UK Nepal Climate Change Film Competition: We’re toast in 3 minutes!

Tell a climate story in just 180 seconds...

Tell a climate story in just 180 seconds...

In July 2007, we had an interesting discussion on this blog on the shrinking durations of Nature and environment films and TV programmes. The moving images community is divided on this, with some purists holding out that to pack complex, nuanced messages into a few minutes is akin to dumbing everything down. Noted film-makers like Neil Curry disagreed.

I revisited this topic in August 2008, saying: “But there’s no argument of the sheer power of well produced public service announcements (PSAs) to move people with a specific, short message. Nothing can beat them for the economy of time and efficacy of delivery.”

Kathmandu to Copenhagen - in three minutes?

Kathmandu to Copenhagen - in three minutes?

The trend to make ever shorter films has been fuelled by the growth of online video, where the dominant value seems to be: less is certainly more! This is the premise, for example, of the current competition One Minute to Save the World.

In Nepal, they were more generous — and allowed three minutes. I recently came across the winners of the UK Nepal Climate Change Film Competition, where Nepali film makers were invited to “make short, effective films of up to 3 minutes on the theme of Climate Change”. The submitted films had to be original in concept, innovative and highly motivational – no restrictions were set in terms of discipline or genre. It was organised by our friends at Himal Association, better known for sustaining Film South Asia festival for a decade.

The winning films were screened at an awards ceremony in September 2009 at the Regional Climate Change Conference in Kathmandu. They will also be screened at Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival 2009 (10-14 December) and will be broadcast on television.

The winning film, Act locally think globally, was directed by Santoshi Nepal and Ishu Lama:

First runner-up, Jeopardy, is an animation directed by Shiva Sharan Koirala:

Second runner-up, 3 Cs of Climate Change, directed by Binod K Dhami and Padam Raj Paneru:

The competition attracted an impressive 124 entries. Angelo D’Silva, an educationist and media critic in Kathmandu, recently reviewed the entries in Himal Southasian special issue on climate change. He wrote: “In cash-strapped times, these contests focusing on climate change prove to be a cost-effective strategy in generating content. With no funding directed to the filmmaker for production, and prize money amounting to NPR 130,000 (USD 1700) for the three winners, the climate-change film contest is a way to make a splash on the cheap.”

He added: “While the filmmakers, all of whom were Nepali, exhibited an impressive range and quality, it was a range obscured by the selection of some fairly typical public-service-announcement-type finalists. Hopefully, however, two sets among the entries will soon see the light of day: those documenting the effects of climate change on Nepali communities, and those exploring (and exploiting) anxieties and fears about the burgeoning climate crisis.”

Read full review here.

I have only seen the three winning entries that are available online, so it would be unfair to comment on other entries. But I found the three winners predictably text-bookish. For sure, simple awareness raising is always helpful, but much more is needed – and urgently so – to deal with climate change. Film can be a powerful force for changing lifestyles, and not all of them have to be feature film length in Al Gore style.

Douglas Varchol: Secret of keeping ‘perfectly cool’ in a warming world…

Douglas Varchol (standing, extreme right) speaking at Ozone Media Roundable, 8 Oct 2009

Douglas Varchol (standing, extreme right) speaking at Ozone Media Roundable, 8 Oct 2009

With his wild hair and trendy suits, Douglas J Varchol can pass for a rock star. He is actually an accomplished independent film-maker, currently operating out of Bangkok, Thailand, covering a variety of science and environmental stories in Asia.

Last week, he participated in the Ozone Media Roundtable that TVE Asia Pacific and UNEP organised in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. After showing his latest documentary film on ozone, titled Earth Report: Perfectly Cool, which was first broadcast on BBC World News in September 2009, he talked about his experience in making the film.

Perfectly Cool is a 22 minute film looking at the challenges faced in trying to phase out a chemical called Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs for short), a coolant gas used in air conditioners across the developing world. As chemicals go, it’s a double hazard: this ozone depleting substance also contributes to climate change by acting as a greenhouse gas.

But non-specialist viewers watch broadcast television for good stories, not science lessons. The challenge for journalists and film makers is to ‘sugarcoat’ the technicalities by wrapping it up in human interest stories. Douglas recalled how he did this: combining imagination, hard work and luck.

First, here’s the official synopsis of the film which sums up the story:
Air conditioners are damaging the environment. One widely used coolant gas, HCFC, damages the ozone layer. With booming sales of domestic ACs around the world, the problem has grown in recent years, despite vigorous international efforts to reduce ozone depleting chemicals. Under the international agreement known as the Montreal Protocol, HCFC will be phased out worldwide by 2030. An ozone-friendly replacement gas – HFC – is now used in Europe, but that gas is a potent greenhouse gas — which means it contributes to global warming. However, an answer may be at hand. Earth Report travels to China, centre of the global AC industry, to investigate the cost of cool and meets the industry representatives working on a solution – and Sa DingDing, a musician with extreme views on air conditioners.

Watch the first 4 mins of Earth Report – Perfectly Cool

Humanising science stories is hard enough, and when the subject is something people can’t see or feel, it becomes harder. As I wrote a few days ago, the Ozone Layer – located between 10 and 50 kilometres above the Earth, and invisible to the naked eye – is not something tangible like cuddly animals or endangered plants. Moving ordinary people to care for something they can’t see or touch is tough, even if all life on Earth depends critically on it (the Ozone Layer absorbs most of the Sun’s harmful ultra-violet days).

Douglas had his work cut out for him. Throw into this mix the fact that the editorially independent film was being made pooling funds from six development agencies – each with their own agenda – and that the story was filmed in China where filming permission still involve a lot of paperwork, it’s a small miracle Perfectly Cool was completed. And as we saw, Douglas tells a good story without compromising accuracy or balance.

So did he keep perfectly cool during the making of this film, I asked. He revealed that there were moments of panic and despair, although in the end everything fell into place. While the editors at BBC World were satisfied with the film, some technical specialists consulted for the script had felt it was over-simplified.

Ah, I do know that feeling! When I made a film on ozone in 2006 (Return of the Ozone Layer: Are We There Yet?) it took us 18 months to finish, and went through endless revisions. The UN system seems to just love making films by committee…

With his film, Douglas faced additional hurdles. For example, he takes us inside the Gree company‘s factory producing air conditioners. In 2004, Gree became the largest AC manufacturer in the world, but they had never before allowed television cameras inside their plant. That took lots of time and effort to set up.

Sometimes, things not going according to plans actually helps. When on location, Douglas serendipitously came across elements that were not in the original story treatment but enhanced the human interest: for example, a modern day wedding where the new couple gifted reusable chop sticks to all their guests. That was good environmental conduct – but then they headed off to choose air conditioners for their new apartment…

Douglas Varchol (extreme right) makes a point during Ozone Media Roundtable

Douglas Varchol (extreme right) makes a point during Ozone Media Roundtable

Douglas paid a tribute to his Chinese researcher Lihong Shi and crew, without whose local knowledge and contacts he couldn’t have made the film.

In the end, Douglas pulls it off. Despite its seemingly esoteric and complex subject, Perfectly Cool is perfectly watchable — and not just for science buffs like myself.

Douglas, who once worked with Wired Science making science programmes for American PBS, said he set out to make a film on HCFCs that even his mom (a high school teacher) could understand. I can’t speak for her, but those of us who watched it in Chiang Mai were enthralled.

Tata Young: Singing up a storm for the Ozone Layer

Tata Young - photo by Nirmal Ghosh

Tata Young - photo by Nirmal Ghosh

“Tata Young sings up a storm for Ozone Layer.”

That was a headline in the Bangkok Post newspaper on 8 October 2009, while I was in Thailand for the Ozone Media Roundtable. My friends at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) were ecstatic.

Tata Young, 28, is a Thai-American singer, model and actress who is one of the best known performers in Thailand, with a growing following across Southeast Asia. Last week, she was among the performers at the “What on Earth!” concert in Bangkok, part of the EU Green Days event to coincide with the latest round of negotiations of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, UN-FCCC.

Tata is the latest Asian entertainment celebrity to join the climate bandwagon. Inside the UN Convention Centre in Bangkok, the climate negotiations were making slow progress. Environmental activists and campaigners were trying every trick in their books to speed things up — but governments bickered over selfish interests even as the planet heated up.

Tata’s newest album, Ready for Love, has its cover printed on recycled paper and sports a sticker that says “Protect the Ozone Layer”. Her interest in campaigning for ozone was sparked when she donated her time filming an ozone related public service announcement for UNEP last year.

The PSA is one of four that UNEP’s ozone team in Asia produced in 2008 as part of their public awareness campaign. They all draw attention to an important date that is drawing close: by or before 1 January 2010, all consumption and production of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, one of the main destroyers of the ozone layer would be phased out in all countries of the world. That is a significant achievement under the Montreal Protocol that nations of the world adopted in 1987 to save the endangered ozone layer.

The PSAs started screening in movie theatres in the Philippines earlier this year, to be followed by Thailand and other countries in the region.

Watch Tata Young’s ozone PSA for UNEP:

In June this year, talking to journalist Nirmal Ghosh, Tata Young said: “It’s important that people are aware of the little things you can do to protect our world, are aware (of ozone) and know what’s going on, especially because unlike garbage and other types of pollution, you can’t see the ozone layer.”

Read the full text on Nirmal’s blog: More Than Just Hot Air, 4 June 2009

Tata is now singing and speaking for the ozone layer on her own steam. Unlike some other UN agencies, UNEP does not have a formal goodwill ambassador programme. But she has de facto become one.

Full credit to her for this choice. After all, the Ozone Layer – located between 10 and 50 kilometres above the Earth, and invisible to the naked eye – is not something tangible like cuddly animals or endangered plants. Moving ordinary people to care for something they can’t see or touch is that much harder, even if all life on Earth depends critically on it (the Ozone Layer absorbs most of the Sun’s harmful ultra-violet days).

Tata used to hit the headlines in Thailand for some songs which were considered a little too ‘hot’ for the conservative guardians of culture. But looking at the less-than-glacial pace kept by climate change talks in Bangkok, perhaps activists should roll out Tata Young to turn on the heat…

Why don’t the greenhouse gases escape through the Ozone Hole?

Can we blame him for the confusion?

Can we blame him for the confusion?

Don’t laugh. The perception of the TV viewer in this cartoon (which first appeared a couple of years ago in the Akron Beacon Journal in Ohio, United States) is more common that you’d think. In recent years, as climate change rose up in the media’s news agenda and the public’s list of concerns, I have met a number of people – from across educational and cultural spectra – who harbour similar confusion about the two issues.

I showed this cartoon, and referred to the wide-spread confusion, in my opening remarks to the Ozone Media Roundtable, an event to engage Asian media professionals on the nexus between ozone depletion and climate change. The meeting, held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on 8 – 9 October 2009, was organised jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and TVE Asia Pacific for invited senior journalists and broadcasters from the Asia Pacific region.

Ozone layer depletion and climate change are linked in a number of ways, but ozone depletion is not a direct or major cause of climate change.

In fact, the relationship between ozone and climate is both complex and nuanced, which has prompted some experts to call it a ‘Tango in the Atmosphere’. Ozone affects climate, and climate affects ozone. The authoritative UNEP GRID Arendal website says: “Ozone depletion and climate change are two distinct problems but as they both modify global cycles, they cannot be totally separated. There are still many uncertainties concerning the relations between the two processes.”

Read more about this at the Ozone Hole website.

Since the late 1980s, Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer has successfully phased-out 97 per cent of 100 chemicals that damage the protective shield that filters out harmful ultra violet rays to the Earth.

In recent years, research has outlined that global efforts to protect the ozone layer has also delivered climate benefits as many of the chemicals that damage the ozone layer – such as chloroflurocarbons or CFCs – also cause global warming.

In 2007 a scientific paper calculated the climate mitigation benefits of the ozone treaty as totalling an equivalent of 135 billion tonnes of C02 since 1990 or a delay in global warming of seven to 12 years. That same year countries meeting in Canada, under the Montreal Protocol, agreed to an accelerated freeze and phase-out of Hydrochloroflurocarbons (HCFCs)—chemicals designed to replace the old, more ozone-damaging CFCs – in the main for the climate benefits.

Ozone: Once and Future Story? A tale of two images…

A tale of two iconic images...

A tale of two iconic images...

I am in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, conducting the Ozone Media Roundtable, a high level event to engage Asian media professionals on the nexus between ozone depletion and climate change. The meeting, held on 8 – 9 October 2009, is organised jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and TVE Asia Pacific for invited senior journalists and broadcasters from the Asia Pacific region.

The past 22 years of implementing the Montreal Protocol, adopted in 1987, hold many relevant lessons and experiences for countries currently trying to negotiate a new multilateral environmental arrangement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, UN-FCCC. These insights could be particularly helpful for the inter-governmental negotiations leading to, and during, the 15th conference of parties (COP15) of UN-FCCC in Copenhagen in December 2009.

TVE Asia Pacific and UNEP convened the roundtable meeting in Chiang Mai to explore the ozone/climate nexus from a communications perspective. We brought together a small group of senior journalists and broadcasters who have been covering ozone and/or climate issues. We also invited a few ozone and climate technical experts to discuss the close links between ozone layer protection and climate change mitigation.

I work with moving images, but I also know the power of still images — especially when they are highly symbolic. Looking for a good visual link between ozone depletion and climate change, I came up with two images of our planet, seen in different ways that represent the two global environmental challenges.

Largest ever Ozone hole, Sept 2000

Largest ever Ozone hole, Sept 2000

The first image is better known, and is a colour enhanced satellite image of the Ozone Hole that was discovered in 1985 by British scientists Joesph Farman, Brian Gardiner and Jonathan Shanklin of the British Antarctic Survey. The ozone “hole” is really a reduction in concentrations of ozone high above the earth in the stratosphere. It is defined geographically as the area wherein the total ozone amount is less than 220 Dobson Units.

This discover was largely responsible for galvanising international attention and response to the threat of ozone depletion. After a series of inter-governmental meetings and negotiations, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was finally agreed upon on 16 September 1987 at the headquarters of the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal.

Temperature projection for Year 2100

Temperature projection for Year 2100

The second image is not as widely known, but represents an even greater environmental calamity that is currently unfolding: global warming and rapid changes in climate it has triggered. The image is a colour enhanced image of the Earth’s temperatures in 2100 AD (less than a century from now), as projected by the Earth Simulator — one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers — which Japanese scientists use to project the climatic disasters in next 100 years.

The system was developed in 1997 for running global climate models to evaluate the effects of global warming and problems in solid earth geophysics. It has been able to run holistic simulations of global climate in both the atmosphere and the oceans — down to a resolution of 10 km.

Between these two images, we are looking at two of the biggest environmental challenges of our times. How the climate crisis can learn valuable lessons from the ozone crisis is what we discussed at the Ozone Media Roundtable.

More about the meeting’s outcome soon.

UNEP’s search for God: Here’s the way forward to save the planet!

Satinder Bindra

Satinder Bindra: Voice of the Planet?

“Content is king — but distribution is God!”

With these words, UNEP’s newly appointed Director of Communications and Public Information, Satinder Bindra (photo, above), engaged my attention at a meeting in Paris earlier this week.

I almost jumped up in total agreement — this is just what we’ve been saying for years, especially to those who support information, education and communication activities in UN agencies.

Unlike many career UN officials, Satinder knows what he’s talking about. He comes to UNEP with over two decades of wide and varied experience in journalism and broadcasting – the last 10 years spent as a Senior International Correspondent/South Asia Bureau Chief for CNN based in New Delhi, India.

In the hard headed and hard nosed world of international news and current affairs television, distribution and outreach can make or break any content provider. This is something that the two leading news channels BBC World and CNN International know very well — and the more recent entrant Al Jazeera English is still finding out.

Satinder’s remark, in this instance, was more to do with how to get information and analysis on sustainable development out to as many people as possible in all corners of the planet. This is part of UNEP’s core mission since its founding in 1972 — and as chief of communication and public information, Satinder now takes on this formidable challenge.

In Paris, he was listening, taking notes and talking to everyone in the small group who’d come together for the annual partner meeting of the Com Plus Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development.

Com+ is a “partnership of international organizations and communications professionals from diverse sectors committed to using communications to advance a vision of sustainable development that integrates its three pillars: economic, social and environmental”. TVE Asia Pacific was admitted to the partnership a few months ago.

As I’m sure Satinder realises, at stake in his new assignment is a lot more than audience ratings, market share or revenue stream of a single broadcaster. Those are important too, but not in the same league as ensuring life on Earth – in all its diversity and complexity – continues and thrives.

Satinder struck me as a practical and pragmatic journalist who wants to get the job done efficiently. We can only hope the rest of UNEP will keep up with him — or at least they don’t get too much in his way!

As he finds his way around the globally spread, multidisciplinary and sometimes heavily bureaucratic UN organisation, Satinder will come across some incongruities, cynicism and institutional inertia all of which have held UNEP back from being the dynamic global leader in our pursuit of elusive sustainable development.

At the big picture level, communication at UNEP has often been defined narrowly as institutional promotion – delivering UNEP logo to the news media of the world, or boosting the image of its executive director and other senior officials. We don’t grudge anyone enjoying their 15 minutes of fame, but a technical agency like UNEP has so much more to offer — in terms of rigorous science, multiple perspectives, wide ranging consultation and bringing diverse players to a common platform.

The Nobel Peace Prize winning Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), co-supported by UNEP and World Meteorological Organisation, is a good recent example of how solid science, communicated through the media, can inspire governments, industry and rest of society to find solutions to a major global challenge.

The 20-year success of the Montreal Protocol to save the ozone layer is another example. Again, UNEP was a key player in this accomplishment, and is still engaged in the race to phase out the use of a basket of chemicals that damage the protecting ozone layer in the upper atmosphere.

There’s a lot more good science and tons of good stories lurking inside UNEP — if only its experts know how to get these out, and if only its bean-counters won’t stand in the way.

Ironically, elsewhere in the same UNEP Paris building that we were having the Com Plus meeting, the adorable cartoon character Ozzy Ozone (below) was being holed up by excessive rules and regulations. He is one of the best known public communication products to come out of the organisation. Yet, as I wrote earlier this year, he is bottled up and kept captive by an unimaginative UN system.

Then there is the whole scandalous situation where UNEP-funded environmental films are released with needlessly excessive copyright restrictions. As I have been saying, this is the big mismatch in environment and development film-making: many films are made using donor (i.e. public or tax payer) funds, but due to the ignorance or indifference of funders, the copyrights are retained by private individuals or companies involved in the production.

In UNEP’s case, for years it has been commissioning (and sometimes funding) a London-based production company, with a charitable arm, to produce environmental films. That’s certainly a choice for UNEP if the agency feels it continues to get value for its money. But tragically, the producers jealously guard all the copyrights, releasing these only under rigid conditions to a select few.

Whatever outreach figures they might claim, these cannot match what the same films would achieve if the copyrights were not so restrictive. Freed from crushing rights, such environmental films – made with UNEP funding or blessings or both – could benefit thousands of groups engaged in awareness, advocacy, activism, education and training.

For sure, we’ve heard the arguments in favour of tight copyright regimes. Film-makers have every right to be acknowledged for their creative efforts, but public funded products must not be locked up by greedy lawyers and accountants — or even by selfish film-making charities. And millions of users around the world should be able to access such products without having to get through the eye of the copyright needle first.
July 2007 blog post: Lawyers who locked up the butterfly tree

Can Satinder Bindra overcome these hurdles that have for so long inhibited UNEP from reaching its potential? We just have to wait and see.

When he talks about distribution being God, we have to readily agree. But he will soon find some elements within UNEP – or in crony partnerships with UNEP – that stand between him and this God.

To be fair, there’s only so much that an inter-governmental agency like UNEP – beholden to its member governments – can really accomplish. That’s why it needs partners from corporate, civil society, activist and academic spheres. Some of us can easily say and do things that UNEP would, in all sincerity, like to — but cannot.

Satinder sounds like he can forge broad alliances that go beyond monopolist partnerships. Here’s wishing him every success….for everyone’s sake!

Photo courtesy UNEP Climate Neutral Network

Engaging new media: prepare to lose control!

The development community never tires of talking about the value of participatory, two-way communication. Every workshop, report and discussion has a dose of this mantra sprinkled all over.

Yet when it comes to actually practising communication, most development agencies I know are so concerned with complete control – they want to edit endlessly, fine-tune their messages to the last letter and comma, and regulate how and where the message is disseminated.

There’s no harm in being organised and focused. But when communication officers are pushed into becoming publicity agents (or worse, spin doctors!) for their agencies, controlling the message becomes obsessive.

I’ve had more than my fair share of this. One example was when working on a documentary for a leading UN agency in Asia that my organisation, TVE Asia Pacific, was commissioned to produce. Now, films cannot be made by committees, but UN agencies never stop trying. At one point, over-zealous agency officials were tinkering with the post-shooting script so much that they edited even the interview clips included in the draft.

That only stopped when I pointed out that hey, those are transcribed verbatim from interviews we’d already filmed!

So imagine how hard it would be for such organisations to let go of the Complete Control over communications that they’ve aspired to perfect for so long.

And yet, as I told a small meeting convened by UNEP in Bangkok last week to plan their next ozone communication strategy for Asia Pacific, that’s not a choice, but an imperative with today’s new media.

In the four years since we worked on the last ozone communication strategy and action plan for the Asia Pacific, we have seen the emergence of web 2.0 – which is really a catch-all term that covers many second generation, interactive platforms and opportunities that have emerged using the global Internet.

Among these are blogs, wikis, social networking sites (e.g. MySpace, Facebook), social bookmarking (e.g., video exchange platforms (e.g. YouTube), online games and mobile applications.

These and other new media tools enable development communicators to reach out to, and engage, many people – especially the youth who make up more than half of all Asians.


But that’s part of the challenge, I said, referring to what I call the ‘Other Digital Divide’ – one that separates (most members of) the development community from ‘Digital Natives’, young people who have grown up taking these digital media and tools completely for granted.

I referred to my remarks at the IUCN Asia Conservation Forum in Kathmandu in September 2007, where I stressed the urgent need for the conservation and development communities to cross this divide if they want to reach out to the dominant demographic group in our vast region, home to half of humanity.

Engaging new media is not just setting up a Facebook account, taking a YouTube channel or opening a blog that’s infrequently updated. All that’s useful, for sure, but they represent only the tentative first steps to the wide and varied new media world.

As with the more established print and broadcast media, development organisations need to have a strategy and a plan based on some research, analysis and reflection.

And willing to let go of that control – so cherished by so many development professionals – is an essential part of that adjustment to the new media reality.

Failure to adjust can result in future shocks – and in the very near future! Perhaps I should also have drawn their attention to what I wrote in October 2007: New media tsunami hits global humanitarian sector; rescue operations now on

We didn’t spend too much time talking about new media at the Bangkok meeting, but I did caution that there is a lot of digital hype out there. I’m no expert on this (is anyone, really?) but my team at TVEAP and I keep trying new ways of doing things with the new media. So here are a few quick insights I offered the UNEP meeting:

• New media lot more interactive, which means they demand a lot of time and effort to engage the audience – which in turn generates huge capacity requirements for any development organisation venturing into such media.

• You can’t always control your messages on new media! This unnerves many development agencies and professionals who are so used to exercising such control – in the new media world, they just have to learn to let go!

• A core value is user-generated content (USG). You need to find creative ways to allow your audiences to generate part of the content. Control lost again!

• Citizen journalists have now established themselves online as text and/or video bloggers. Governments and corporations have acknowledged their presence — serious bloggers have recently been granted media accreditation to the UN. What does this mean for future ozone media training and journalists engagement?

• There are many companies and agencies claiming to have cracked the new media challenge – and don’t believe them! Everyone is learning, some admittedly faster than others, but there’s no substitute to actually doing it.

• And there’s no road map to the new media world, which is being created every day and night by an army of geeks and enthusiasts. There are only a few rough guides and travellers’ tales from some like ourselves who have ventured into this realm.

Note: I am grateful to my colleagues at TVE Asia Pacific who have developed and/or tested out some ideas in this blog post: Manori Wijesekera, Indika Wanniarachchi and Nadeeja Mandawala. I stand on their shoulders, hopefully lightly!