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.”

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Bridging Sri Lanka’s Deficit of Hope: What’s to be done?

Rays of Hope - or just Nature painting colours in the sky? It's in the eye of the beholder...

Rays of Hope – or just Nature painting colours in the sky? It’s in the eye of the beholder…

During the height of the Cold War, Soviet Communist Party chief (Leonid) Brezhnev and his deputy were having a one-on-one meeting.

Brezhnev says, “Maybe it’s time we opened our borders and allowed free emigration?”

The deputy retorts: “Don’t be ridiculous. If we did that, no one would be left in the country except you and me!”

To which Brezhnev replies, “Speak for yourself!”

That was a joke, of course — one of many examples of dark humour that helped communism’s oppressed millions to stay sane.

What might happen if we suddenly found ourselves in a borderless world? Or at least in a world where free movement across political borders was allowed? Which places would see a mass exodus, and to where might people be attracted the most?

I very nearly included the old Soviet joke in my latest op-ed essay titled ‘Bridging Sri Lanka’s Deficit of Hope’ that is published today by Groundviews.org.

It asks WHY many thousands of young men and women of Sri Lanka have been leaving their land — by hook or crook – for completely strange lands. This has been going on for over a generation.

Here’s an excerpt:

For three decades, such action was attributed to the long-drawn Lankan civil war. That certainly was one reason, but not the only one.

It doesn’t explain why, three and a half years after the war ended, the exodus continues. Every month, hordes of unskilled, semi-skilled and professionally qualified Lankans depart. Some risk life and limb and break the law in their haste.

It isn’t reckless adventurism or foolhardiness that sustains large scale human smuggling. That illicit trade caters to a massive demand.

Most people chasing their dreams on rickety old fishing boats are not criminals or terrorists, as some government officials contend. Nor are they ‘traitors’ or ‘ingrates’ as labelled by sections of our media.

These sons and daughters of the land are scrambling to get out because they have lost hope of achieving a better tomorrow in their own country.

I call it the Deficit of Hope. A nation ignores this gap at its peril.

As usual, I ask more questions than I can answer on my own. But I believe it’s important to raise these uncomfortable questions.

Towards the end, I ask: What can be done to enhance our nation’s Hope Quotient?

“Governments can’t legislate hope, nor can their spin doctors manufacture it. Just as well. Hope stems from a contented people — not those in denial or delusion — and in a society that is at ease with itself. We have a long way to go.”

Read the full essay and join the discussion on Groundviews.org:
Bridging Sri Lanka’s Deficit of Hope

Or read the compact version of the essay that appears in Ceylon Today newspaper:

Bridging Sri Lanka's Deficit of Hope by Nalaka Gunawardene - Ceylon Today, 2 Jan 2013

Bridging Sri Lanka’s Deficit of Hope by Nalaka Gunawardene – Ceylon Today, 2 Jan 2013

Why isn’t school very cool? Have we asked our kids yet?

Look what education is doing to me!

A few days ago, while cleaning the spare room in our home, I came across a piece of paper stuck on to the wall. These words were scribbled on it: “I was born brilliant – but education ruined me!” (see photo).

My daughter Dhara, 14, admitted authorship without any hesitation. It’s not her original line, of course — but a clear reflection of how she feels about schooling and formal education. When we think about it, these few innocent words become a severe indictment of a mass-scale system in which families, societies and countries invest so much money, time and hope.

She’s certainly not alone in her misgivings about the value of institutionalised education. As George Bernard Shaw once declared, “The only time I interrupted my education was in school.”

Although I had a happy school life, I can well appreciate how and why many people feel like this about school. Don’t take my word for it – do a quick, random sampling of those around you. How many of them will admit to having happy memories of their school days?

Let’s face it: the whole concept of a school is flawed. Education may be a great leveller among human beings, but schooling in most parts of the world operates at the lowest common denominator level. How can you group together 30 or 40 children at random, expose them to the same curriculum, imparted at the same pace, and expect all to thrive? Some will keep up; others will lag behind; and a few will be completely bored out of their minds – like I was, for a good part of my primary and secondary schooling.

Yet there is not much that even the most dedicated teacher could do under such trying circumstances. Oddly enough, no one in any self-respecting healthcare system would want to prescribe the same medicine for patients with very different ailments. Yet the one-size-fits-all approach is never questioned when it comes to education. Why?

A hapless school kid being primed for the Great Rat Race - cartoon by W R Wijesoma, 1994

One reason why this abuse has thrived is because no one listens to the most important voice in this debate: the average schoolgirl and schoolboy. The learner’s perspective is largely missing in most educational policies and plans. There is so much emphasis on teaching, infrastructure, performance and resources. The handful of men and women who decide what should be taught in our schools hardly ever pause to think how their decisions affect the last link in the chain: the hapless, overburdened, over-driven student. Over 4 million of them — like the one in the cartoon above.

Must things remain like this forever? Is there any hope that our much-tinkered (and much-maligned) education system could one day be more student friendly, more learning oriented and more responsive to the different needs of different students? Will those in charge of the system begin to treat students and teachers as something more than movable statistics? And most importantly, can we restore the joy of learning, the sense of wonder and fun of schooling?

I don’t have easy answers to these – nobody does. But these are worth asking, even if they are uncomfortable and unpopular questions to pose. For too long, the formal education sector has carried on with its business-as-usual with the typical self-righteousness and arrogance of a matronly school principal.

It’s time for us to storm the citadels of learning and make them more caring, accommodating and sensitive to the needs of the most important people in the system: the learners.

Nothing less than our children’s individual and collective futures are at stake.

Note: The views in this blog post are adapted from a longer essay I wrote in 2002, titled Let’s Restore the Joy of Learning.

Related blog post, March 2010: SOS from the Next Generation: “We need Good Parents!”

A perilous journey covering school, lessons, tuition classes, exams...Cartoon by W R Wijesoma, 1994

Now on MediaChannel.org: Good communications to combat swine flu?

They turn the spotlight inwards...

They turn the spotlight inwards...

MediaChannel.org has just published my latest op ed essay titled: Good communications to combat swine flu?

7 May 2009: New Age newspaper in Bangladesh has reprinted the essay

24 May 2009: The Hindu newspaper in India has reprinted the essay in its Sunday Magazine

In this essay, I have expanded some points originally made in two recent blog posts, on 30 April and 1 May 2009.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Flu shots, quarantine measures and hospital care alone cannot counter the current flu outbreak. While medical doctors and researchers spearhead the public health response, we need the mass media and other communicators to mount the public awareness response. Ideally, they should reinforce each other.

“For the first time in history, we now have the technological means to quickly reach out to most of humanity. More than four billion mobile phones are in use, a majority of them in the developing world. Nearly a quarter of the world population (over 1.5 billion people) have access to the web, even if at varying levels of bandwidth. Thousands of radio and TV channels saturate the airwaves – these still are the primary source of news and information for billions.

“Can these information and communication technologies (ICTs) help disseminate the right kind of flu awareness? How fast can we mobilise 24/7 media outlets and telecom networks to inspire preventive and curative action? What can the blogging, texting and twittering new media activists do in such efforts?”

Stop the virus, but not the news!

Stop the virus, but not the news!

Looking for models of communicating against an infectious epidemic, I recall the Asian experience with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) . I summarise in this essay the public interest roles played by Asian media during the SARS crisis, which has been studied and analysed in considerable detail.

I then return to one of my favourite points about communicating disasters and crises: the need for credible messages and credible messengers. This was a core theme in the Asian book on Communicating Disasters that I co-edited in 2007. I also highlighted it in this interview given to APC in early 2008.

Here’s how my essay ends: “Whether it is SARS, HIV or tsunami, many Asian governments have suffered from a credibility gap in managing information about emergencies. For example, the initially slow and guarded media reporting on SARS allowed the virus to spread quickly in China, with devastating results. We cannot afford to repeat these mistakes with the latest flu pandemic.

“Nearly a century ago, British author H G Wells talked about human history being a race between education and catastrophe. In the coming weeks, we would find out if humanity has what it takes to outrun and outsmart a stubborn virus.

Read the full essay at MediaChannel.org

Read my op ed essay in SciDev.net in Dec 2005: A Long Last Mile: The lesson of the Asian tsunami

MediaChannel have published my op ed essays before. They were the first to publish, in June 2006, my global call for the broadcast industry to recognise poverty as a copyright free zone. And when Al Jazeera English channel was launched at the end of 2006, MediaChannel carried my essay on ethical news gathering as the biggest challenge for the new global TV network.

My latest essay is a humble birthday present to MediaChannel.org as it completes 10 years. Unique among websites, MediaChannel.org holds the rest of the media accountable with the best of the world’s media criticism and analysis — offering news, diverse global perspectives, and commentaries tracking international news flows. They cover breaking controversies, showcase change-makers, trends and cutting edge issues that you need to know about – produced by journalists for journalists and citizens.

MediaChannel’s co-founder Danny Schechter is one of my media heroes – he was Moving Images Person of the Year 2008.

“Our survival alone is a cause for celebration – a decade of growth and impact is impressive in ‘Internet years’,” wrote the website’s founders in a special 10th anniversary message. They added: “Over the past 10 years, we have survived financial crises and organized hack attacks. We have managed to remain relevant and on the cutting edge in a quickly evolving online landscape when many other sites and organizations have come… and gone.”

The team is making an urgent appeal for donations to keep this excellent service going. I’m very happy to amplify this – few services can deliver better value for money, and our troubled times and troubled media sure need the soul-searching constantly provided by MediaChannel.org

Ten years of kicking ass!

Ten years of kicking ass!

Wanted: New Arthur C Clarkes of the 21st Century!

The legend lives on: Arthur C Clarke (1917 - 2008)

The legend lives on: Arthur C Clarke (1917 - 2008) - photos by Rohan de Silva

Today we mark the first death anniversary of Sir Arthur C Clarke. Exactly one year ago, when he passed away aged 90, I was thrust into a media frenzy. I’d been Sir Arthur’s research assistant and, in later years, his media spokesman and in the hours and days following his death, the family asked me to continue that role.

This blog recorded my experiences and emotions as they happened (see several posts in the latter half of March 2008). A year later, all of us who worked closely with him still miss Sir Arthur, but I can now take a more detached, longer-term view. And that’s what I’ve just done.

In an op ed essay published today in Groundviews website, I argue that sparking imagination and nurturing innovation are the best ways in which Sri Lanka can cherish Sir Arthur’s memory in the land he called home for half a century.

Despite his well known ego, Sir Arthur never sought personal edifices to be put up in his honour or memory. When a visiting journalist once asked him about monuments, he said: “Go to any well-stocked library, and just look around…”

In the weeks and months following Sir Arthur’s death, many have asked me what kind of monument was being planned in his memory. As far as the Arthur C Clarke Estate is concerned, there is none –- and that seems to surprise many.

Yet it is fully consistent with the man of ideas, imagination and dreams that Sir Arthur Clarke was. Monuments of brick and mortar — or even of steel and silicon — seem superfluous for a writer who stretched the minds of millions. Commemorative lectures or volumes cannot begin to capture the spirit and energy of the visionary who invented the communications satellite and inspired the World Wide Web.

A life of no regrets...except for a minor complaint

A life of no regrets...except for a minor complaint

In my essay, I suggested: “Instead of dabbling in these banalities, Sri Lanka should go for the ‘grand prize’: nurturing among its youth the intellectual, cultural and creative attributes that made Arthur C Clarke what he was. In other words, we must identify and groom the budding Arthur Clarkes of the 21st century!”

Easier said than done. In fact, in a country like Sri Lanka that is still partly feudal, insular and stubbornly clinging on to the past instead of facing the present and future, this becomes formidable. This is why I noted: “But can imagination and innovation take root unless we break free from the shackles of orthodoxy? For transformative change to happen, we will need to rethink certain aspects of our education, bureaucracy, social hierarchies and culture. Are we willing and able to attempt these?”

I then discuss some of the key challenges involved in nurturing imagination and innovation. I end my essay with these words: “Let’s not kid ourselves: sparking imagination and innovation is much harder than launching a gleaming new satellite in Sir Arthur’s name. But the rewards would also be greater: if we get it right this time, Sri Lanka can finally take its rightful place in the 21st century.”

Within hours of its online publication, the essay has attracted several comments and a discussion is evolving. Just what Sir Arthur would have liked to see happen…

Read the full essay, and join the discussion at Groundviews