Climate change is worsening drought in eastern Australia and contributing to the woes of the Murray-Darling river system. However, only about one in 20 news stories about drought mention climate change.
An analysis of media coverage of the drought was prepared for Guardian Australia by Streem, a media monitoring company. The analysis looked at coverage of the drought from October 2017 on TV, radio, online and in print. Each story was scored for occurrence of key phrases [more detail about the methods below].
Overall, the media was more likely to mention financial aid or aid funding (7.6%) in stories than climate change (5.8%). Since Scott Morrison became Prime Minister, he was more likely to be mentioned in a story (6.4%) than climate change.
The media least likely to include climate change in their stories were radio (2.5%) and television (2.6%), with commercial stations being particularly few. Channel Nine only mentioned climate change in 0.7% of its drought reporting, and Channel Seven only 1.3%.
The breakdown by publisher for online and print publications shows a breakdown along broadsheet and tabloid lines, as well as by publisher, with the newspaper titles of Guardian Australia and Nine being much higher than News Corp:
Guardian Australia had the highest score, at 38%.
Although the effect of climate change on rainfall in Australia is complex, there are some areas where the trend is lower rainfall each year. According to a report published by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, the southern part of the Murray-Darling Basin receives less rain each year, and this change has been attributed to climate change.
The influence of climate change on temperature is relatively simpler. Since 1910, Australia has warmed by an average of 1 degree. According to Andrew King, a climatologist at the University of Melbourne, climate change is making droughts worse.
“In general, climate change exacerbates drought, mainly because in a warmer world we experience more evaporation from the surface, and we expect that to continue in the future,” he says.
“So when it rains, more of that water is likely to be lost to the atmosphere through evaporation than before human-caused climate change.”
This increased evaporation makes droughts more severe, as it reduces soil moisture available to plants, and also reduces water flow in river systems that people depend on for irrigation and drinking water, as well as reduction of water available to river and wetland ecosystems.
David Holmes is the director of the Center for Climate Change Communication Research at Monash University and has conducted similar studies of media coverage.
Holmes says coverage of extreme weather patterns tends to be overtaken by several common narratives that push climate change out of the story.
“The first is the ‘triumph over tragedy’ story, which is about how people do things hard, but they are a resilient group and find ways to overcome adversity,” he says.
“The second most dominant narrative is the ‘unstoppable power of nature’, so we are at the mercy of natural forces. With the drought, it ties into a narrative where there has always been a changing climate and droughts , so let’s not try to make it something unique, just try to figure out how to adapt.
Holmes says these and other accounts often push climate change out of the analysis and can naturalize or bury the amplifying effects of climate change in extreme weather events.
On whether the media should make the link between extreme weather events and climate change more frequently, Holmes suggests that people should be informed by science whenever possible.
“Find the experts who deal with drought and allow scientists to make the connection,” he suggests.
“The best time to talk about [climate change] it’s during extreme weather events because people want to know what’s going on.
Media coverage analysis combined the following search term “Drought AND (Australia OR Australia OR “New South Wales” OR Victoria OR Queensland OR Tasmania OR “South Australia” OR “Northern Territory” OR “Australia West” OR NT OR SA OR WA OR NSW OR ACT)” with other expressions: “climate change”, emissions, “climate change” OR emissions, “rainfall pattern”, “drought” OR “financial assistance”, livestock OR cattle OR sheep, “Scott Morrison”, “Michel McCormack”.
It is quite possible that some stories are not about the current drought, but instead use the term in a more general sense (e.g. human drought).
Coverage is from October 2017.