Communicating Climate Change: Going Beyond Fear, CO2 & COPs!

SRI LANKA NEXT 2016 International Conference on Climate Change - http://www.srilankanext.lk/iccch.php

SRI LANKA NEXT 2016 International Conference on Climate Change – http://www.srilankanext.lk/iccch.php

On 19 October 2016, I spoke on climate change communications to a group of Asian journalists and other communicators at a workshop organized by Sri Lanka Youth Climate Action Network (SLYCAN). It was held at BMICH, Colombo’s leading conventions venue.

It was part of a platform of events branded as Sri Lanka NEXT, which included the 5th Asia-Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum and several other expert consultations.

I recalled what I had written in April 2014, “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.”

3 broad tips on climate communications - from Nalaka Gunawardene

3 broad tips for climate communications – from Nalaka Gunawardene

I argued that we must move away from disaster-driven climate communications of doom and gloom. Instead, focus on climate resilience and practical solutions to achieving it.

We also need to link climate action to what matters most to the average person:

  • Cheaper energy (economic benefits)
  • Cleaner air (health benefits)
  • Staying alive (public safety benefits)

I offered three broad tips for climate communicators and journalists:

  • Don’t peddle fear: We’ve had enough of doom & gloom! Talk of more than just disasters and destruction.
  • Look beyond CO2, which is responsible for only about half of global warming. Don’t forget the other half – which includes some shortlived climate pollutants which are easier to tackle such action is less contentious than CO2.
  • Focus on local level impacts & responses: most people don’t care about UNFCCC or COPs or other acronyms at global level!
Global climate negotiations - good to keep an eye on them, but real stories are elsewhere!

Global climate negotiations – good to keep an eye on them, but real stories are elsewhere!

Finally, I shared my own triple-S formula for covering climate related stories:

  • Informed by credible Science (but not immersed in it!)
  • Tell authentic and compelling journalistic Stories…
  • …in Simple (but not simplistic) ways (using a mix of non-technical words, images, infographics, audio, video, interactive media)

Poor venue logistics at BMICH prevented me from sharing the presentation I had prepared. So here it is:

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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.”