Controversy instead of concreteness – missed opportunities for climate communication in Australia

Franzisca Weder studied journalism and is an associate professor for communication and media studies at the University of Klagenfurt. She teaches, researches and publishes in the areas of organizational communication, PR, sustainability and environmental communication. She was visiting professor in Alabama, Waikato (New Zealand), Eichstätt-Ingolstadt and Ilmenau, among others. She is chairwoman of the Austrian Society for Communication Science (ÖGK) and Vice-President of the International Environmental Communication Association (IECA). In the fall of 2019, Weder moved to Australia with her husband and four children to do research and teach at the University of Queensland in Brisbane.

We have been living in Australia for a good year and a half now – my husband, four boys and me. Growing up in a moderate, Central European climate, spoiled by the green and water-rich southern Germany and Austria, was nature and our relationship to it, that is, our cultural or ‘Eco-cultural’ identity, so far hardly an issue for us. But here you are forced to deal with dry heat as well as enormous humidity. When the devastating forest fires raged and clouds of smoke swept across the continent a year ago, we came across poor air quality with our noses. Because of the strict fire ban Candles weren’t even allowed on our terrace. At times the lack of water was so bad that even the usual egg or noodle quenching was no longer necessary.

We humans react to nature, to the state of the air and the soil, but also to obviously scarce resources such as water; we react to nature more than we use, use or even exploit it. This creates two perspectives: From one perspective, we humans are victims of nature, in this case the heat, drought and fires as a natural disaster; from the other perspective, nature is the victim of our human actions. But which narrative dominates media coverage? And which narrative guides us internally in our encounter and dealings with nature?

January 2020: Great fire in the Orroral Valley of Australia, as seen from Tuggeranong; Photo: Nick D./Wikimedia Commons

In the media coverage of the bushfires, both nationally and internationally, both perspectives were found – each with strong images: the charred kangaroo, trapped in the pasture fence, stands for the animal world and nature as Victim, the fireman in front of the wall of flames as a sign for the struggle Man versus nature, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who was previously little known at least in the rest of the world, is the personification of the capitalist Exploitation of nature. Here again, nature is the victim. The pictures are big, the discourses and arguments are big and global.

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Discourse ramifications or actual diversity of opinion?

But this is really a public discourse, one with the little-known word agonistisch the discussion described – that is, an equal coexistence and coexistence of different points of view? A meaningful communication process? How much space does the discourse about nature get as Victim human action in the media? Who are the dominant, loud and who are the quiet voices here? Who offers us possible alternative perspectives?

Movements like #FridaysForFuture and above all Extinction Rebellion (which are more important in Australia than FFF or even the Scientists-for-Future) still play a rather subordinate role in public discourse. And when their voices can be heard in the media, they are absorbed by the overarching antagonism of ‘climate researchers versus climate change deniers’. Rather, the debate revolves around the fact that climate change is supposedly ‘controversial’, around ‘alarmism’ (a term widely used in Australia) and around “Climate hysteria” (the “unword of the year” 2019 in Germany), – a discussion, which is continued and established in the media of the Murdoch Group in particular.

Indeed, there is little room in the Australian media world for the constructive potential of conflict. Little space for references to individual living environments or for the possibility of changes in action. Little room for different examples of the individual relationship to nature, the personal eco-cultural identity.

Transformation through problematization in your own living room

As a sociologist and communication scientist, I represent theories that describe dissent and differing opinions as necessary to stimulate social transformation processes. This includes the work of Chantal Mouffe (2005), or Ernesto Laclau (2005). Derived from this means agonistic communicationthat one actual public debate it takes place that the difference between different perspectives is understood and respected by both sides of the debate. I therefore see a profound and understandable public problematization as a necessary process of contestation, of dealing with different arguments, as stimulation of new and opposing opinions. This includes constant testing, but also legitimizing certain – especially hegemonic – arguments and points of view.

In such a constellation the conflict would be Extinction Rebellion A constructive discourse against climate change deniers. But where is the relationship to individual action, to my individual world, to my struggles for less meat consumption in – with the exception of me – a male household, my half hour cleaning steel straws after a round of strawberry and banana milk?

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Problematisation is also a key concept in Foucault’s work and means questioning, i.e. questioning established structures and cultural patterns, of questioning and challenging what has hitherto been ‘normal’ and examining it. This turns problematization into a performative process, a process that underlies change and transformation. From a communication science perspective this problematization happens in the smallest of conversations, in the stories of everyday life.

Understand sustainability when chatting with the neighbor

And yes: A new relationship with nature and an understanding of what sustainability can be in Australia, that arises for us above all in the everyday conversations when the boys are delivered to kindergarten, at the supermarket checkout or when talking over the fence with the neighbor, whose brother hit the beach in front of the bush fires Mallacoota fled.

It arises at the party with the neighbors from Scotland and Wales, with whom we discuss very simple matters: As nice as six weeks of vacation in the Australian summer are – larger undertakings are hardly possible, it’s just too hot. Camping is not possible again until March or April; Even our redhead can stay on the beach for more than two hours.

Young kangaroo rescued from 2020 Australian bushfires; Photo: Marcio Waismann/iStock

Especially the little stories, the narratives with which we give meaning to the world and our own life, somehow always have a relation to the environment in Australia, to dealing with nature. In this way, especially in these stories, in these narratives, sustainability can become a moral compass.

Unused potential of local and free papers

That is why local media, as well as free newspapers or local newspapers, have a potential that, in my first impression, they still use too little. In none of the community or district newspapers that have washed up my mailbox I have so far even a word about sustainability, Environmental Care or read strategies for dealing with climate change. But it is precisely with the complex, unwieldy and meanwhile ‘over-moralized’ word sustainability that the ‘rabbit breeder’ is needed, who gives me his perspective on climatic changes, on ‘organic food’ and the appreciation of living beings. Do we need more subjectively shaped narratives, a jigsaw puzzle of small-scale stories that turns sustainability from an abstract sociopolitical concept into a guiding value for individual and above all critical thinking. But that would require a critical and definitely different revolutionary journalism, one strong local journalism.

This is confirmed not least by studies by a team at my former home university in Klagenfurt, which See the potential of local journalism, especially in finding topics and overcoming large, global narratives and antagonisms. The dispute between neighbors who do not adhere to the city’s irrigation guidelines is more exciting for most than the usually incomprehensibly complex connections between climate goals, a corresponding political strategy and business interests. The social media presence of a local newspaper also has particular potential. “From digital learning“Above all, that means participation, involving readers, having topic requests sent to them, drawing attention to grievances, local problems, cases and examples and then persistently pursuing them.

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Australia – a perfect research laboratory for climate communication

What used to happen through letters to the editor now has a new dimension through Facebook, for example. So the audience turns to the Sunraysia Daily, a local newspaper in the Australian state of Victoria, directly to the newspaper via Facebook and reports on small examples of the climatic changes, the handling of official restrictions on water consumption, the bush fires – but success stories from the Community Garden a theme. Journalists ask questions, readers participate directly in the journalistic work. And thus different than in one local or hyper-local blog. In this way, the Local newspaper to be part of the community and the community is part of the process of setting topics as well as creating meaning in people’s everyday lives. Audience loyalty, or neighborhood communication.

Weeks of heat waves, infernal fires, immediately afterwards heavy rain, floods, here in Brisbane an incredibly high level of humidity – that apocalyptic Australia – and we are right in the middle. From my personal perspective, I am now experiencing the climate crisis very personally, directly, ‚in your face‘. From a communication science perspective, Australia has become a perfect ‘research laboratory’ for the borders but also the possibilities of new forms of climate change reporting and sustainability communication. And also for a new awareness of one’s own individual encounter and dealing with nature. Australia is the Country in emergency. Communication of the numerous possibilities for changing behavior would be all the more important here.

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