When Worlds Collide #85: Climate Change – Big picture and small pixels

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 29 September 2013

Maldivian capital Male from the air

Maldivian capital Male from the air

The UN climate panel (IPCC) reconfirms that accelerated climate change is happening without any doubt.

In its latest assessment report, released in Stockholm this week, the global scientific body says the main cause is human actions that emit planet warming (greenhouse) gases into the atmosphere.

The authoritative report, distilling the work of hundreds of climate researchers, projects global temperatures to rise by between 0.3 and 4.8 degrees Celsius by late this century. (The low end can only be maintained if governments sharply cut emissions.)

As temperatures rise, polar ice and glaciers melt. Due to this and the thermal expansion of water in warmer climes, world sea levels could rise by between 26 and 82 cm (10 to 32 inches) by or before 2100.

Meanwhile, the world’s oceans have acidified rapidly in recent years after absorbing about a third of the excess carbon dioxide – the main in the atmosphere.

Exactly how these planetary changes could affect different regions, countries and sectors is to be discussed in forthcoming parts of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), being released in four phases. The first one, out this week, looks at the physical science of climate change.

Other parts of AR5 will update knowledge and understanding on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability (in March 2014) and mitigation of climate change (April 2014). A final synthesis report is due in October 2014.

Some might see such rigorous investigation – and the likely intense debate to follow – an academic luxury that a planet in peril cannot afford. But resolving ambiguities and providing details are essential for sound policy responses – as well as to deal with climate skeptics.

Global to Local

As the bigger picture becomes clearer, scientists and activists alike are calling for political level action. Most governments are not used to working with decades long planning horizons.

How can global or regional level scenarios be linked to national and local level realities of now and here?

Tarzie Vittachi

Tarzie Vittachi

Relating the global to the local is a formidable communications challenge. Eminent Lankan journalist and editor Tarzie Vittachi (1921-1993) once noted how most people live their entire lives under ‘weather’ – i.e. at the small picture level – and can hardly relate to ‘climate’ (averaged trends over a longer period).

At that time, Tarzie was speaking metaphorically. Today, it is also literal.

We need to combine the bigger picture perspective — from IPCC and other sources — with reality checks at the smaller picture (or pixel) level. A healthy mix of rational thinking and emotional appeal stands a better chance of helping non-specialists to grasp climate change.

As a journalist and documentary film maker, I have covered climate change for 25 years. I’ve grappled with big fat reports, interviewed top experts and gone to the field with activists. My impressions at local and community levels have been especially moving.

A dozen years ago, as part of an Asian regional documentary making project, I commissioned the first-ever documentary on climate change made by a native Pacific islander. (Until then, their story had been told by visiting foreign film makers.)

The half hour film, titled Voices from the Waves (2002), was directed and produced by Bernadette Masianini of Fiji. Filmed in her native country and on Kiribati, it looked at how changing climate was affecting islanders’ lives and work.

At one point in this film, we visit Mrs Saipolua who lives in Kiribati where no place is higher than a few feet above the sea. She complains about having had to move her home twice in a decade due to the receding shoreline.

For Kiribati’s 82,000 inhabitants, climate change isn’t some futuristic scenario; its impacts are already lashing on their doorstep.

“Our house used to be in that spot,” Mrs Saipolua points to a place that’s now claimed by the sea. “This is where we relocated to the second time.”

The moment of truth comes when she takes us to several tombstones on the verge of being washed away. “Even the final resting places of our loved ones are not spared…..The sea action had cracked the gravestones,” she says.

Extract from Voices from the Waves

To me, this simple sequence came as compelling testimony on the impact that climate change is already having on people who have probably never heard that term. It opened my eyes – and heart.

On the Frontline

That personal lament of a woman could soon be the tale of woe of millions living on small, low-lying islands and coastal areas. It has prompted their political leaders to become vocal climate activists.

After becoming the first democratically elected leader of the Maldives in November 2008, President Mohamed Nasheed turned an articulate climate campaigner. Nasheed saw his people being “on the frontline of climate change impact”.

And with good reason: with an average ground level of 1.5 metres (5 feet) above sea level, his is the lowest (and flattest) country on the planet.

“This [climate change] is a very real threat to us. Even now, some islanders are having to move homes from where they lived to elsewhere. There are serious coastal erosion problems. So that’s all very real — and it’s happening now!” he told me in an exclusive television interview filmed in August 2009.

Read full interview with President Nasheed at: http://tiny.cc/MNCCInt

Watch 6-min short film Small Islands, Big Impact featuring excerpts from interview with President Nasheed

Sea level rise is nothing as dramatic as some Hollywood films make out. It’s a gradual process that chips away land, lives and hopes over decades. Eventual inundation is preceded by more immediate impacts such as salt water intrusion and declining fish stocks.

Capturing such nuances without exaggeration or activist shrill isn’t easy. Too many climate documentaries fail because they pack too many facts and figures — and too little emotion.

Thanks to IPCC and others, the rational case for climate change action is clear. But it’s emotional appeal that can turn the political debate.

Himalayan Tsunami

It’s not only coastal dwellers or islanders who already live on the frontline. Up in the Himalayas, for example, thousands of villagers face the threat of flash floods that could wipe them out any moment.

Himalayan glaciers are slowly melting due to rising temperatures (though not as fast as once estimated). Water from these flows down valleys and form glacial lakes:  as more water gathers, adding pressure and weight, their natural banks of rock and soil can breach. A 2005 study cautioned that 20 of 2,315 glacial lakes in Nepal were in danger of bursting.

In 2009, I asked a Nepali camera crew to interview villagers of Bedding, who are living under the shadow of a ‘Himalayan tsunami’. Their village is immediately downstream of the Tsho Rolpa glacial lake, formed during the past 40 years by the melt water from Tradkarding glacier.

Pema Sherpa, a village elder, first noticed the new lake as a young boy of 12. It has since grown 20 or 30 times, he says. “If the lake bursts, it could damage not only our villages, but as far downstream in TamakosiRiver as Bihar, India!” he warns.

Here too, a woman best sums up her community’s plight. Housewife Pasang Futi told our Nepali crew: “If it bursts, no one in our village will be saved. All will go…we can’t run away. There’s no place to run away. So we will just die.”

South Asia: Crowded Land, Drying Rivers 

From Himalayan heights to the low lying islands in Indian and Pacific Oceans, frontline communities are living with climate change. Their voices can provide emotional and moral weight to expert analysis.

When captured well, small pixels can be even more compelling than the bigger picture.

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

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About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
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4 Responses to When Worlds Collide #85: Climate Change – Big picture and small pixels

  1. Pradeep J says:

    Have you read State of Fear by Michael Crichton and, if so, what do you think of the views on global warming in it? It’s a book that confused me big time and I’d appreciate the opinion of someone like you.

    • @Pradeep J,
      I’m a fan of Michael Crichton thriller novels and movies based on them. He knew how to scare modern day humans out of their wits. He was a scientifically trained person (medical doctor by profession) but in his later novels he increasingly peddled – and amplified – popular paranoia about concepts in information technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology and climate change. Being very well informed, his plots came across as highly plausible even when he exaggerated or over-rated hazards involved in all modern technologies. Many members of the scientific community chose not to debate him as he became more and more driven by conspiracy theories.

      In my view, ‘State of Fear’ fell into this category. As far as I know, Crichton wasn’t part of the oil and coal industry funded climate denialist groups. But his fiction was gleefully seized by such groups.

      I remain an admirer of his prescience in relation to the mass media. See what I wrote in Nov 2008 when he died: http://nalakagunawardene.com/2008/11/08/michael-crichton-1942-2008-foresaw-the-fate-of-mediasaurus/

  2. Pradeep J says:

    Thanks for the link.

    I too enjoyed his previous books.
    ‘Congo’, ‘Jurassic Park’, etc. still are good thrillers while ‘The Great Train Robbery’ is exceptional.

    Yes, he peddled popular paranoia about concepts in information technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology quite plausibly but ‘State of Fear’ is so strange, almost going the other way. He is not only saying that the technology involved in measuring climate change is misused but that it is fundamentally flawed.

    In other areas he enhanced the paranoia to write good thrillers but in ‘State of Fear’ he is saying there is no reason for the paranoia. I just can’t get it. Made me wonder whether he had just got out of a turbulent marriage with a fanatical environmentalist !

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