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Can weather presenters be climate saviours?

  • 16 August 2019


After warmer waters bleached the Great Barrier Reef in 2016, two well-known Australians went snorkelling to see the corals for themselves, and they published Facebook posts about it. Scientist Tim Flannery emerged from the ocean off Port Douglas and told the camera he'd seen 'complete devastation'. Pauline Hanson, snorkelling off Great Keppel Island much further south, told her audience 'the Great Barrier Reef is alive and well'.

The media quickly pointed out that Hanson had visited a part of the reef 1000 km south of where the bleaching had actually occurred, but never mind the small details. Her Facebook fans weren't told that.

I make this comparison not to imply these two views have equal worth (Hanson was wrong, and climate deniers like her are a tiny minority anyway) but to show how social media amplifies our human tendency to congregate in like-minded tribes, and to see only what we want to see.

In psychology this is known as 'confirmation bias', and platforms like Facebook and Twitter are structured to reinforce it. The audience is self-selecting — you generally choose to follow a public figure because you agree with them — and your friends are usually people who share similar opinions and political views.

So it's no surprise that a 2018 review of communicating climate change on social media found that people gravitate into silos with 'a high degree of polarisation'. Rather than breaking down barriers between groups, social media exacerbates divides in the community.

A few years ago I believed seeing impacts of climate change around us would overcome this 'filter bubble' effect. Is your political identity really more important than the fact it's 48 degrees outside or your region is running out of water? I thought directly experiencing the consequences — like longer, hotter heatwaves in summer — would cut through any political polarisation.

I thought the polarisation existed partly because climate change was still an abstract concept. If you wanted to disagree, then it was easy to cherry pick the temperature data or find a statistic that reinforced your denial. It was harder to pretend bushfires weren't happening in winter.


"She doesn't even mention climate change. She just explains the trend in simple language — no fuss, no sly digs at Scott Morrison holding a lump of coal in Parliament — and then she moves on."


Now I'm not so sure. The reef bleaching example shows it's possible for someone like Pauline Hanson to cherry-pick