climate change is crap. nah, not really – just communicating it is

So I’ve spent my Easter break researching the issue of climate change, as one does. More specifically, as someone who was living overseas for seven years I’ve been fascinated watching how Australia’s climate change discourse has gone from PM Kevin Rudd’s “climate change is the greatest moral challenge of our generation” in 2007 to PM Tony Abbott’s “climate change is crap” in 2013.

So in the lead up to putting together a research proposal for my Communications Masters degree and fuelled on chocolate, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and found some interesting things from some of the world’s best thinkers. And despite a vast majority of environmental scientists gravitating towards ‘yes’ on the question “is Earth f*cked?”, climate change could very well actually be a major tipping point for the next evolutionary stage of global economic, political and social structures – bring it on!

Disappearing down the rabbit hole of research started with this paper from global communications consultant, Bob Pickard (2013): ‘The Climate Change Disaster’, in which he wonders why global communication professionals have to date been unable to communicate climate change effectively. He says:

Global warming is by far the biggest long-term challenge that our world faces. This problem can only be addressed if it is thought to be important enough – and urgent enough – for people (both elites and mass society) to think and act differently about climate change than they have before, and to do so in concert with each other

Bob points out that global climate change public discussion and coverage in the media peaked around 2007, coinciding with Al Gore’s documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and the release of the fourth assessment report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which spelled out that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal“. However, since then public interest in the climate change issue worldwide has been in steep decline. Why?

Reading through more than 40 academic papers (while everyone else is on camping holidays and The Italian is bringing in the harvest, chopping down trees and serving up venison pie at Cargo Road Wines), the problem with communicating climate change seems to be its complexity – it’s just too big a problem to comprehend.

When faced with contemplating the combined disasters of melting ice caps, rising oceans, increased floods, more bushfires, colder winters, hotter summers, islands sinking, forced international migration (try telling people “go back to where you came from” when their country has just sunk) and food scarcity, they are discovering that most people react with complete and utter apathy. It’s a bit too hard to figure out what to do about all of this when you’re trying to figure out how to cover the mortgage and pay for school fees and keep up with the Joneses. And also, this stuff is in the post in the next 50-100 years, so it’s not really like its affecting anyone right now is it?

Professor Wendy Bacon from the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism has spent the last couple of years doing intensive research on how the topic of climate change is presented in ten of Australia’s top newspapers. In the two-part ‘A Sceptical Climate’ analysis conducted in 2011 and 2012, key findings showed that media coverage of climate change in Australia was “mostly framed within a vociferous political debate”, was decreasing year-on-year, and that there was “a marked difference in the quantity and quality of coverage about climate science being received in different Australian regions and by different audiences”. In his award-winning essay ‘Climate Change and equity: whose language is it anyway?‘ Sydney GP, Tim Senior, has argued that the way climate change is being communicated in Australia just isn’t ‘speaking the language’ of the people who are actually going to be affected by it first.

Australia also has one of the highest levels of scepticism towards climate change recorded in the world, a political stance mainly shared with the Australian public through mainstream media channels, with the International Business Times recently naming Australia “one of the biggest climate change deniers in the world“. Heck, what would the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank know anyway? This is a personal favourite from Australia’s Attorney-General, George Brandis.

So is anyone doing anything about it? Hell yeah, this is a great time to be doing a Masters degree.

Don Aitkin, previously Vice-Chancellor of University of Canberra, believes “The principal institution in humanity’s race to save itself, if we set aside enlightened governments, is the modern university” (1997). In fact, futurist Richard Slaughter thinks universities should “drop everything else they’re doing…in order to re-focus on the increasingly problematic human prospect” (see ‘Beyond the threshold – using climate change literature to support climate change response’, Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 2009).

My journey down the rabbit hole of communications research led me to some excellent Australian thinkers. In fact, nearly half of the academic papers I sourced were authored by Australians, and most of their papers were published since 2013. The most encouraging thing about this, is all the information is coming from different disciplines – not only environmental scientists and communication scholars, but business experts, political scientists, sociologists, psychologists and futurists. People like Professor Mark Beeson of WA’s Murdoch University, Dr Matt McDonald of The University of Queensland, Dr Simon Niemeyer of Canberra’s Australian National University, University of Melbourne’s Associate Professor Peter Christoff and Professor Robyn Eckersley, the University of Tasmania’s Professor Bruce TranterDr Lyn McGaurr and Professor Libby Lester, Newcastle University’s Professor Mark Balnaves, as well as Dr Chris Riedy and Jennifer Kent from the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures, were the ones I most wanted to hug while doing my research.

These guys are all out there talking about new forms of public engagement with the climate change debate – through deliberative and participative democracy approaches, by taking grassroots action, and through new models and methods of communication. They should all get in a room together and come up with a great big plan. I’ll make the coffees.

A major clue on how to start communicating climate change more effectively, is coming from the IPCC itself. In its fifth assessment report ‘Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Assessments and Vulnerability” released in March this year, the messages being used throughout the paper have moved from 2007’s alarmism, fear and uncertainty (there’s a great probability that we’re all about to sink) towards messages of  ‘adaptation’ and hope. Report author, Dr Chris Field, has called for more positivity about the exciting opportunities adapting the world for the impacts of climate change could bring.

Better government policies, increased citizen engagement in politics, new evolved political, economic and social structures, greater consciousness and more innovative, creative, entrepreneurial approaches….as I said before, bring it on. And pass the chocolate.

Kelly

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