Why Is Climate Change Missing from Stories on Australia’s Heatwave?

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Wildfires across Tasmania

Wildfires across Tasmania. Photograph courtesy of Al Jazeera

As Australia stares at “a once-in-20 or 30-year heatwave”, with temperatures over 40 degrees, it is likely that more extreme weather events similar to this are in store for us. The probability of this occurring is well researched. (For example, Professor Barry Brook has previously outlined Adelaide’s situation.)

Australia’s media largely fails to link climate change to the heat. There have been more than 800 articles in the last five days covering the heatwave. Fewer than ten of these also discuss “climate change”, “greenhouse gas”, carbon or “global warming” (from a 3 -7 January 2013 Factiva news source search conducted on 7 January at 4pm).

Even with the occasional mention, these articles often obscure the link. Tim Blair’s Carbon Kings story in the Daily Telegraph is a good example. It reports on a tweet from Sydney Morning Herald columnist Peter FitzSimons:

Peter: Will the politics of carbon tax/climate change alter with this extraordinary, sustained heatwave hitting the southern states?

Tim: It’s called summer, Peter, and the carbon tax won’t make any difference.

Death caused by extreme heat is usually of interest to the media. For example 370 people died from extreme heat in Victoria during the same week that there were 173 deaths in the 2009 Black Saturday fires.

For the future, a PWC report shows extreme heat in Melbourne could, without mitigation by 2050, kill more than 1000 people in a heat event. Climate change is likely to increase both extreme heat events and bushfire danger – as discussed in a recent Climate Institute briefing paper and by Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

What could change a large proportion of our reporting?

Numbers and threats like these seem to be losing salience with the Australian public, or at least our media. The lack of reporting certainly aligns with research that demonstrates “Fear Won’t Do It”. Could this be a reason why Australia 21’s Beyond Denial: managing the uncertainties of global change argues that “our leaders and the community at large are still in denial (or studiously unaware) of the realities of global change”?

Climate change and sustainability practitioners need to address these issues. This is where more of the same, more figures, statistics, research and evidence might be necessary but are not going to be sufficient. While statements like the Prime Minister’s are important we need to go further. Some of the standout interventions highlighting broader approaches include Futerra’s Rules of the Game (principles of climate change communications) and the American Psychological Association Task Force on the interface between psychology and global climate change.

What is also clear is that climate change is a complex, tangled problem. Moreover, unlike a public health campaign – such as one to stop smoking – it is difficult to talk about the evidence and avoid creating fear without agency. That is, people may worry about climate change, but feel there’s nothing they can do about it (unlike smokers, who can stop).

As this is a complex, multi-systemic problem, no short article like this one can offer a silver bullet solution. For general principles however we need to remember the strong call to avoid what philosophers and futurists, such as Ken Wilber and Richard Slaughter, call “flatland”. Flatland is a social perspective which insists that if we can’t measure it, it does not matter. In this “flatland” we lose sight of the fact that “values play a significant role in climate change debates”. Consequently, we often focus just on statistics, research and other directly measurable, objective evidence.

On agency, the German Advisory Council on Global Change tells us that far from being unable to make a difference:

Individual actors can play a far larger role in the transformation of social (sub)systems than the one that has been accorded to them for quite some time.

The council, a scientific advisory body to the German government, places individuals as one of four pillars for a sustainability “Great Transformation”. For more, see its beautifully written report: World in Transition: A social contract for sustainability.

Tying this together, and back to this week’s media, the call is to highlight what we care about. This might be the impact on the elderly, care for our gardens, our pets, as well as our awe of nature around us or adrenalin sports in it. We need to do so recognising that this is a narrow tailored approach for individuals and communities.

A good example of targeted peer-to-peer engagement is Al Gore’s climate ambassadors program that has now presented personally to 7.3 million people globally. Models like this – prioritising engagement around what we love and value – can narrowcast to individual cares. Ultimately this drives demand for good news coverage.

Personally, I’ll remember to talk, blog and tweet more on agency than fear.

By Simon Divecha, University of Adelaide
Simon Divecha does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.The Conversation

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