Australia’s farmers are finding it easier to ‘sniff out’ useful weather & climate information thanks to some funny furry friends known as the Climatedogs.
To avoid ‘barking up the wrong tree’ by focusing on the more controversial side of climate change, a small agricultural extension team in Victoria is using quirky animated sheepdogs to explain the basic science behind the key climate drivers that influence wetter or drier seasons. …which is really important to farmers.
Graeme Anderson is the ‘top dog’ leading the Climatedogs project, which is ‘fetching’ a ton of praise. He and his team at the Victoria State Government, Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport, and Resources are responsible for translating research, putting it in context so it’s useful to farmers and supporting agribusiness in the region.
Graeme graciously agreed to ‘throw me a bone’ by answering some questions about this project – and a couple of other creative endeavors his team has ‘unleashed.’
In the ‘dog-eat-dog’ world of climate communication – Climatedogs is a real ‘treat.’
Using animated sheepdogs to help farmers understand climate, that’s ‘doggone’ genius. What gave you the idea?
Our small agriculture extension team was given the opportunity to work on a climate project to boost farmer understanding and decision-making around climate change, so that meant we attended quite a few climate science seminars and conferences as we hunted through the current science and discussions. At one conference we heard a key scientist talk about the 2006 drought in our area and how it was like a “3 headed dog” because it was due to 3 key climate drivers all at the dry end of their range at the same time. At the time the scientists were explaining these key climate drivers which were behind our big droughts and wetter periods, so to us it seemed an important place to start communicating with farmers, who were astute observers of seasonal variations but not so sure about climate change.
Anyway, jokingly our team talked about how we’d never seen a 3 headed dog, but we were used to visiting farm yards where sheepdogs were running around (and I grew up on a sheep farm). We decided it made more sense that each climate driver was basically like a sheep dog, linked to the behaviour of the other dogs, but also doing their own thing. And these dogs had moods or form just like real sheepdogs, and that the bigger droughts were when most of the climatedogs were at the dry end of their range at the same time, and the bigger wets were when they teamed up at the wet end of the scale.
At the time we were speaking at farmer forums each week, and when I used the analogy of the 4 big drivers of our climate variability as like “the 4 sheep dogs that roundup our rainfall” it always drew a laugh or a smile from the crowd. So we knew the story resonated with our audience.
But these dogs were never likely to more than just a useful analogy…… until one day our department held an internal “innovation call” for small projects. On the train one day I imagined a cartoon with these sheepdogs running around chasing clouds and rainfall either towards or away from Victoria. I made a quick call to the innovation manager, she loved the idea and gave us the confidence to apply for $15000 grant to get 5 animations drawn up. Luckily we were successful and the rest is history. It’s an important lesson in bravery, as without the cover of an “innovation call” I strongly doubt we’d ever have had the conviction to spend our own project communication funds on an animated video – and we would have missed out on a wonderful engagement & education tool. Also, we had a very supportive internal communications group who helped us explain what we were doing so any possible communication risks were addressed.
It seems ‘akita’ spreading understanding about climate is to simplify the message. How did you go about it with this project?
It was important for the animations to be seen as a useful tool for staff and farm advisors – so we took their advice. It had to be:
- an accurate portrayal of the latest science, and explaining the “what we currently know” for each climate driver
- short and explained within approx. 2 minutes. Writing a sharp script is hard but well worth it.
- have some appropriate humour or quirkiness if possible, and use a good analogy if you can. Don’t be afraid to explain it in your own way, which might be different to what you have heard before. You can do this and still make sure it accurately reflects the science.
- know the audience well and use language they understand (and avoid any terms or words which are contested or have double meanings.)
It was also critical to know that the animations were to be used in context with a range of other extension activities such as face to face presentations, webinars and e-news updates that help expand from the animations into the local story on weather patterns. So while the climatedogs were simple, they sat within a program that offered the depth and details that farmers were after.
How do you get farmers to look beyond their opinions/politics related to climate change and focus on the science/data? That’s no walk in the ‘bark.’
We worked out early in the piece that farmers had a range of views and opinions on climate change. We also suspected that more facts and science wasn’t likely to change people’s world views. However, we did know that farmers loved talking about the weather and seasons, and while they were divided about climate change, all of them agreed that seasonal variability was the critical issue that they had to manage – so we started there.
Seasonal variability & climate combined – We realized that it was no use badgering farmers about climate change if they didn’t already understand the key climate drivers that were behind our good old fashioned seasonal variability. So we decided to focus and explaining the basic science of these key climate drivers, and how and when they can influence our wetter or drier seasons. We found that farmers really loved that approach. They are astute observers of weather patterns, and when we could explain in farming language how each of these climate drivers operated- it helped fill in some missing parts of their own understanding of how climate and seasonal variability for their district worked.
Once we’d discussed the drivers of good old fashioned seasonal variability, then we could add some further context about recent trends or changes that scientists had linked to effects of climate change (e.g. warming trends, increasing intensity of subtropical ridge in “Ridgy”) etc. We found that even farmers who didn’t “believe” in climate change, were happy to attend these sessions which was framed as explaining all about the “drivers of our seasonal variability, wet and dry years, what’s normal, what isn’t? and what’s next?”
Upscaling & connecting local seasons to global drivers – We called these “Upscaling” sessions with farmers, where my extension colleague Dale Grey would locate the last 100 years of local rainfall data for a district, and then we’d look at the long term variability. Farmers have great memories of specific seasons that were wetter or drier, and when we could retrace these and also show what the climatedogs were doing to influence past seasons it helped connect the local seasonal record to these global scale climate drivers that occur far away. This was a critical step. Once farmers could see that ENSO or IOD had affected their past seasons, their next question was “what’s it doing this year then?”, and that’s where farmers then subscribed to our monthly e-news seasonal climate updates which provided regular commentary on what the key climate drivers and model forecasts were saying. This is valuable, as climate change will still only occur one season at a time, so combining seasonal forecasting in with the longer term climate story was just something we saw as natural, and it’s what farmers preferred.
Invited into trusted networks – Since 2008 when we started on our first climate extension project, we’ve delivered over 1200 face to face sessions with farmers & advisors, with over 30,000 people. All of these sessions have been via ‘invitation’, we haven’t had to organise or arrange any of these events. We just get invited to come and deliver an informative and entertaining session on climate and weather. There’s no doubt that the climatedog animations make up a key part of why people like the sessions, but it’s also about the in depth explanations that uses local historical data to show how the climatedogs affects the seasons in each district. People want to know about their local weather patterns and seasons… so that’s the critical need for delivering extension that is specific to each district where people live. Big generalised messages sent out from the capital cities about climate just won’t do it for many farmers. The climatedog animations do a great job on part of the story, but without all the other extension activities and face to face local sessions they would be entertaining but less effective at changing knowledge.
Has knowledge improved? We have been very pleased with how farmers have been improving their climate literacy. In 2009 only 68% & 37% of Victorian farmers thought that ENSO & IOD had an influence on their local spring seasonal rainfall. In 2011 this had lifted to 81% (ENSO) and 50% (IOD) respectively, and a 2014 survey of our e-news subscribers showed the figures for both was now above 90%. This means an increasing number of farmers understand what drives their seasonal rainfall, and they are then tuning into the latest climate updates to seek insights into how the current season might unfold. So it’s improving the utilization of the existing science effort.
In the end, do farmers use this improved knowledge to make their decisions? In our most recent farmer survey, 90% of farmers said that our seasonal updates have improved how they manage seasonal risk.
Trusted messengers – A key element of our communications was that the flow of information needs to come to farmers via the “trusted” advisors and voices that they are familiar with. So we had a strong focus on working closely with farm advisors (mainly private advisors, some dept/agency), as it’s both the advisors and farmers who are needing to understand their local climate and weather patterns so that they can adapt and adjust their businesses to respond as required down the track (with both short-term seasonal decisions through to longer term strategic adaptations).
Solutions focus – Also, farmers are very smart and practical people, and what they like best is hearing about a problem issue, and then spending most of their time working on solutions. Where many climate efforts fail is they spend too much focus on just the problem, which is akin to poking people with a stick and wondering why they are getting cranky. So our best engagements with farmers are where we show the climatedogs and discuss local rainfall histories and drivers of variability, tools for forecasting etc. and then allow 70% of the time to be spent on all the things farmers can do to better manage the seasonal variability and changes that are occurring. Farmers prefer the focus on solutions and things that are under their control – just like the rest of us – It’s more fun, more practical and more useful!
How did you decide what climate features to focus on? And what steps did you go through to get the segments produced?
Scientists with Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) and CSIRO were very generous with their time to help us get up to speed. And a few of us attended a number of climate conferences, often being the odd ones out as nonclimate scientists (agriculture extension people were usually at other events, but we were lucky as we had a specific climate extension project to work on).
There was key work coming out of the Southeast Australia Climate Initiative (SEACI) which pointed towards four key climate drivers which were behind our wetter or drier seasons in southeast Australia. We live at the crossroads of where these 4 drivers intersect. The first two drivers are largely responsible for the amounts of tropical moisture available to make rain in our winter and spring seasons, namely:
- ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation) Dog named ENSO (See ENSO’s web page) – the key Pacific Ocean driver which affects seasonal variability in eastern Australia. Basically provides key source of tropical moisture for rainmaking down in Victoria. (El Nino years usually drier, La Nina wetter)
- Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) Dog named INDY (See INDY’s web page) – also key source of tropical moisture for rainmaking in Victoria, especially in our winter and spring periods. The IOD has wetter and drier phases and often teams up with ENSO.
The next two climate drivers are more around providing the essential “triggers” for turning moist tropical air from ENSO & INDY into rainfall:
- Sub-Tropical Ridge (STR) Dog name RIDGY (See RIDGY’s web page) – the driver that sits behind the high-pressure patterns along southern Australia. Seasons with lots of high pressures means fewer rainfall events and drier years. RIDGY also has a climate change signature and as temperatures rise is getting stronger.
- Southern Annular Mode (SAM) Dog name SAM (See SAM’s Web page) – the climate driver behind the strong westerly belts of winds in the southern ocean that deliver regular cold fronts across southern Australia. These cold fronts are key triggers for rain events. RIDGY & SAM battle each season to determine if we have more trigger and ran events or less. SAM also has a climate change signal and is shifting polewards, which means cold fronts slip to the south of Victoria more often than they used to.
The key scientists at our Bureau of Meteorology allowed us to ask lots of silly questions, and then it was back to us to start crafting a storyline for each of the climatedogs. I recall when we first approached BoM with the dogs idea they were a bit sceptical (nervous about what we’d do with their great science) about these extension people talking about sheepdogs, but to their great credit they helped us with our scripts and gave their time for free to make sure the scripts were accurate to the science.
Script – We put the story in our own language. Try to explain the essence of the science story in 90 seconds. Then we’d give it to the scientists to correct any misunderstandings. We talk very differently, but what we were seeking is their answer as “that’s essentially correct, even if it’s not how I would say it”.
The script would explain what it is, how the driver works and also include any recent science if it’s changing. We noted that much science discussion is around what might be happening… so we just included “what we know and what scientists agree on”. Then we left the discussions to the face to face sessions. The script had to be factual – “this is what we know”.
Then we gave the scripts to our fabulous animator, Clem Stamation, who arranged voiceovers and then drafted up the imagery. We’d check back with the BoM scientists to also make sure any imagery was consistent with the science.
Judgement day – It came when we popped into the BoM offices to show the draft animations. Their communications manager rounded up about 30 scientists so we were very nervous to see their response to these unusual cartoons about their science! We were both surprised and relieved when the animations received bursts of spontaneous applause from the scientists (the communications manager saying this doesn’t happen very often!). I recall one person saying “I’ve been working here for 5 years and that’s the first time someone’s been able to explain what the southern annular mode actually is!” Another said that “I was initially a bit sceptical, but somehow you’ve managed to tell the story in a way that still reflects the science”. This was high praise and made our day!
From there we received great support from the climate scientists and they began the process of sharing and using them in wider education efforts.
This project is ‘pawsitively’ fun. What kind of response has the project received from farmers, policymakers, teachers, the public, etc.?
It’s been terrific, well beyond our expectations. Our original aim was to have a useful animation tool that our staff and agriculture advisors, climate communicators & educators could use in their sessions with Victoria’s farmers to help explain key drivers of our climate and seasons, as well as explaining the latest science. The true litmus test for us was whether our extension team would be comfortable and happy to show it to their farmers. This is a great testing ground, as no agriculture advisor want to run the risk of looking silly or blowing their own credibility with their farmers…. so you’ll only show animations or use tools that pass this test. The draft animations were greatly improved by getting feedback from our staff.
So, when it became time to publish the animations we were happy that they would get used. But we were blown away by the response, I think we had something like 50,000 viewings in the first 10 months! And since then the animations have been loaded or copied on a few other sites to help share the approach and they are still being used in education sessions at a variety of levels. While our target was farmers, they are being used in schools. (I originally gave them a test run at my 11 year old daughter’s school and her class had great fun with them.) They’re also being used as good examples of communicating complex science.
We were fortunate to pick up some awards along the way as well. It gave us insights into better ways of packaging up complex science into bite size pieces for our specific audience, and also that no idea was too silly. I think is science we tend to be very conservative and play it safe.
Humour was also a key element, and wherever we could find a spot for a dash of humor we added it in. Context is everything with humor, so we needed to be careful as some of the climate change science can be seen as threatening to farmers, but we had tested the story many times face to face with farmers and were confident we had the right balance. The animator we engaged to do the work (Clem Stamation) was brilliant, and he brought a great sense of humor as well as bringing the dogs to life with their own look and character.
We also learned that the animations weren’t perfect and that we could definitely improve them to better reflect gender balance (the first few animations just had blokes), and also the issue of stereotypes was raised, where some scientists didn’t like being portrayed in white lab coats and also some farmers didn’t like being shown wearing overalls (but everyone loved the dogs!).
- Do you have to expand this concept into other areas of science or farming? It would be a sad ‘tail’ if you didn’t.
The climatedogs showed us the value of packaging science up into bite size bits, with a tight script, use an analogy and some humor to help. We’ve recently used this approach to modernize our seasonal climate updates & outlook e-newsletter “The Break” where we produce a version suitable for youtube. The aim in the development space is to develop tools that the broader extension community can then use in discussions with farmers.
Now our advisors and farmers can get a 3-5 minute summary of recent rainfall, seasonal conditions, and rainfall outlooks from various climate model forecasts etc. It’s basically a slideshow but with key bits thrown into 3 minutes. Each episode we finish with something a bit quirky, basically just to repeat the key take home message but using an analogy or skit to get it across. In the June 2015 update we shot last week, we used a game show host style to explain the current El Nino and what it might mean for Victoria. Dale Grey, our seasonal risk agronomist does a great job producing The Break newsletter, and we’re having fun scripting and shooting these new short videos. We get great feedback from farmers & advisors, and the take home message gets to many more people than we could get to via face to face presentations.
Here’s the latest edition…….The Very Fast Break
Also, we used the scripting process to draft out a short video for use in a new project which is training fertilizer advisors on greenhouse gas emissions. A key question many have is how can carbon dioxide be a bad thing when our plants love the stuff. So we made up another analogy to explain the physics behind greenhouse gasses in this training video:
…release the hounds!
Climatedogs Homepage (with video links)
Climatedogs on Twitter (where you can also reach Graeme)
Climate Specialist, Agriculture
Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport & Resources