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About the project

Filling the void? Researching young people’s perspectives on climate change in the  Maranoa and Districts region 

Samid Suliman, Kasun Ubayasiri, Bridget Backhaus and Miriam Deprez  

Way out west 

 

Driving west on the Warrego Highway, you would be forgiven if you thought that communities in Western Queensland was embracing adaptation to the changing climate. Between Toowoomba and Miles, new wind farms and solar farms could be spied from the highway, amidst the farmland and cattle country. Clearly, farmers and energy companies are investing in renewable technologies, taking advantage of abundant wind and sunshine to contribute to the sustainability of the energy system (and to make a little money, no doubt). Driving into Roma, however, this impression is immediately reversed. Passing the cattle saleyards and the Big Rig tourism park towards the centre of town, the impression that climate adaptation is front of mind for people in the Maranoa and Districts region is quickly expunged. The industries that have been most responsible for carbon emissions globally - transportation, fossil fuels, livestock and mining - remain very much central to the economic and social fabric of this town.  

 

Current research suggests that climate change will impact regional and rural Queensland in ways that will impact the habitability and viability of inland settlements. Across the country, we are already seeing the impacts of climate change in the proliferation of climate-induced emergencies (such as fires and floods) and slower-moving disasters (such as droughts and changing rainfall pattens). These are, in turn, starting to impact the economic viability - and the habitability -  of regional and rural settlements across Australia. 

 

The Queensland Government has forecasted that communities across the Maranoa and Districts region will experience higher temperatures, hotter and more frequent days, fewer frogs, harsher fire conditions, and less rainfall in winter and spring. According to the Climate Council, the Maranoa and Districts region (which spans south-western Queensland) includes the third most ‘at risk’ federal electorate, the Division of Maranoa. Such a risk profile is driven by increased vulnerability of properties across the region to bushfires and riverine flooding. For instance, the town of St George - an important centre for cotton-growing and other primary industries - is predicted bo be 70 per cent uninsurable by 2030. “Of a total of 132,078 total properties” across the region, according to the Green Review, “14.8 per cent are at high risk of extreme weather events. 13.9 per cent are at high risk of riverine flooding, and 0.6 per cent are at risk of bushfires”.  

 

Such actuarial precarity casts a long shadow over the future of the Maranoa and Districts region, as does the lived experience of increased seasonal rainfall, riverine flooding and frequency of extreme weather events. For instance, in 2022 the Balonne and Mooney Rivers rose after intense rainfalls across the catchment region, threatening the inundation of the town and cutting off vital access roads to remote settlements (such as the town of Dirranbandi, which is close to the largest cotton-producing property in the southern hemisphere, Cubbie Station). Only a decade or so earlier, communities across the region - including Goondiwindi, Charleville and Roma - experienced major flooding after extreme and prolonged rainfall. According to the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience, “[a]pproximately 50 per cent of homes experienced some form of inundation”.  

 

The increased frequency and intensity of such events, associated with climate change, are creating environmental, economic and existential insecurity for communities across the Maranoa and Districts region. Not only do the physical and environmental risks posed by climate change impact the long-term viability of human settlements, the necessity of adaptation and transformation of regional economies will also raise challenges with no simple solutions. Towns across the region that have long relied on water-intensive and carbon emitting industries (such as cotton, grazing, agriculture, mining and oil and gas) may be deprived of such an economic base in just a few decades. Moreover, new industries that have emerged in recent decades - such as natural gas production - may struggle to survive as the world moves away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy sources. In this context, people may have to move within or away from the region to ensure their own economic security. Furthermore, climate change also threatens the significant cultural history, and ongoing connection to Country, of the region’s Indigenous peoples (the Bidjara, Bigambul, Gunggari, Iman, Kooma and Mandandanji peoples, who make up approximately 10 per cent  of the total population of the Maranoa and Districts region).  

 

Such current and future impacts to Southwest Queensland are rarely discussed in national debates on climate change. When perspectives from the region are represented in metropolitan-centric media discourse, they tend to reflect the views of more prominent (and dominant) segments of society and the economy (such as property owners, agriculturalists, pastoralists, representatives of the mining industry, and so on). This is on top of the fact that regional and rural media has been on a steady decline over the past few decades, with local newsrooms being shuttered and newspapers being discontinued or moved to a digital-only format. These trends, according to former editor of WA’s Mandurah Mail Kate Hedley, “will lead to a news void that will allow misinformation, speculation, to run rife on social media”. Furthermore, given the intergenerational stakes of climate change, climate adaptation and climate justice, it is of some concern that young people’s voices are doubly absent in debates on how climate change is impacting the region, how its effects are being felt, and what ought to be done in response to it.  It is these conjoined problems - the metropolitan biases in media-based climate change discourses and the absence of young people’s perspectives on and experiences of climate change - to which this research project responds. 

 

The project  

 

In November 2022, a group of five undergraduate student researchers, three academic staff and one research assistant (and PhD student) travelled to the Maranoa and Districts region to undertake research fieldwork to discover and amplify the voices of young people on issues on climate change. The project emerged as part of a Department of Environment and Science funding scheme, under the auspices of the Griffith University Climate Action Beacon, to provide opportunities for undergraduate students to co-design and conduct novel research on climate change. The academic staff (Dr Samid Suliman, Dr Kasun Ubayasiri, Dr Bridget Backhaus and research assistant Miriam Deprez) developed a methodological framework that included two major elements. The first incorporated discourse, content and media framing analysis techniques to understand how and to what extent regional and rural young people’s experiences of and perspectives on climate change were reported in the news media (tl;dr: not very much at all). The second deployed journalism practices, including the use of interviews, vox pops, storytelling, secondary (or background) research, imaging and visualisation and content creation, to explore the research problem under investigation. Taken together, news media are conceptualised as both a research object (a field of social and political relations that privilege certain interests and experiences over others) and a research method (a space or platform through which heretofore marginalised or invisibilised stories can be told).  

 

Such an approach echoes the approach advocated by Mia Lindgren and Gail Phillips (2011), who have advocated for the conduct of research through journalism practice: 

 

Whether by capturing theory from their normally evanescent practice or by applying the techniques of journalism to other disciplines, journalists can demonstrate legitimate research outcomes from their work, over and above the concrete artefacts they produce. (Lindgren & Phillips 2011: 81) 

 

This journalism-led approach to research has proven to be extremely useful to uncover experiences that are otherwise concealed, especially when researchers have neither the time nor resources undertake extensive and lengthy bouts of fieldwork. Furthermore, the use of journalism methods in research offers benefits akin to those provided in the use of ‘rapid ethnographic assessments’ (REA), especially when undertaken in a research team setting. As Sangaramoorthy and Kroeger have suggested: 

 

REA is used to elicit rich description about the context in which things occur, and about processes, systems, motivations, and relationships. REAs often allow research teams to assess a variety of complex social and structural issues to improve programs and policies impacting marginalized and vulnerable populations. (Sangaramoorthy & Kroeger 2020: 3) 

 

What sets journalism practice apart, however, is the commitment to public-facing storytelling, whereby complex backgrounds to social, political, economic and environmental phenomena, and diverse experiences of such, are made legible and sensible to a wider public audience to serve the public interest. Undertaking such journalism practice in a team environment also allowed for something akin to ‘triangulation’ in the traditional social science parlance: the braiding together of different stories and different perspectives in a collective journalism project.  

 

The approach 

 

After the initial conceptualisation of the project, the student researchers took ownership of the research design, deciding where in the region they wanted to go, undertaking background research, identifying sources and respondents, conducting interviews, gathering media artefacts, and pitching, writing and producing their stories.  

 

We also found that journalism practice was an excellent way to achieve commonality of meaning and purpose amongst a diverse, multi-disciplinary research team. In addition to an already-diverse academic staff team (a political scientist, two journalism and communications researchers, and a photojournalist/visual politics researcher), the student researchers hailed from far and wide. Amongst our ranks were Jasmine Camp (studying Bachelor of Communications and Journalism), Arna Steed (Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Arts), Olivia Schoenauer (Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Journalism and Security Studies), Gianna Trotta (Bachelor of Social Science), and Xintong (Francesca) Yu (an international student studying her Bachelor of Business, majoring in International Hotel Management and marketing). Beyond their immediate academic fields, each member of the team also had diverse interests and life experiences. The language, practice and experience of journalism (under the in-field tutelage of the academic staff team members) gave the students common ground and a common framework to approach the task of telling stories the stories of young people’s experiences of climate change in the region.  

 

The outcome 

 

So what did we find? Surprisingly little. At least on first blush. The thing that surprised us once we hit the ground was the relative absence of young people able and willing to share their stories about climate change. In recent years, young people around the world have been leading the charge against the status quo and agitating for decisive action on climate change. Images and stories of young people such as Greta Thunberg, the Pacific Climate Warriors and everyday young people participating in climate strikes all over the world have been hyper-visible in news media for years (albeit not always positively, and often pejoratively). Regardless of the tone and tenor of the coverage, we have heard young people clamouring for decisive climate action by political leaders, and for a fair inheritance of a safe, secure and sustainable climate. And yet, we found little evidence that young people in the places we visited across the Maranoa and Districts region shared such concerns. Their voices were silent. At least to us.  

 

But this is not to say there were not stories to tell, and stories to be heard. Our student journalist-researchers explored these silences around climate change, sensitively and with due respect and regard for people and places. They changed angle, changed tack, looked for different ways to tell different stories about the ways that young people and their communities were reckoning with the changing climate. In doing so, they have produced a series of stories that allow us to glimpse the ways that young people are grappling with histories and futures that are entangled with the present-day anxieties about the region’s economy and environment as the Earth’s climate rapidly changes. 

 

Following the winding trail of the Balonne, Francesca explores different stories and relationships with the river. Speaking to the Bigambul Nation Corporation, a migrant from China, and a young boy born and raised in the Maranoa, Francesca writes about shared connections – a love of the river and the lands – and what a changing climate will mean for the river and the communities that rely on it.  

 

From the river to the farmlands, Gianna got to know the next generation of Maranoa farmers. Young people bucking the trend of moving to the city and either returning home or staying put to work on family farms. These young people are drawing on generations of farming knowledge and cutting-edge agricultural science to adapt and mitigate the growing impacts of climate change, though they don’t necessarily like to use the term.  

 

Agriculture and mining are the major industries in the Maranoa and Jasmine’s story focusses on the latter. With mining giant Santos looming large in the town of Roma, it’s hard to find spaces for discussions of alternative energy and climate change adaptation when clubs and social events are all sponsored by the town’s biggest employer. Jasmine explores the dominating role of mining in regional towns and why any transition to renewables needs to take into account the everyday realities of regional communities.  

 

The delicate nature of the phrase ‘climate change’ is a key theme in Olivia’s story. Despite growing rates of climate anxiety and an appetite for activism and action among young people, climate change is not something readily discussed in the Maranoa. Olivia explores why this is and what’s stopping young people from getting more involved.   

 

These stories illustrate how vast, remote, and unique the Maranoa region is. Spanning thousands of kilometres and seemingly a world away from southern centres of political and economic power, the isolation of the region is a key influence in the way these stories can be told and understood. Arna’s work on the project captures both the geographic and the visual experiences of the stories. Developing both the interactive map and the multimedia elements of the stories across this site, Arna has used digital media to bring the stories of the Maranoa together in a cohesive and compelling compilation of the experience.  

 

Project reflections 

 

The student researchers have not only developed and demonstrated their research skills -critically reviewing and analysing literature and media products – but they have also taken this knowledge and used it to inform their journalism practice. This project has moved from the from the theoretical to the practical: the student researchers started with their heads in the books and finished with their boots in the red dirt of the Maranoa. This approach – informed by research but embedded in practice – has led to in-depth and enriching learning experiences which simply can’t be replicated in an everyday classroom environment.  

 

For the academic team, it has been nothing short of inspiring to reflect on where the team started: a group of shy students from different degrees and backgrounds - who, as one team member put it, “had never been west of the M1”. Over the course of the project, the student researchers worked together and emerged as confident and empathetic storytellers with a far more nuanced understanding of climate change and journalism, equally at home in the university library and behind a camera in the outback. Their stories are the culmination of months of effort, we are very proud of what they have achieved.  

 

While the science of climate change may follow logical, linear models, the lived experiences do not. That is why it is of critical importance to equip young people not only with the skills to research and analyse information, but to also develop their curiosity and empathy around the experiences of others. Journalism practice represents a vital way of sharing stories and building solidarities to support collective efficacy across diverse groups. This project has given a group of young people in the city the opportunity to connect with their peers in regional Queensland. This experience and the skills they have developed along the way will serve them well into their future careers and will help to ensure that the stories of climate change don’t just come from the cities – the regions have their own stories to tell, we just need more young people ready and willing to listen.  

 

References 

 

Lindgren, M., & Phillips, G. (2011). Conceptualising journalism as research: Two paradigms. Australian Journalism Review, 33(2), 73-83. 

 

Sangaramoorthy, T., & Kroeger, K. A. (2020). Rapid ethnographic assessments: A practical approach and toolkit for collaborative community research. Routledge. 

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