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And now to the weather: climate science on the front foot

The Climate Commission’s latest report, released recently, and some of the media that arose from it are excellent examples of science and journalists working together to talk about climate change and extreme…

The Climate Commission is leading the way on climate change communication with its latest report providing scientific context for extreme weather events. Climate Commission

The Climate Commission’s latest report, released recently, and some of the media that arose from it are excellent examples of science and journalists working together to talk about climate change and extreme weather. But examples like this are too rare: in Australia, we find that the mainstream news media is reluctant to mention climate change, talking about extreme weather events as freak accidents. And the situation isn’t helped by scientists who are reluctant to speak out on their research.

Curiously, when climate change first became an issue in the 1980s, almost all of the press was led by scientific sources. The role of human activity was not contested at all until climate change became politicised in the 1990s by interest groups, politicians and an adversarial “debate” between sceptics and an IPCC-led science of consensus.

With the exception of radical climate scientists like the recently retired James Hansen, climate scientists became regressively cautious about their forecasts. Fear of being debunked by powerful interest groups took over. This actually led to an increase in visibility of activist and advocacy groups in the press.

The anxiety shown by the IPCC group editors over the leaking of the first draft of the fifth Assessment Report, not due out until September this year, is evidence of this.

The Climate Commision is again placing the science on the front foot. The earlier pictorial Angry Summer report tapped into the media currents reporting on extreme weather as weather, and brought climate back in. The current report provides a fuller scientific context for the record-breaking events that just swept the nation.

Early analysis from a study being conducted by researchers in Communications and Media, and Journalism Studies at Monash University, suggests that the electronic platforms of public and independent news outlets are leading the way in this. Newspapers are lagging well behind. Whether it is heatwaves, floods or firestorms; climate is marginal in the discourse of disaster reporting.

For example, a spectacular oversight during the Queensland floods of 2011 was the fact that - unlike the cyclone-generated floods of 1893 and 1974 - there was no cyclone driving the floods at all. Instead, unprecedented evaporation and rain – enough to generate an inland tsunami and kill 36 people – drove the disaster. But of the 2,004 news articles published in the Australian press during the six peak days of the floods, none made this link. Only 25 suggested there might be a link to climate change.

Extreme weather events only become newsworthy if they can be pressed into forms of story-telling that appeal to a sense of salvation from an immediate public crisis, rather than what these events say about climate change. Commercial television news in Australia has long excelled in inviting the disaster marathon right into its promotional advertising, with orchestral backing, close-ups of agonised faces, slow-motion helicopters and vox-pops of despair enticing audiences to switch over “in times of crisis”.

With the Climate Commission’s publication of Extreme Weather, an alternative frame for reporting severe weather events is now available. When the science is linked to new extremes seen in heatwaves, floods and fires, we could be spared from the “miracle escape” and “fury of nature” framing of news stories.

Where the reporting of catastrophe has long obscured the communication of the science, catastrophe might now become the pedagogy for its communication and a focus for mitigation.

It is time too that Australian climate scientists, who are well represented in the IPCC (with almost 5% of the 802 authors of the fifth IPCC AR report), directly linked their work to upcoming extreme weather. Peak bodies like the Climate Commission, and the CSIRO are vital news sources, but US research shows that awareness of anthropogenic climate change increases with the amount of coverage not just the content.

Australian climate scientists seem to have much more trouble relating to the broader public than their counterparts overseas going by their under-representation as sources in news outlets.

A February report in Science Communication suggested that a majority of German scientists have had professional contact with news media and their representation exceeds that of other scientific fields.

While the report suggests that more than half of the contact is made by journalists and PR departments of scientific organisations and universities, a surprise finding was that 82.3% of these scientists made scientific decisions such as the choice of research topics with some consideration of likely media interest.

It would appear that climate change communication faces a different task in Australia than in Germany, where much of the debate is about how to combat climate change. The Monash study will investigate the impediments Australian Climate Scientists have in getting their research publicised, looking at both scientific institutions and newsroom cultures, to understand this difference.

Improved media adaptation of climate science is as important as climate adaptation of the media. The Climate Commission is leading the way in this regard. It represents a group who are possibly going to be the most important body of public intellectuals of the 21st century.

Comments are welcome below, but please keep them on topic: how is the media dealing with portraying extreme weather in the context of climate change, and what role could climate scientists have in this?

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37 Comments sorted by

Comments on this article are now closed.

    1. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to John Campbell

      The impediments? News Corp 70% Australian media. This media organisation has to be called to account for the lack of due diligence it applies to factual reporting of climate change. The culture of dis-belief starts here, and has allowed morons to lead the discussion.

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    2. John Nicol

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to John Campbell

      John Campbell,

      Was the treatment of jack barrett and others in Australia not harrassment? See my statement above.

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    3. In reply to Alice Kelly

      Comment removed by moderator.

    4. John Campbell

      farmer

      In reply to John Nicol

      What are you suggesting John Nicol that one form of harassment can be negated by another or that we should accept harassment as a normal part of our 'post modernistic' society and put up with it?

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    1. In reply to Don Aitkin

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    2. In reply to Don Aitkin

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    3. In reply to Don Aitkin

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  2. John Gollan

    Research Fellow, School of the Environment at University of Technology, Sydney

    You’ve got to understand the public not wanting to hear about ‘climate change’ (by scientists or not) when there are ridiculous attempts by the media to ‘get the message out there’ about extremes. Watch most weather reports on Australian television and you’ll get statements like ‘Today the mercury topped 23 degrees - that is the third highest temperature in 2 weeks.’ Does anyone see the relevancy of such a statistic?

    As a scientist, I also feel the same reluctance about hearing about climate change…

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    1. John Nicol

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to John Gollan

      Well said John Gollan and Jon Brodie as well. Those in Queensland and particularly in North Queensland will also be well aware of the deficiencies of this article. But even as one of them, I could not have articulated the detail as clearly as you have done. Having seen your list, I do remember each of those floods and the preceding cyclones, which the original author should have researched before "communicating"!
      John Nicol

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    2. John Campbell

      farmer

      In reply to John Gollan

      The media tell us all sorts of things including what we should think, how we should behave and when we should get angry and also I suspect, in many cases, who should run the country for them.

      I just can't see any relevance to a scientific or logical discussion.

      However I do know that we are not only getting many more extreme weather events but the frequency of them is also increasing. Is this what your gripe is about?

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    3. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to John Gollan

      @John Gollan

      Do you have a link to the article John. You say "some scientists really need to be taking a look at what they are saying" but without being able to examine the article you refer to, it is difficult to judge your claims.

      This paper from Naomi Oreskes et al suggests the opposite - that climate scientists are understating the likely impact of climate change by "Erring on the side of least drama?".
      http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378012001215

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    4. John Gollan

      Research Fellow, School of the Environment at University of Technology, Sydney

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Mike

      http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/04/03/1210127110.full.pdf+html and the media report on this article:

      http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/political-news/wineries-on-the-move-as-climate-change-bites-20130408-2hh9c.html

      Now the disclaimer - Im trying to track down the data used for figure 1(E) so I can interpret it more clearly, but it certainly appears that much of the Hunter Valley is currently unsuitable for 'viticulture' (see the gap between the north and south). As I said, these sorts of studies are done by taking a macroscale view of climate, often generated by official weather station data - we need more realistic views of temperatures across the landscape when assessing impacts - see a recent article about the frailties of spatial data in conservation -

      http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ddi.12068/abstract

      Getting off topic but here's some more detail on the issues with weather stations
      http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs004840050031?LI=true

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    5. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to John Gollan

      John. You must have looked at that diagram with a magnifying glass.Getting the actual data seems like the way to go.

      I got the impression from your comment that the paper had lead to some sensational reporting. But Ben Cubby's article stated that

      "A new international study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, estimates that up 74 per cent of the nation's potential vineyard country will become unsuitable for growing the right grapes.

      But that figure comes…

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  3. Jon Brodie

    Research scientist

    I have one issue with this story. The 2011 Brisbane floods (and those in the Fitzroy, Burnett, Mary etc) were associated with a cyclone - it was called Tasha and crossed the coast near Babinda as a Category one, tracked south as a rain depression all the way down the east coast picking up moisture from the ocean as it went. This is very similar to other relatively weak cyclones/rain depressions such as Joy in 1991 which also produced large floods in the Mackay rivers, the Fitzroy and southern Queensland. Similarly this year with Cyclone Oswald, also a category one and the rain depression ( a mini cyclone?) a few weeks later. Cyclone Anthony, category 2, crossed the coast near Airlie Beach in Feb. 2011 as well and tracked south producing the floods in Victoria. Intense Cyclones like Yasi travel fast and often don't produce a lot of rain on the coast. Yasi produced rain in central Australia!

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    1. In reply to John Nicol

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    2. In reply to John Nicol

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    3. In reply to John Nicol

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  5. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    I agree with this article - the recent report from arguably the most significant public intellectuals of the 21st century, the Climate Commission, is an impressively glossy piece of work. It is a ruthless demolition of all those who would dare to deny the immaculate pinnacle of climate insight modern science has obtained.

    In general the climate scientists are all over the deniers. They're fielding all their strokes, running a lot of them out, and pretty consistently knocking them for six. I'd say they're nearly out of the game. Many of the best deniers are already back in the pavilion.

    I do hope it starts getting warmer again soon. I would hate such brilliant minds as those of the Climate Commission to suffer any reality imposed discombobulations.

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  6. Geoffrey Henley

    Research Associate

    The Australian Climate Commission is merely a politically motivated organisation chosen to deliver a predetermined outcome.

    Tim Flannery is not a climate scientist, but a mammalogist who was selected to head this organisation because of his alarmist views. He abandoned any objectivity on the subject of climate change years ago. Many of his predictions have proven to be wrong.

    The Commission itself has been churning out shoddy science for a while now. It would prefer to obsess about a single Australian summer than acknowledge the widely and well known fact that global temperatures have not increased significantly for well over a decade.

    Tony Abbott has promised to abandon this Commission if he becomes PM and that would be a step in the right direction. Australian taxpayers money has for too long been wasted on activists who merely cherry pick to suits their alarmism than conduct objective and rigorous science.

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    1. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Geoffrey Henley

      I think my irony meter just exploded with that post Geoffrey.

      'Politically motivated", "alarmist", "cherry pick", "global temperatures have not increased". And you suggest it is Tim Flannery who has abandoned objectivity?

      I have to ask - in what field are you a "research associate" and how do you get such a job if you are ignorant of science?

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    2. John Campbell

      farmer

      In reply to Geoffrey Henley

      Significance is in the view of the beholder perhaps. That is also why some people prefer 'Climate change' to 'global warming'. A fraction of a degree rise in temp is only going to be noticed by scientists with very delicate instruments, especially as the diurnal variations in temperatures is far greater than that.

      Heat delivered to the earth is increasing monotonically, air temperatures are not. Specifically much of the heat delivered to the world is going into the oceans, and has recently been…

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  7. David Holmes

    Senior Lecturer, Communications and Media Studies at Monash University

    In résponse to John Brodie and John Nichol, I am not a climate scientist, but I did research the events that are mentioned in my article. The 2011 Brisbane floods were not associated with Cyclone Tasha, which made landfall on Christmas Day 2010 south of Cairns. Tasha rapidly weakened to a tropical depression, but it certainly did not linger for the 17 days leading up to the flood event. Nor were there any other associated cyclones.

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    1. Philip Alford

      Retired meteorologist

      In reply to David Holmes

      David you are correct in stating that TC Tasha was not associated with the SE QLD events of 17 days later. The Bureau of Meteorology's Special Climate Statement 24 issued re the event (see: http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/current/statements/scs24c.pdf) states the following on p. 3, referring to 10-12 January 2011: "An upper-level low combined with a humid easterly flow to bring very heavy rain to southeast Queensland and northeast New South Wales." To my mind, the flooding was no doubt caused by this…

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    2. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to David Holmes

      David, it's decent of you to take the time and trouble to calmly refute the two Johns - and good of Philip to provide some professional confirmation - but the kind of misquoting and misconstruing that they did with Cyclone Tasha is depressingly typical of all their posts.

      And they complain when people treat them like trolls...

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  8. Mark Pollock

    Analyst

    Journalists, like most others, accorded the scientific community a certain respect and deference. More and more, they are becoming aware that this respect, particularly in regard to the so called "climate" science is not completely warranted. The doomsayers have only themselves to blame. The alarmists in the huge climate change industry have cried wolf many times too often for their dire prognostications to be taken seriously.

    Look at the Gergis paper for example. There was no shortage of enthusiastic…

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    1. John Campbell

      farmer

      In reply to Mark Pollock

      Ah nothing like a philosophunculist!

      I wish I had the insight like some people to know with certain what is alarmist and what isn't without the need for scientific analysis.

      But then perhaps all I need to do is question the oracle of an old man at his kitchen table? Will any old man do by the way?

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    2. Mark Pollock

      Analyst

      In reply to John Campbell

      John, it's tricky I know. Suggesting that something bad is going to happen is a good way of getting people's attention. At least initially. If you stridently assert that, say, Australia's cities are going to run out of water, people will listen. They may even spend billions on desalination plants.

      But after those same dams fill up and we have another flood to break the drought those same people feel a bit silly and wish they hadn't listened to henny penny and promise not to do so again. This is the communication problem that the author is discussing.

      If you are going to listen to an old man at his kitchen table it is best to listen to one who consistently gets things right.

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    3. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Mark Pollock

      Startling insight there Mark - we should listen to people who get things right, rather than people who get things wrong - if only the rest of the human race (and particularly those pesky scientists) had thought of something so wise!

      Would you be kind enough to explain how one can detect the mark that god has placed upon their noble brows?

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    4. John Campbell

      farmer

      In reply to Mark Pollock

      After 10 years of drought, increasingly harsher water restrictions and dams either empty or at record lows I guess the Victorian government at the time, for example, was becoming increasingly concerned about water supplies especially as there was not enough to last all that longer.

      I suppose, unlike you, they didn't have an old man to consult, and I think it rather remiss of you to have not offered his 'expert' advice to them after all it could have saved them billions and a lot of worry. Unfortunately I know of no-one who can accurately predict the weather and I imagine the Victorian government didn't either so those chose to be prudent rather than risk a calamity. Incidentally I don't think predictions from climate change came into their calculations.

      By the way perhaps you would like to invest in a company I thought of starting 'hindsight investments' or at least offer the services of your 'old man'.

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  9. David Menere

    part-time contractor

    There's a very good reason why 'climate is marginal in the discourse of disaster recording'. The connection between climate change and any particular weather event is probabilistic, and the public in general seem unable to handle probability (even though gambling odds seem to present no problems).

    Probability and risk assessment get processed in a very subjective manner- witness the public's love affair with 'stranger danger', despite the overwhelming evidence that the greatest threat comes…

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      Couldn't agree more, Tyson, but how do you do so and, more importantly, how do you get community support, against the awful background noise and general throwing-sand-in-eyes?

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