OPINION: People in the Global South need new messages about climate change

Friday, 30 July 2021 12:30 GMT

Vehicles move through a flooded road next to the trees fallen over railway tracks after being damaged by strong winds caused by the Cyclone Hudhud in the southern Indian city of Visakhapatnam October 14, 2014. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday pledged funds for relief and reconstruction efforts along the country's cyclone-hit east coast as reports emerged of food shortages and panicked survivors looting an aid truck. REUTERS/R Narendra

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To communicate climate change to people living in India and other parts of the Global South, use local examples - like flooding - that relate to people’s lives and livelihoods.

Arindam Roy is a scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology

Endangered polar bears perched on ice floes. Temperatures rising by 1.5 degrees.

Communicate climate change this way to people living in the Global South and you will lose 60% of them.

Melting Arctic ice affecting the habitat of the Monarch butterfly? Another 25% of your audience has gone.

Understanding net-zero? And that’s the remaining 15%.

These numbers are not plucked out of thin air. I run a communication platform which engages and educates people about climate change in Bengali, a language spoken by 250 million people primarily in India and Bangladesh.

Every Saturday morning for the last 12 months, we have run workshops on climate change for students, NGOs, corporates and farmers.

The figures above are based on feedback from over 100 of these workshops on effective ways to engage people on climate change.

So what’s wrong with talking about temperature change?

A flagship U.N. science report on Monday showed no one is safe from the accelerating effects of climate change and there is an urgent need to prepare and protect people as extreme weather and rising seas hit harder than predicted.

The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), written by 234 scientists, said global warming of about 1.1 degrees Celsius has brought many changes in different regions – from more severe droughts and storms to rising seas.

Many leading newspapers across Asia focused on the perils associated with the temperature change highlighted in the report. But consider the reader living near the tropics who often experiences summer temperatures of between 45-50 degrees Celsius.  That person might well have simply skimmed the headline and moved on. 

 Incremental temperature change, while important, is not the ideal way to talk about climate change; at least in Global South. 

The same applies to discussing a rise in sea levels of a few inches: it’s very difficult for people to visualize how a change like that will impact their lives.

As for permafrost and polar bears, a person who has only ever seen ice in the freezer will often struggle to comprehend continental-scale ice-breaking or Polar habitat loss.

The best way to communicate climate change to people living in countries like India and other parts of the Global South is to use local examples that relate to people’s lives and livelihoods.

Climate change communication should be place-specific and delivered to people in their own language with examples that make sense in their daily lives.

Different communities face different risks due to climate change.

Climate threats in urban tropical slums are different from those faced by fishing communities or corporates working in cities.

The risk of floods, heat waves and urban heat islands are more prominent for the urban population whereas rural agrarian populations can more relate to the risk of new types of pests that threaten their crops or scarcity of water.

Extreme weather events, on the rise across the Global South, are worth focusing on.

For those working in industry and corporates, the ways in which economies are changing in order incorporate sustainable development should be mentioned.

Likewise, highlighting the long-term economic benefits of practicing sustainable lifestyle like renewables, rainwater harvesting, organic gardens and nature-influenced solutions makes sense.

In short, communicating climate change should be deeply personal!

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