Can TV affect our attitudes to climate change and carbon emissions?

Article by Craig Mathieson /
The Sydney Morning Herald /
August 5, 2020 /
Click here to view original /

When Craig Reucassel first contemplated making a docuseries for the ABC about the battle to avert climate change’s damage, he knew the path he wanted to avoid. “I didn’t want to do another show that scared the living hell out of the audience,” says the broadcaster and linchpin member of The Chaser’s satirical squad. Existential fear would, literally, make people turn off. Instead, Reucassel wanted to make appreciable change feel within reach.

“One of the things we know is that if a task feels too great and overwhelming, then people are more likely to turn away,” Reucassel says. “A section of the community is really anxious about climate change and want to act, another part doesn’t think it’s a problem yet, but will be one day. You have to figure out how to pitch a show broadcast to everyone to people with all these different sensibilities.”

The result is a skilful balancing act. In the first episode alone of Fight for Planet A: Our Climate Challenge, Reucassel provides a visual representation of individual Australia’s carbon footage, tweaks the corporate gas giants underwriting the nation’s emissions, consults experts, and commissions practical experiments with a cross-section of households. He’s blunt about the looming risk, optimistic when pitching initiatives, and close to tears watching teenagers march at a climate change rally. The 43-year-old is a model of persuasiveness.

“I’m not expecting it to solve anything, but it can add knowledge to the conversation. Hopefully people can become aware of what they can do and be more engaged,” Reucassel says. “With climate change we have the solutions, we can make a massive difference, and that makes me optimistic, but not doing that for years on end is then frustrating.”

Reucassel has experience with trying to galvanise viewers, having cut through convention with two seasons of War on Waste, the ABC docuseries that dug into Australia’s waste output and how it could be reduced. But he’s clear that he doesn’t view his role as one of advocacy.

“I view it as an exploration that can lead to understanding. As an example, with War on Waste if I was merely an advocate I never would have put GPS [trackers] in plastic bags to see where they ended up,” Reucassel says. “I would have just said, ‘Hey guys, this is what you should do with your plastic bags’.

“With this [series] there’s a food episode and I’m sure some people will get annoyed that I didn’t just say become a vegetarian, but I’m looking for answers for everyone and some people won’t do that,” he says. “Instead we looked at the carbon footprints for different types of meats, and their alternatives.”

Television, more than ever, looms large in our lives. But its ability to motivate change can vary, even as it allows for a plethora of approaches. Audiences might be alarmed, or even disgusted, by what they’re shown, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee they’ll make concrete changes to their own beliefs or behaviour. And there’s never a unified response.

“For some people the idea that a show comes from a political position is a turn-off, but it’s also attractive to others,” says Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a lecturer in politics and art at the University of Melbourne. “What comes up in research around TV as an educative medium is the question of whether you’re watching something you’d watch anyway and would enjoy – and getting a little education on the side – or is this school gussied up as entertainment?”

Rosewarne points to HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver as the best take on the “spoon full of sugar” approach: a finely honed half hour of satirical commentary that is delightfully witty and accessible even as it provides a deep dive into issues normally examined at such depth in policy papers or scholarly articles.

“That’s a very good example of how you can strike a problem between education and entertainment,” Rosewarne says. “Lots of shows fail dismally, but it can be done.”

For Craig Reucassel, the current incentive to try and galvanise viewers is that he feels War on Waste had a successful impact. At first the tangible effects were at an individual level, such as an embrace of reusable coffee cups. But then Reucassel heard from councils that people were contacting them about recycling, so they started making changes. The momentum filtered upwards, eventually reaching the federal government, which “brought in some really positive policies on the plastic front”.

He’s hoping that Fight for Planet A, with its Chaser-ready stunts and cheerfully impertinent practical exercises, can reach the same unexpected audience as War on Waste: Australia’s adolescents. After it debuted, Reucassel found himself getting bailed up on the street by school students keen to pass on feedback about their own recycling actions.

War on Waste became a kind of family show, and that is quite powerful when parents and kids can watch something together and then talk about the issues,” Reucassel says. “That rarely happens with TV – my kids normally go off and watch YouTube in their rooms.

“There aren’t many shows that promote discussion, and it’s interesting that I sat down with my three teenage boys and we all watched Shaun Micallef’s on the Sauce together,” he adds. “That’s where TV can be strong. It still has that place in the lounge-room that can be really powerful.”