Blogpost | 29 October 2015

The Challenges of Communicating Climate Change in India

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Blogpost by Darpan Vaishnav, October 2015

If the 'common' people in India are supposed to be made aware of climate change and its impacts, they are supposed to hear it in their 'language' or precisely, their medium of understanding. And they will start to act with their own means. This message floats out as a clear conclusion in this article judging from my interaction with people from different walks of life. This article focuses not only on some key questions that highlight the challenges faced over climate change awareness raising but also some communications goals in accordance to different segments of people in India.

Questions like:  How to bring Climate Change communication out of the science community? What is the difference between Weather and Climate?, are addressed through some of my encounters and illustrations. Moreover, four communication goals are identified through similar empirical illustrations. These goals are:

  1. Linking energy transformation to changing weather patterns
  2. Understanding figures: the differences between average and extreme
  3. Avoid mal adaptation and rebound effects
  4. Talk about climate change happening in their back yard


How to bring Climate Change communication out of the science community? 

There was a time in the evolution of climate change awareness that people wanted supporting scientific proof to wrap their beliefs around. And there is deep science behind climate change, and without doubt, the science matters. But how much does it matter to my next door neighbour, an insurance salesman? Or the school children I tutor about climate change in their crafts or 'extracurricular' class? Or a farmer, who calls 'levelling'[1] of land as 'navellind' because he doesn't have a word in his tongue that describes levelling and still has to communicate it to the earthworks company? Wouldn't they connect better to something that they have seen and experienced in their daily life? Wouldn't I be able to make them interested and concerned at the same time about climate change if I can tell them that it is also affecting or is going to affect them and not just the 'big-guns on the dias'?

Certainly, there are scientists in India who have their share of climate change science knowhow, 32 Indian scientists in the working groups of IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) bears confidence to that. They can tell you a lot on climate change, but how about people who are not scientists, people who are probably more affected by climate change than the scientists, people who are what is termed in India as 'Aam Aadmi' or the 'common man', at least in terms of science, let's say? So if these people, the 'common man', are supposed to be made aware of climate change and its impacts, they are then supposed to be addressed in terms that they can understand, in their own 'language'.

Understanding the differences between weather and climate

I meet the 'aam aadmi' in various respects, being one myself (at least in the economic sense of it). I meet them as their neighbour; I meet them as their colleague, as a friend, as an employee and to some even as a teacher. But for most of them, I am someone who knows about climate change. I assume that as I have to answer the most pressing and sometimes bizarre questions. The most common and maybe most irritating is 'So, will it rain today?' or 'How will the rains be this year?' or other weather related questions. But these questions is the result of their not realizing the nature of my field of work and that makes me wonder that if you need to talk to them about climate change, you should downsize it to the scale of understanding of the people that you want to address it to and start with 'weather'. That will get them to connect well with what you might say next and bring them up to the scale in which you wish them to visualize the problem. But just to clarify, I still would have to answer a bland 'I don't know' for the weather forecast question!

Communication goal 1: Linking energy transformation to changing weather patterns

Since I work on consulting for organic farming, I have a few acquaintances of some very hard working farmers. One of them, when asked about the increasing number of windmills in the region near his village, reacts diagonally opposite to my enthusiasm and complains about the noise that it keeps making. Now I did not want to cross him completely so I just pointed out that even the wind against the dry grass is making more noise, but what I actually wanted to tell him is the potential good that these windmills were doing was probably way beyond his understanding. For him, the talk on climate change ends at the difference that it would make on his yield this year. What matters to him is the hailstorm, which is an extremely rare event to happen in the otherwise hot and dry western India and what is even rarer is that it happened on the onset of summer. Even 60 year olds in Ahmedabad were reported saying that they had never seen hail before. And this happened twice in 2015, March 14th and April 12th, which are both dry season months for western India! And this irregularity decreased this farmer's mango production and almost ruined it altogether as the mango flowers and fruits drop due to precipitation which makes it a huge loss as mango tree flowers and fruits during January through April.

Communication goal 2: Understanding figures: the differences between average and extreme

But let's talk about people who are not completely out of the scientific community. A colleague of mine at Gujarat University wanted to prove me wrong about climate change affecting the rains with her argument about the IPCC report saying that there is going to be an increase of 15% to 40% in the amount of rains for India. At first she felt nice when I had to say that she was right about the figures, but what she did not consider is the number of rainy days having decreased drastically and the amount of rains in each of these days having increased meant more damage than good. I also had to remind her of the number of 'Mavathus' or 'unseasonal rains' that had occurred in the state. India mainly has three seasons; summer, winter and monsoon and all the rains across India is received in monsoon season. The rest of seasons are dry. And the corresponding climate, aquifers, the biodiversity in the 'ghats', agriculture methodology and culture in general revolves around the rains. Therefore, an unseasonal rain means trouble almost everywhere in India except for some of the urban people who are just happy for some time that they got some relief from the heat and then they are back to complaining again over the humidity that the rain left them with! And Ahmedabad, the city where I live, recorded nine 'Mavathu' events in 2015 so far and five last year.

Communication goal 3: Avoid mal adaptation and rebound effects

Reflecting on my answers I feel I could have reacted much better than I did. But to be honest, it is difficult to grasp the idea when someone at a conference comments that "Is it not better if we don't tell people that there is going to get hotter? Otherwise they would buy even more Air Conditioners". It is even more difficult to grasp when this someone turns out to be a top official in the state government department and the conference is “Highlighting the Ahmedabad Experience: Scaling Up Heat Action Plans for Key Cities and States in India" organized by The Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar (IIPHG), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Climate change department Govt. of Gujarat and The Indo-US Science and Technology Forum (IUSSTF). Events like the Indian heat wave of May 2015 make it to the international news, but the local impact of this can be seen both on paper as well as on the streets. The sale of Air Conditioners in India saw a large leap with 8% increase in sale just this summer and on the other hand one can see that more and more people have resorted to covering their rooftops, balconies and windows with plastic shade nets, the kind which is used for shading plants in nurseries. It was also interesting to find that the Principal Town Planner of MysoreUrban Development Authority asked us "How can the vehicular traffic affect climate change?". It was interesting as we were there to talk about sustainable transport systems and he would be the one heading the project planning for this city and he is guided by a group of students that it is not always that climate change has to affect everything as in this case, the increased stationary traffic at the signals adds to the regular warming caused by climate change by creating heat island effect.

Communication goal 4: Talk about climate change happening in their back yard

And finally, I was glad hearing from my father that he has gathered the kids in the neighbourhood in order to show them that the 'Neem' tree in our yard, which normally fruits only once a year, was fruiting for the second time in the same year. Although the kids might not understand the scale of implications of this little observation, it still will be something that they will relate to and knowing that they can find the evidences of climate change right outside their homes could probably keep them in search for them. It is probably easy to conclude that communicating climate change in India can be quite done through National Mission on Strategic Knowledge for Climate Change under India's NAPCC, but not necessarily using big studies with big jargons. It rather needs to be strongly related to people's 'language' or their 'life' or 'reality' and it won't be long before one finds solutions emerging right from amongst the society. Much alike 'Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; but teach him to fish and he eats a lifetime'.

[1] Levelling: flatening and sloping agricultural land in a way that is beneficial for surface irrigation

written by Darpan Vaishnav

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