Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today ay newspaper on 16 May 2014
Can journalists save the planet?
I posed this question in a column nearly two years ago, in June 2012.
During the early years of my career, I called myself an ‘environmental journalist’. But I dropped the label when I realised how environmental journalism was, inadvertently, ghettoising those issues within the media.
I argued: “We do need journalists to specialise in the environment and other development sectors such as health, gender and disaster management. As issues become more complex and nuanced, journalists require more knowledge and skill to make sense of it all.”
Yet we can’t leave sustainable development issues just in the hands of a few ‘green journalists’. To grasp the bigger picture, and to communicate it properly, we need the informed participation of reporters, feature writers, editors — and their broadcast counterparts — covering politics, business, technology and various other ‘beats’.
Nothing illustrates the magnitude of this challenge better than climate change caused by human induced global warming. Indeed, impacts are already being felt…and will only get worse in the coming years.
In March, the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) cautioned that South Asia will be the hardest hit region. It warned us to expect more extreme weather events such as floods and droughts. Impending water scarcities and food shortages can especially hit the poor who make up over 500 million people in our region. No one will be spared.
How can journalists tackle such a multi-faceted story without triggering alarm or spreading despair?
Communicate or Perish!
Motivating action on climate change, like any great challenge that demands a paradigm shift in how we live, is bound to be difficult, says Dr M Sanjayan, a Lankan-born conservation scientist and a prominent environmental communicator in the US media.
Sanjayan, vice president of development and communications strategy at Conservation International, a global advocacy group, believes that environmentalists and scientists have failed to build sufficient urgency for action on climate change.
Highlighting the need for new communication approaches, he wrote last year: “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.”
Journalists, as professional story-tellers, are well equipped for these tasks. They are trained to gather, process and present information and opinions to various non-specialist audiences.
To be effective in climate communication, however, journalists must rise above the typical news agenda that is preoccupied with the ‘now’ and ‘here’ (and the negative).
Much news is generated around the Conference of Parties (COP) of the UN Climate Convention (UNFCCC) which takes place in November or December every year. COPs were meant for treaty-signing governments to debate and make incremental progress on what needs to be done to address climate change. Political intrigue and deadlock at the annual ‘climate circus’ make headlines – but the real climate stories are elsewhere.
As Dipak Gyawali,water expert and former water minister of Nepal, says: “People were not sitting around waiting for an agreement… Millions are voting with their feet everyday at the grassroots level, reacting with civic science and traditional knowledge.”
Real climate stories
For the past two years, a group of South Asian journalists has tried to see beyond headlines and national borders to document how climate change is affecting the region’s diverse ecosystems, landscapes and people.
It was a two-year project managed by Panos South Asia, a regional entity, with funding from the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN). Under the South Asia Climate Change Award (SACCA) fellowships, 49 journalists — competitively selected from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – were given access to experts, taken to the field, and provided travel grants to research local and trans-boundary climate stories.
The resulting media products, numbering several hundred, went out in their own newspapers or radio/TV channels. Most have been archived at a dedicated blog: http://climatechange.panossouthasia.org
Here are a few interesting examples:
- Nepal’s Bhrikuti Rai reported new scientific findings on how dust and soot in the air are making the Himalayas melt faster. Her focus on ‘short-lived climate pollutants’ was prefaced by a call to “stop our own pollution” than just complain about the rich countries’ historical emissions.
- Indian journalist Atul Deulgaonkar’s stories in the Marathi media focused on Maharashtra state’s drought and hailstorms. Beyond reporting, he is also working with policy makers and grassroots communities to assess climate impacts on rural livelihoods.
- Sonia Malik probed why the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) has not caught up in Pakistan despite the new method requiring much less water and agrochemicals for producing higher yields.
- Ramesh Prasad Bhushal reported how local people linked sudden floods in western Nepal in mid June 2013 to large volume of water released by the Indian authorities from a dam upstream (and not just due to heavy rainfall). India denied complicity, but the controversy highlighted the need for greater collaboration in managing trans-boundary rivers.
Among the five Lankan fellows, Amantha Perera has been the most prolific. He probed on various extreme weather events and the current drought in Sri Lanka, reported on new frontiers in disaster risk reduction, and looked at how climate impacts are threatening our food production and water resources.
As a trainer and mentor for some SACCA media fellows, I have been impressed by their zeal and persistence. Most of them realize that climate is a ‘long haul’ story that keeps growing in scale and complexity.
Gopikrishna Warrier, SACCA project manager, says: “Science and people’s perception on climate change are evolving. It is in this context that media bridges the gap by disaggregating the information, promoting public discussion and promoting democratic decision-making.”
As climate communicators in South Asia, we need to strike a balance between alarmism and complacence. We also have to place climate concerns within wider development and social justice debates (and not trap it in narrow green concerns).
Good media stories are mostly local and personalised. The ‘ground zero’ of climate change is vast, distributed and evolving. After 25 years, I’m still discovering new facets of the biggest story of our time.