A New Take on Environmental Leadership
What began as a colourful dinner conversation with my family about the relative merits of climate change communications in the Australian political landscape has now evolved into a fascinating and insightful research project.
As an Australian, the summer of 2020 for me will always evoke memories of burnt leaves falling from the sky, acrid smoke filling the air, and the eerie red glow that descended over the nation. More than ever the effects of anthropogenic climate change became obvious, but Australia still has a troubled relationship with the science and necessary change associated with climate change, as residents, particularly in regional Queensland, have remained stoic supporters of the fossil fuels industry.
Previous attempts to achieve collective action and progress towards net-zero emissions have been ineffectual, as urban activists from southern states were labelled as privileged “elites” who were out of touch with “true blue” “Aussie battlers” who lived and worked in regional areas. In observing and participating in this discourse, the social dimension of climate change became obvious. My research is, therefore, looking at how we can use the social identity approach to achieve less dogmatic and more constructive conversations on climate change.
My initial research on the social identity approach demonstrated that there are four key elements of good leadership which I think would be useful for anyone to take on board.
- Great leaders have to be prototypical of the group they lead. What this means is that they have to be part of the "in-group" and represent both physically and rhetorically all of the values and facets that are important to that group. So in my research, for example, it demonstrates that getting white-collar city-siders to try and lead climate action in regional areas is futile. Instead, leaders should be local and not just someone that the group can relate to, but someone that members of the group aspire to be.
- Leaders have to promote the interests of the in-group and not just themselves. Interestingly it's been shown that when leaders actively promote the interests of the in-group over the out-group they garner greater support.
- Leaders have to be entrepreneurs of identity and work creatively with the group's identity to make sure it aligns with their agenda.
- Leaders have to make us feel like we matter, and they have to materialise a world in which the group's values are lived out and fulfilled.
Translating these findings into the experimental components of my research means that I will now be looking at how using ingroup messengers, constructing a superordinate regional Queenslander identity, and promoting decarbonisation according to the values, norms and goals of the ingroup, can ameliorate climate change communications.
Like all researchers, I have encountered challenges along the way including delays with ethics approval and communications difficulties. However, with the help of my fellow scholars I’ve realised that problem-solving and overcoming these hurdles has forced me to look “outside the box” and find innovative solutions. For example, whilst I was unable to interview people directly, I’ve worked with archival documents and interviewed academics from the University of Queensland who have been incredibly helpful.
I would like to thank the Laidlaw Foundation and Lord Laidlaw for their incredible support that has allowed me to extend my learning beyond the traditional classroom and develop strong leadership skills. I am excited to see what the rest of the program has in store for me and can’t wait to share my results!