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.”

Don’t Be a Fossil Fool: A case for valuing Biotic Carbon in climate talks

Cartoon courtesy Down to Earth magazine, CSE India


• To tackle enhanced global warming that leads to climate change, we need to better understand the global carbon cycle.

• Critical to this understanding is distinguishing between fossil carbon (coal and petroleum) and biotic carbon (photosynthetic biomass – living matter capable of absorbing atmospheric carbon).

• Biotic Carbon offers a ‘lifeboat’ to a world in search of solutions. Valuing biotic carbon can transform the role of farmers and rural communities currently sidelined in global climate change negotiations.

• Current methodologies of carbon trading have seriously warped both economics and ecology. What takes place today is more like carbon laundering.

These outspoken views are expressed in a new web video by Dr Ranil Senanayake, a globally experienced systems ecologist with four decades of experience across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Titled “Rethinking Carbon and Climate Change”, the 16 minute video is released on TVE Asia Pacific’s YouTube channel in time for World Environment Day 2012 and ahead of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20 in Brazil.

This is edited from a long interview I filmed with the maverick scientist in mid March 2012.

Watch the full film online:

This film is released under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

Read Q&A style interview on Groundviews (covers much else):
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Appeal to climate reporters everywhere: Don’t follow the Climate Circus!

L to R: Sam Labudde (EIA); Eric Soulier (Canal France International); Nalaka Gunawardene (speaking); and Durwood Zaelke (IGSD)

Every year, a couple of weeks before Christmas, a big Climate Circus takes place. The venue city keeps changing, but the process is always the same: it attracts thousands of people – from government officials and scientists to activists and journalists – who huddle in various corners, chat endlessly and gripe often during two chaotic weeks. Then they disperse, rather unhappy with the process…only to return to more of the same a year later.

This is how I see the annual Conference of Parties (COP) of the UN Climate Convention, or UNFCCC. Their last big ‘circus’ was in Copenhagen, Denmark — when the world held its breath for a breakthrough in measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that warm up the planet. But, as with many previous conferences, Copenhagen over-promised and under-delivered.

The next COP is to take place in Cancún, Mexico, in December 2010. We can expect more of the same.

I’m not always this cynical. I’m certainly not a climate skeptic or climate change denialist. But I came to this conclusion after covering climate change stories for over 20 years, and having seen the kind of distraction the annual Climate Circus can produce on the media coverage and fellow journalists.

My contention: COPs were intended for treaty-signing governments to come together, bicker among themselves and make slow, painful and incremental progress on what needs to be done to address the massive problems of global climate change. While the core of these conferences remains just that, over the years they have gathered so much else — side events that now completely outweigh the political conference, and often overshadow it. I’m not convinced that this is where the real climate stories are, for discerning journalists.

I made these observations in some plain speaking done during a panel at the Asia Media Summit 2010 in Beijing, China, this week. The occasion was the Asia-Pacific Media Seminar on Ozone Protection and Climate Benefit, one of several pre-Summit events held on 24 May 2010 — and the only one on an environmental issue or topic.

I was on the last panel for the day, which looked at the next “hot” ozone and climate related stories. We were asked to give our views on: what are the great stories on the road to COP16 in Mexico at the end of the year?

Forget Cancun, I said. We already know how little it’s going to change the status quo. Why bother with that promises to be a non-event? Must we be this concerned with non-stories in our media coverage? In fact, I suggested: we should give the entire UNFCCC processes a couple of years of benign neglect. The real climate stories are not in the unmanageable chaos that the annual Climate Circuses have become. They are out there in the real world.

In the real world where frontline states and communities are already bearing the brunt of extreme weather…where green energy is making rapid advances…where communities and economies are trying to figure out how to live with climate change impacts even as they reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

There are plenty of climate stories out there, covering the full range of journalistic interests: human interest, human enterprise, innovation, scientific research, community resilience and others. The challenge to journalists and other climate communicators is to go out there, unearth the untold stories, and bring them out in whatever media, forum or other platform.

I have nothing against climate COPs per se, and hope they can be restored to their original purpose of climate negotiations and working out acceptable, practical ways forward. (And this is certainly not a case of sour grapes: I’ve turned down all-expenses-paid invitations to COPs more than once.)

But we need to be concerned about the Climate Circus Effect on media, activist and educator groups, who seem to dissipate a good deal of their limited energies and resources in turning up at these mega-events. Copenhagen is said to have attracted over 17,000 persons (over 3,000 among them accredited journalists). How much of fruitful interaction and sharing can happen in such a setting? And when all the major news networks and wire services are covering the key negotiations and activities in considerable detail, what more can individual journalists capture and report to their home audiences?

Living as we do on a warming planet, we are challenged on many fronts to question old habits, and change our business-as-usual. The media pack has been running after the Climate Circus for over a dozen years. We need to pause, take stock and ask ourselves: is this the best way to cover the climate story?

And while at it, here’s something else for the UN, conveners of the annual Climate Circus. On World Environment Day 2008, whose theme was ‘CO2: Kick the Habit’, I asked the UN to kick its own CO2 habit. I suggested: “Adopt and strictly observe for a year or two a moratorium on all large UN gatherings (no matter what they are called – Summits, conferences, symposia, meetings, etc.) that involve more than 500 persons. In this day and age of advanced telecommunications, it is possible to consult widely without always bringing people physically together….Practising what you preach has a strong moral persuasive power — even if it goes against addictive habits formed for over 60 years of the UN’s history.”

PS: A global, comprehensive and legally-binding agreement on climate change is unlikely to be delivered at this year’s (Cancun) conference as well, the outgoing head of the UNFCCC, Yvo de Boer, was reported as saying on 27 May, just a few days after our Beijing seminar. See what I mean?

Please Help the World: The call to Copenhagen climate conference

Earlier this week, United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 (COP15) in Copenhagen opened with an apocalyptic video showing the world torn asunder from a variety of disasters.

As one reviewer wrote: “The portrayal sought to play up on the fears of the world should a worst case scenario develop from global warming. The entire video is reminiscent of the recent disaster movie blockbuster, 2012 that was released in movie theatres in recent months.

I haven’t yet seen 2012, now showing in a theatre close to me, so I can’t comment on the comparison. But here’s the video, now playing on COP15 channel on YouTube:

In the video, a child goes to sleep peacefully but wakes to find herself in a desert wasteland. As she sets out to explore, the very land on which she stands begins to crack open and she flees. The girl doesn’t make it far before she looks up to see the world’s largest tornado tearing a city apart and flood waters approaching. The child leaps to a tree branch as the waters overtake her and she screams. It is then that she wakes from what is only a dream and decides to make a home video saying, “Please help the world.”

Will the bickering and myopic leaders of the world heed this call? We shall know in the next few days.

Meanwhile, here are the credits for this film:
Director: Mikkel Blaabjerg Poulsen
Producers: Stefan Fjeldmark and Marie Peuliche
Cinematographer: Dan Laustsen
Production designer: Peter de Neergaard
Editor: Morten Giese
Composer: Davide Rossi
Sound design: Carl Plesner
Production company: Zentropa RamBuk
Advisory consultants: Mogens Holbøll, Bysted A/S and Christian Søndergaard, Attention Film ApS.

For some comparisons, here is the official trailer for 2012:

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…

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.