We have the vaccine for climate disinformation – let’s use it

Exposing people to likely disinformation campaigns about bushfire causes will help inoculate them. JASON O’BRIEN/AAP
Australia’s recent bushfire crisis will be remembered for many things – not least, the tragic loss of life, property and landscape. But one other factor made it remarkable: the deluge of disinformation spread by climate deniers.
As climate change worsens – and with it, the bushfire risk – it’s well worth considering how to protect the public against disinformation campaigns in future fire seasons.
So how do we persuade people not to be fooled? One promising answer lies in a branch of psychology called “inoculation theory”. The logic is analogous to the way a medical vaccine works: you can prevent a virus spreading by giving lots of people a small dose.
In the case of bushfire disinformation, this means exposing, ahead of time, the myths most likely to be perpetrated by sceptics.

Bushfire bunkum

Disinformation can take many forms, including cherry-picking or distorting data, questioning of the scientific consensus by presenting fake experts, and outright fabrication.
On the issue of bushfires in Australia, there is little scientific doubt that human-caused climate change is increasing their magnitude and frequency. But spurious claims on social media and elsewhere of late sought to muddy the waters:
  • bots and trolls disseminated false arson claims which downplayed the impact of climate change on the bushfires
  • NewsCorp reported more than 180 arsonists had been arrested “in the past few months”. The figure was a gross exaggeration and distorted the real numbers
  • The misleading arson claim went viral after Donald Trump Jr, the president’s son, tweeted it. A UK government minister, Heather Wheeler, also repeated the false claim in the House of Commons
  • NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro, among others, wrongly suggested a lack of hazard reduction burning – the fault of the Greens – had caused the fires
  • Conservative commentators claimed the 2019-20 bushfires were no worse than those of the past.

Where will it go next?

Climate science clearly indicates Australia faces more dangerous fire weather conditions in the future. Despite this, organised climate denial will inevitably continue.

Research has repeatedly shown that if the public knows, ahead of time, what disinformation they are likely to encounter and why it is wrong, they are less likely to accept it as true.

This inoculation involves two elements: an explicit warning of an impending
attempt to misinform, and a refutation of the anticipated disinformation.

For example, research has shown that if people were told how the tobacco industry used fake experts to mislead the public about the health risks of smoking, they were less likely to be misled by similar strategies used to deny climate change.

It is therefore important to anticipate the next stage of disinformation about the causes of bushfire disasters. One likely strategy will be to confuse the public by exploiting the role of natural climate variability.

This tactic has been used before. When natural variability slowed global warming in the early 2000s, some falsely claimed that global warming “had stopped”.

Of course, the warming never stopped – an unexceptional natural fluctuation merely slowed the process, which subsequently resumed.

Natural climate variability may bring the occasional mild fire season in future. So let’s arm ourselves with the facts to combat the inevitable attempts to mislead.

Here are the facts

The link between human-caused climate change and extreme weather conditions is well established. But natural variability, such as El Niño and La Niña events in the Pacific Ocean may at times overshadow global warming for a few years.

The below video illustrates this. We used historical data from Adelaide to project the expected incidence of extreme heatwaves for the rest of the century, assuming a continued warming trend of 0.3℃ per decade.

The top panel shows the distribution of all 365 daily maximum temperatures for a year, with the annual average represented by the vertical red line. As the years tick over, this distribution is moving up slowly; the red line increasingly diverges from the average temperature observed before the climate started changing (the vertical black line).

The bottom panel shows the expected incidence of extreme heatwaves for each year until 2100. Each vertical line represents an intense heatwave (five consecutive days in excess of 35℃ or three days in excess of 40℃). Each heatwave amplifies the fire danger in that year.

The analysis in the video clarifies several important aspects of climate change:

  1. the number and frequency of extreme heatwaves will increase as the climate continues to warm
  2. for the next few decades at least, years with heatwaves may be followed by one or more years without one
  3. the respite will only be brief because the inexorable global warming trend makes extreme fire conditions more and more inevitable.

Looking ahead

When it comes to monster bushfire seasons, the link to climate change is undeniable. This season’s inferno is a sign of worse to come – even if it doesn’t happen every year.

Educating the public on climate science, and the tactics used by disinformers, increases the chance that “alternative facts” do not gain traction.

Hopefully, this will banish disinformation to the background of public debate, paving the way for meaningful policy solutions.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, Chair of Cognitive Psychology, University of Bristol and John Hunter, University Associate, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of TasmaniaThis article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A local view helps fight the effects of climate change on the ocean

In 2011, a marine heatwave hit the west coast of Australia leading to ten days of above average sea temperatures. The area was already known as an ocean warming “hotspot”, but this particular period was a tipping point, causing dramatic changes to the marine ecosystem. Underwater kelp forests along the coast reduced in density by 43%, with some disappearing entirely.

Kelp Forest. Image: Fastily, CCBYSA3.0

The loss of kelp resulted in an ecological shift, which led to the growth of different kinds of algae as temperate water species were replaced by subtropical and tropical species. Five years later, kelp forest recovery has still not been observed. A few days of extreme heat resulted in apparently irreversible change.

The frequency and intensity of extreme events, like marine heatwaves, are only expected to increase, and their consequences are hard to predict. But while some of these extreme events could be devastating, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Even though human-induced climate change is happening, local steps can be taken to help alleviate the impacts on our marine environments. And by focusing on a localised approach, we could make a positive difference on a global scale.

For example, in Australia, the government of Queensland spent AUS$7m on a 560 square kilometre cattle station in a bid to protect the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Site. This cattle station had been producing as much as 40% of the sediment running into the Normanby River system and ultimately the Great Barrier Reef.

Great Barrier Reef. Image: Wise Hok Wai Lum, CCBYSA 4.0

The very existence of the Great Barrier Reef and its extraordinary biodiversity ultimately depends on the health of the corals. When they are covered by sediment, their ability to photosynthesise is dramatically reduced, resulting in less healthy coral. Unhealthy reefs are less able to deal with predators and other damaging events.

In buying the cattle station the government is able to stem the sediment runoff away from the Great Barrier Reef and provide a healthier environment in which the coral can thrive. This is just one example of scientists using local knowledge successfully to inform ministers to make decisions on the local scale that alleviate the problems faced by marine ecosystems of climate change, over fishing and pollution.

To apply such processes in more places in the world, organising climate information and action must move from a global to a regional scale. Overfishing and pollution can be much more effectively dealt with by focusing on local responses.

The Pacific Islands for example, rely heavily on the tuna fish industry. But they have faced major problems of over fishing and reducing stocks – from both small vessels and industrialised ships from other countries. Only a united front would enable control over stocks and a future for the industry.

So in 1982, a collective of islands focused on the conservation and management of tuna in the pacific set up the Naura agreement. Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Naura, the federated states of Micronesia and Palau, and more recently Tokelau, all signed up to the Vessel Day Scheme for Pacific tuna, which limits the amount of days available for fishing to maintain tuna populations. In the last five years the collective has received global recognition for its sustainable management methods – and an increase in revenue from US$60m to US$360m.

Over in the Caribbean, meanwhile, Antigua has some of the most degraded coral reefs in the region. Overfishing is thought to be a main reason for this as it has reduced the amount of herbivorous fish, resulting in the proliferation of seaweed – a main competitor of the corals.

A sea change

To improve the health of the reef, marine protected areas – and specifically a “no take zone” – were created in 2014 in conjunction with the local fishermen. Within a year, this change in local management led to significant increases in the biomass of target fish species. This allowed herbivore fishes to actively graze on the seaweed biomass, enabling respite and providing recovery time for the corals.

In Fiji, mangrove trees are being planted to combat coastal erosion caused by rising sea levels and increasing storm surges. While a direct benefit to Fiji’s inhabitants against potential harm from the ocean, this action also creates a habitat and a site of refuge for many juvenile marine species that will also be affected by future climate change.

Mangrove trees, Fiji. Image: J.-M. Lebigre, CCBYSA3.0

Lessons can be learned from all of these local strategies which could be replicated in similar environments facing similar problems. But developing these initiatives will depend on our understanding of key organisms and their interactions with each other. These are some of the areas suggested by professors Daniela Schmidt and Philip Boyd, in a commentary on what ocean scientists should consider when informing policymakers.

Small island nations will feel the impact of global changes on the ocean first, so they are leading the way in adaption and mitigation techniques in retaliation to changing climates. With the additional threat of America no longer being a part of the international agreements on global warming, tackling climate change on a local and regional scale may be our only hope.

Article written by Cabot Institute member Leanne Melbourne and originally hosted on The Conversation