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Can weather presenters be climate saviours?



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'.

Dr David Holmes presents on what is best practice communication of climate science and impacts for Victorian policy makers, for Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub, Melbourne.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 reality too. If you're ideologically motivated to prove a point, you can find a pocket of the natural world that isn't affected and share it with your audience.

I can see this happening again and again. Climate disasters will be interpreted through different political, social and cultural lenses. It's not about progressives or conservatives: we're all vulnerable to these filter bubbles. I can imagine Republican Christians seeing droughts and hurricanes as evidence of God's wrath for liberal policies on abortion or Islamic immigration. At the same time, I can imagine progressive anti-vaxxers rejecting reports of spreading tropical diseases because they don't accept the proposed solution of increased vaccinations. Whatever the audience, the structure of social media makes it easier for these sorts of conspiracy theories to thive.

What can halt this polarisation and build broad consensus on climate change among the general public? Recently Monash University reviewed 570 studies into communicating climate change and offered some insights (PDF).

First, there's a 'perception gap' on climate change. Whereas 78 per cent of Victorians feel they are engaged and concerned with climate change, they believe only 48 per cent of other Victorians feel the same way. Resolving this requires direct conversations with friends and family in the real world, not online.

Second, the Australian media often portrays climate change as a political issue. Many articles feature images of politicians, and coverage spikes during elections. But politicians are the least trusted messengers for climate science information. They really turn off the public. The most trusted are scientists, firefighters, farmers and weather presenters.

Of these, only weather presenters have a large audience and are already skilled communicators. So since May 2018, Monash University has been working with Channel 7 and ABC in Victoria to include climate change information on weather bulletins. It's based on a similar program in the United States that now has over 500 weather presenters signed up, and is one of the few strategies that has been shown to increase concern about climate change among the general public.

The theory underpinning this is called 'non-persuasive communication' — simple facts, repeated often, to large audiences by a trusted messenger. I went online to check out some examples. The clips are a refreshing change from the kind of opinionated and emotive posts that get shared on social media.

In her singsong voice, Channel 7 meteorologist Jane Bunn explains that Melbourne has experienced hotter and drier days over the last 50 years. She smiles at the camera and points at the graph. Her tone is friendly and informative. 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.

It's the complete opposite of the snarky political debate on Twitter, it's reaching hundreds of thousands of people without provoking their political tribalism, and it just might work.



Greg Foyster headshotGreg Foyster is a Melbourne writer and the author of the book Changing Gears.

Main image: Dr David Holmes presents on what is best practice communication of climate science and impacts for Victorian policy makers, for Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Greg Foyster, Great Barrier Reef, climate change



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Existing comments

It's great that Jane Bunn and other weather presenters can promote climate change related weather information in such a way. However I think we need more than this. I suggest readers download and watch the following: https://iview.abc.net.au/show/climate-change-the-facts https://iview.abc.net.au/show/climate-change-the-evidence https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-rTQ443akE

Grant Allen | 17 August 2019  

I completely support Greg's proposal that weather presenters present the information on Climate Change in a factual unemotional way as part of their presentations. I will put your proposal to my contacts in the Bureau , the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society and the Royal Meteorological Society . I am a member of both these organizations. Both organizations, the BOM and British Met Office have statements on their web sites concerning this matter. There is no doubt that weather presenters are very trusted by the general public. Their reasoned advice could play a very important role in informing the public that despite shrill comments to the contrary by Climate Change sceptic's, Climate Change is real and it is happening now.

Gavin A. O'Brien | 19 August 2019  

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