Communicating climate change: It’s about people

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Written by Marion Davis

Thursday, 20 December 2012 05:48

Youth protest during COP18 in Doha. Flickr / adoptanegotiator

Inspired by a discussion during COP18, SEI’s climate communications manager – a veteran journalist – reflects on the challenges of bringing complex policy issues to a human scale.

The photo shows Suriya, a woman living in a slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh – one of a growing number of poor, deeply vulnerable people whose already precarious lives are being devastated by climate change.

But the accompanying news story says nothing about Suriya, or how she views her plight. Nor does it offer any useful information to people like Suriya – she’s just not part of the conversation.

“How often do we see this?” asks Tan Copsey, research manager of the Climate Asia project at BBC Media Action. Many of us in the audience at Climate Communications Day nod in recognition. It’s so common in journalism – and even more so, I’m afraid, in research and policy writing.

Far too much of what is said and written about climate change, about vulnerability and adaptation, excludes the people who are directly affected. Of course they’re mentioned – we’re always talking about the “particularly vulnerable” – but their voices aren’t there. At best, their views are conveyed in aggregate, in syntheses of fieldwork, in-between literature reviews and policy analyses. At worst, they’re completely invisible, except for the photos we find for report covers, policy briefs and websites.

And then we wonder why people don’t “get” climate change. Why it doesn’t feel urgent or immediate. Why year after year, something else gets higher priority: a fiscal crisis, energy-sector jobs, political clout.

It’s one of the first lessons you learn in journalism: People care about people. If your readers can’t relate to what you’re telling them, if it’s not tangible, they’re not going to pay attention. So if you want to make a difference, you can’t just provide information – you have to frame it in human terms.

Striking a balance
Of course the opposite is also true: journalism is full of examples of “human interest” stories that provide no context and turn complex policy issues into vacuous melodramas. It’s easier to tell a sob story about Suriya than to explain how climate change, poverty, socio-economic injustice and systemic problems in Bangladesh have shaped her life. It’s even harder to strike a balance between her unique personal story and the ways in which she is “emblematic” of slum-dwellers’ plight.

The challenges are even greater for a research organization such as SEI. Journalists, for the most part, rely on us to provide the “big picture”, so it’s crucial that we provide robust, reliable information. A reporter can interview Suriya and then rely on academic research to show how she is or isn’t typical of conditions in Dhaka. But those who produce the research can’t just talk with Suriya; they have to rigorously examine the data, and if they do field research, they need to gather a representative sample – perhaps a dozen Suriyas, or a mix of people with diverse perspectives on the Dhaka slums. Before they publish, they’re likely to have their work reviewed by fellow academics and experts.

Which is to say, what a reporter can do in a single day, or perhaps a week, can take a year in our world. Field work may be just a week of that. And what Suriya and her peers say today may not be published until 2014 – if a single word of their comments even makes it into print.

How can communicators help?
It’s only at that point, in most cases, that I come in. There’s a draft report, and my job is to edit it, maybe write a policy brief, and promote the findings to the media, policy-makers and general audiences.

I know what the authors want: they want to make life better for Suriya and people like her. They believe the key is to improve policies and practices – to educate local and national government officials, NGOs, development agencies and climate change negotiators about unmet needs and how to address them. It’s noble work, and I am proud to share it. A handful of smart, committed reporters will cover it.

Yet Suriya’s voice still won’t get out there. Because our work is so carefully framed and contextualized, her story will be lost in a complex explanation about governance, finance, policy and planning that Suriya herself wouldn’t find useful. It will help policy-makers who already recognize the urgency – but it’s unlikely to change the priorities of those who don’t.

It’s not our job at SEI to be advocates, but we do need to do better at bringing climate policy to a human scale. That means being less abstract and clinical and more cognizant of the complex, often messy realities on the ground. It means spending more time in the field and less at our desks, and learning from journalists and advocates who’ve succeeded at making stories compelling without “dumbing down”.

And it means remembering every day what inspires us – why we care about issues like “loss and damage” and “common but differentiated responsibilities”. In the end, it’s about people.

Author’s note: Thanks to Tan Copsey and Lisa Friedman for key insights that informed this post, and to Rob Watt for useful feedback that helped improve it.

At an informal briefing with the COP18 President, matters of survival are reduced to brief agenda points.
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