South Asia

  • South Asia Analysis: Climate communication key to survival

    Nalaka Gunawardene

    23/04/14

Speed read

  • Communication is a key component to effective climate response

  • Journalists need to move beyond reporting heat waves and ice melts

  • A balance can be struck between alarmism and complacence

It is vitally important to capture climate reality and share it widely through effective communication, says Nalaka Gunawardene.

As climate change impacts are felt more widely, the imperative for action is greater than ever. Telling the climate story in accurate and accessible ways should be an essential part of climate response.

That response is currently organised around two ‘planks’: mitigation and adaptation. Climate communication can be the ‘third plank’ that strengthens the first two.

Encouragingly, more journalists, broadcasters, researchers and advocacy groups across South Asia are taking up this challenge. They urgently need more media and public spaces — as well as greater resources — to sustain public engagement.

The message is becoming clearer. In March, the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report cautioned that South Asia, home to 44 per cent of the developing world's poor [1], will be the region most impacted by global warming. We can expect more extreme weather events such as floods and droughts [2]; and must learn to brace up to rising shortages of food and water.  

Even as they participate in global climate talks under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, South Asian governments have been preparing national climate policies and adaptation strategies.

Some have been front-runners at the global level too. For example, the Maldives has long campaigned on the special vulnerability of small island states. And in 2010, Nepal became the first country in the world to develop adaptation plans at the local level. [3]

Technical and policy-level responses are necessary, but not sufficient. The success of mitigation and adaptation measures depends on everybody’s informed participation.
 

Story telling

To be effective, climate communication in South Asia needs to strike a balance between alarmism and complacence. We have to place climate concerns within wider development and social justice debates. We must also localise and personalise as much as possible.

M. Sanjayan, vice-president of development and communications strategy at Conservation International, a leading advocacy group, says environmentalists and scientists have failed to build sufficient urgency for action on climate change. He feels we need new communication approaches.

The Lankan-born science communicator wrote last year: “By focusing on strong narratives about people’s lives in the present rather than the future; by keeping stories local and action-oriented (solvable); and by harnessing the power of narrative and emotion, we have a better chance to build widespread public support for solutions.” [4]

Journalists — trained to gather, process and present information and opinions — have the necessary skills for this task. But they need to rise above the typical news agenda preoccupied with the ‘now’, ‘here’ and the unusual.

News coverage on climate is often focused on topics like temperature rises, ice melts, carbon markets and emission reductions. Seasoned climate reporters also tackle issues of equity, right to emit, and ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ for the global North and South.

Vital as these elements are, they only make up part of the bigger picture. There are a myriad other facets to climate change and how people cope. Often, policy makers and scientists struggle to connect between the micro and the macro. Journalists can help bridge this gap.
 

Micro-Macro links

For the past two years, a group of South Asian journalists has tried to see beyond headlines and national borders to document how climate change is affecting their region’s diverse ecosystems, landscapes and people. As part of a two-year project managed by Panos South Asia, a total of 49 South Asia Climate Change Award (SACCA) media fellows were competitively selected from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Using funding from the Climate and Development Knowledge Network, they were given access to experts, taken to the field, and also supported with grants to research local as well as trans-boundary stories. The resulting media products, appearing in their own outlets, have brought up many fresh angles and insights. [5]

The stories ranged from drought and hailstorms in India's western state of Maharashtra to new scientific findings on how dust and soot are causing the Himalayas to melt faster [6], to why the system of rice intensification has not caught on in Pakistan [7].

As a trainer and mentor for some SACCA media fellows, I have been impressed by their mix of zeal, diligence and commitment to tackle a topic that keeps growing in scale and complexity. Their journalistic skills and professional scepticism are invaluable assets as South Asian policy makers and societies debate the best climate responses.
 

Himalayan Challenges

Meanwhile, scientists and development professionals are also increasing direct public engagement through activities like blogging, tweeting, interactive websites and exhibitions.

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, an inter-governmental organisation that studies the Hindu-Kush Himalayas, recently collaborated with GlacierWorks, an interactive website that archives hundreds of historical and current photographs,[8] to create an exhibition named Climate+Change. It is a platform to share knowledge and stories about ecological and sociological changes in the Hindu-Kush Himalayan region – which stores more snow and ice than anywhere else in the world outside the polar regions (hence called ‘The Third Pole’). [9]

The exhibition was on display in Kathmandu, Nepal, from mid-December 2013 to mid-April 2014. I hope it travels to other locations. What made it special was the rich mix of images, testimonies and objects showing both problems and solutions.

Indeed, much is happening outside the long-drawn-out climate talks. As Dipak Gyawali, former water minister of Nepal, said in 2009: “People are not sitting around waiting for an agreement... Millions are voting with their feet everyday at the grassroots level, reacting with civic science and traditional knowledge.” [10]

We need more journalists and science communicators to capture that climate reality and share it around.
 
Nalaka Gunawardene is a Colombo-based science writer and journalist who has covered climate stories since the late 1980s. He is also a trustee of SciDev.Net. The views in this column are his own.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South Asia desk.