Changing Climate and Changing Minds: Challenges of Communicating Climate Change

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at national conference on Sri Lanka's readiness for implementing the Paris Agreement. BMICH Colombo, 8 September 2016
Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at national conference on Sri Lanka’s readiness for implementing the Paris Agreement. BMICH Colombo, 8 September 2016

Climate change COP21 in December 2015 adopted the Paris Agreement to avoid, mitigate and adapt to climate change. Among many other solutions, Sri Lanka’s “intended nationally determined contribution” (INDC) has agreed to reduce 7% emissions from energy and transport and 23% conditional reductions by 2030.

Sri Lanka’s Centre for Environmental Justice in collaboration with the government’s Climate Change Secretariat, UNDP and Janathakshan held a national conference on “SRI LANKA’S READINESS FOR IMPLEMENTING PARIS CLIMATE AGREEMENT” on 7 and 8 September 2016 in Colombo. It was attended by over 200 representatives from government, civil society and corporate sectors.

I was asked to speak in Session 5: Climate Solutions, on “Climate communication and Behaviour changes”. This is a summary of what I said, and the PowerPoint presentation used.

L to R: Nalaka Gunawardene; Nalin Munasinghe, National Programme Manager at Sri Lanka UN-REDD Programme, and Uchita de Zoysa
L to R: Nalaka Gunawardene; Nalin Munasinghe, National Programme Manager at Sri Lanka UN-REDD Programme, and Uchita de Zoysa

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 our 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 are taking up this challenge. They urgently need more media and public spaces — as well as greater resources — to sustain public engagement.

Sri Lanka’s Information, Education and Communication (IEC) Strategy for Climate Change Adaptation, which I was principally involved in preparing in 2010-11, has recognized how “IEC action can lead to better informed decisions and enlightened choices in both climate change mitigation and adaptation”.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which Sri Lanka has signed and ratified, recognizes the importance of IEC. It calls for “improving awareness and understanding of climate change, and creating solutions to facilitate access to information on a changing climate” to winning public support for climate related policies.

The UNFCCC, through its Article 6, and its Kyoto Protocol, through its Article 10 (e), call on governments “to educate, empower and engage all stakeholders and major groups on policies relating to climate change”.

When strategically carried out, IEC can be a powerful force for change on both the ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ sides of climate adaptation and climate related public information. In this analogy:

  • ‘supply’ involves providing authentic, relevant and timely information to all those who need it, in languages and formats they can readily use; and
  • ‘demand’ means inspiring more individuals and entities to look for specific knowledge and skills that can help make themselves more climate resilient.

These two sides of the equation can positively reinforce each other, contributing significantly to Sri Lanka’s fight against climate change.

To be effective, climate communication also 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.

Dr 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 in 2013: “By focusing on strong narratives about peoples’ 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.”

South Asian Sanitation Conclave: Who’s afraid of Pee and Poop?

L to R - Darryl D'Monte, Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Nalaka Gunawardene

Who’s afraid of Pee and Poop?

That’s the innocent but slightly provocative question I posed to a South Asian Conclave on sanitation that I addressed today at the Colombo Hilton.

My audience was a group of South Asians – drawn mainly from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – working in government, mainstream media or development agencies, all sharing an interest in water supply and sanitation (wat-san) issues.

I was asked to speak about Telling the Sanitation Story using Moving Images. But after listening to the fairly staid and often technocratic discussions preceding my presentation, I changed it. In doing so, I said that especially in broadcast television, the window of opportunity to attract the viewer is a tight one – it used to be 45 seconds, but these days more likely 30 seconds.

Sanitation is both an issue that is both urgent and important. As I noted on World Toilet Day marked on 19 Nov 2009, 2.5 billion people do not have somewhere safe, private or hygienic to go to the toilet.

And as C. Ajith Kumar of the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) – convenors of the Conclave – reminded us at the outset, South Asia is where most of these people live. Lacking any alternative, more than a billion (yes, 1,000 million) South Asians defecate in the open on a daily basis.

That’s a lot of poop, folks — and it’s completely untreated, uncovered and responsible for too many preventable illnesses and deaths.

Despite this dire emergency at individual and society levels, officials and activists concerned with wat-san issues continue to tip-toe around this poop. Or so it seemed to me — after two days, not once had the words poop or shit been mentioned in discussions. Instead, everyone was using the more politically correct terms such as faeces, excreta and excrement.

“Most of those billion people pooping in the open are not going to understand the lofty terms used in the charmed development circle,” I said. “You’ve got to talk in a language that ordinary, real people can and will understand – that’s the first step in effective communication.”

South Asian Conclave on Sanitation in Colombo, 8 Dec 2009
The meeting had already acknowledged that improving sanitation involved a lot more than providing running water or building toilets. The development experience in the past three decade shows that infrastructure alone does not, automatically, lead to better sanitation. The biggest challenge remains in promoting hygienic practices among all – and that requires behaviour change, a slow and gradual process in any society.

I reminded everyone that when it comes to sanitation, the command-and-control approach that our South Asian governments are so used to adopting just won’t work. There are at least three aspects of life where choices and conduct are strictly personal: what happens in the bed room, bath room (toilet) and the shrine room.

As I summed it up in these words that I asked my audience to reflect on: Governments don’t defecate; people do.

“Please remember this if you really want to reach out and engage ordinary people who are living, breathing and pooping everyday in the real, harsh world.”

More of my presentation will be shared on this blog in the coming days.

Photos by Amal Samaraweera, TVE Asia Pacific