Kate Grenville: I used to be passive on climate change. A Helen Garner fan pushed me to act | Cultures

THE‘ve been what you might call a passive climate change activist for many years. I’ve had the bumper stickers, I’ve made the donations, I’ve gone on the marches (my latest handmade sign said “Renewables = Jobs” – true, but not exactly catchy).

And of course I’ve wondered if I could write a novel about climate change that would electrify people into action. I’ve wrestled with a few ideas, but how could you possibly dramatise the thing? Darling, he whispered into her ear. Did you know that coal is the best carbon capture technology that’s ever been invented? Oh, she murmured, does that mean we shouldn’t be burning it?

I can see that’s not going to do the trick, but what does? How do people make up their minds about climate change, and how might you shift their thinking?

Psychologists know that we’re powerfully influenced by the people around us. If the people we know think a certain way, we’re likely to be drawn in that direction too. As all those influencers on social media know, coming to an opinion about an issue is often a matter of thinking like the people you respect or admire.

Convincing Anne

I had a conversation recently with an acquaintance – let’s name her Anne – who’s what you might call climate-action-hesitant. She’s intelligent, thoughtful and a generous worker for her community di lei. She’s not a climate change denier. She can see that something weird and unfriendly is happening out there. But like all of us, her thinking di lei is influenced by the people around her, and in her di lei safe Coalition seat di lei, action on climate change isn’t seen as a priority. Twice a day she passes a yellow billboard telling her that “no emissions means no jobs”. Something repeated often enough seeps into your mind like a stain.

But Anne’s a voracious reader, and when our conversation turned to books her eyes lit up and her voice became fervent in admiration of Helen Garner. Her understanding of her of what makes people tick. Her humor of hers. The way she can put her finger on something you’ve always thought and never been able to express. Her compassion and lack of judgment of her. When she learned that I count Helen as a friend, I could see that her respect di lei for me shot up. I basked in the reflected glory, and it made me think.

Anne doesn’t know Helen Garner the same way she knows her friends and neighbors, but she knows her through her books. She respects and admires the person she’s met on the page. If she knew that Helen was behind action on climate change, that might just tip her from being climate-action-hesitant to climate-action-positive. It would be a counter-influence to all those yellow billboards.

That’s when I decided to start a group called Writers for Climate Action. Basically it’s a list of writers – including Helen Garner, of course – who agree that climate change is a threat to the future of our world. The hope is that readers will see that their favorite writer thinks action on climate change is a priority for this election, and be influenced to agree.

The list has an amazing range and variety of writers and genres. Among many others it has John Coetzee and John Birmingham, Mem Fox and Matthew Reilly, Anita Heiss and Anna Funder, Sofie Laguna and Sunil Badami, Bryan Brown and Benjamin Law, David Marr and Di Morrissey. If you’re a reader, you’ll find a familiar Australian name on this list. There are more than 60, and every day more ask to be added.

The group isn’t pushing any particular party or candidate. What we’re hoping the list will do is to influence the Annes of this world to decide which of their local candidates is most likely to bring about real action on climate change, and vote accordingly. Different voters in different electorates will make different decisions. What matters is that they’re putting climate action first.

As we stand in the little cardboard booth on election day, our heads are a shouting-match of issues competing for our attention: the cost of living, defense, indigenous justice, national security, education, jobs. They’re all important and they’ll all shape our future. But without a reliable climate, all those other issues will keep getting worse.

Writers aren’t experts on climate science. But you don’t have to be to accept that humans are having an unwelcome effect on the planet. In this election campaign, other issues are elbowing climate change off the stage. A vote for climate will put it where it should be, and where polls say many people put it: at the center of every life.

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