. From constant and detailed media coverage, the public’s knowledge was strong, and outreach work undertaken by organisations like Our Land Our Water Our Future, Lock the Gate Alliance and NSW NCC was effective at educating people on the negative impacts of CSG. Many national and international companies had also visited these towns, identifying wells and mapping out locations for mines. For many rural and urban communities in NSW, the threat was real.

But there was something else. In objecting to CSG facilities and further development of mines, unlikely allegiances were formed. There was consensus between traditionally conflicting sides of the environmental debate. Farmers, traditional land owners, ‘greenies’ and environmental research and advocacy groups were united in their fight for a CSG-free community.

“Social license was removed by the communities coming together and saying no to the industry,” says Smolski.

Smolski believes this unprecedented union was formed because the campaign identified that the most simple, essential requirements of life were jeopardised. They focused on things that are common to us all.

“Food and water—it was about bringing it back to basics. Those simple narratives really captured people’s understandings. It was also close to home,” she says.


The other successful narrative that was used in objecting CSG projects (and is commonly exploited political rhetoric) was the idea of the fair go.

“Australians care a lot about fair go,” says Smolski. “And people like the average farmer and the average person trying to protect bushland in the area weren’t getting a fair go. Even the average worker was having a hard time. The mining companies would happily hide behind their workers when mounting a case to expand mines in the Hunter Valley, but in the next breath would happily lay-off a whole bunch of workers with the down-turn of the coal price.”

A similar union happened during the Maules Creek campaign, which sought to halt the expansion of the Whitehaven coal mine. A man very close to that campaign is Jonathan Moylan.

“When I first went to Maules Creek in April 2012, I was shocked by the extent of clearing of woodland for the adjacent Boggabri open cut coal mine,” says Moylan.“After asking farmers campaigning against the coal expansion how they felt about a blockade camp being set up in the forest, they said it would be a good idea, and the Front Line Action on Coal camp began. Over time the diversity of people involved in the campaign grew to include doctors, teachers, lawyers, and a retired mining engineer.”

Here, while the unifying issues were still those that affected people individually and on a daily basis, Moylan says it was also “the scale and variety of impacts that brought the unlikely alliance of environmentalists, farmers and Gomeroi traditional custodians together.”

Interestingly, these allegiances had little to do with shared sentiments on climate change.

“The Maules Creek campaign included a large number people who had no problem with building more coal mines, but were incensed that productive farmland and critically endangered forest was being destroyed for an open cut mine,” says Moylan.


The same was true in Smolski’s experience.

“Because we were working to protect land and water, we didn’t need to discuss the issue of climate change. It wasn’t front of mind. We didn’t even have to agree on climate change. It was about bringing it back to basics.”

In both cases, the most successful and engaging narratives were those that focused on the tangible, relatable impacts of CSG, coal mining or environmental degradation. They were stories that had people—and their shared humanity—at their centres. They very specifically didn’t focus on the often-depressing statistics of climate change.

“What problem to put at the centre of the story depends entirely on who you are speaking to, and which group of people need to hear about the problem in order to move a decision-maker.

“A good narrative will touch on the problem, explain the solution, empower people to act and suggest an effective thing to do collectively to solve that problem,” says Moylan.

He says that the Maules Creek campaign, though unsuccessful in stopping the development of the mine, helped to change the narrative around coal expansion in Australia and transform it into “stories about community impacts, health, environmental damage and corruption.”

“One of the extraordinary things about the Maules Creek campaign was how transformative it was for each of the participants, who had their worldviews challenged by people with very different mind sets. It was also a reminder of how much more people have in common with each other than what the differences are,” Moylan adds.

In constant pursuit of more effective ways to successfully engage people in environmental action, (and in anticipation of EFFA 2017) Smolski acknowledges the powerful role film can play.

“Being able to talk to people through film in a compelling way about what is actually happening to the natural world is quite important. More and more people are living in cities, and many don’t have the opportunity to get out into the bush, or be across the science of what is happening to the environment. I think it’s really important that we continue to tell these stories through different mediums, and film is a great way to do that,” she concludes.

Izzy Tolhurst is an Australian freelance writer and editor based out of Vancouver, Canada. Follow her on Twitter @izzytolhurst.

Images: Kate Ausburn, SBS