Climate change risks and uncertainties: How media communicates

Climate change is no more a research topic.  Evidence of human activity induced climate change is no longer deniable.  The IPCC Fourth Report has concluded that it is extremely likely that the global temperature increase that has taken place since mid 19th century has been caused by human activities.  Sign of climate change already detectable have drawn attention to the need to incorpoporate both mitigation and adaptation into economic  development plans and policies.  Climate change is a changing strategic risk requiring decisions to be made by governments, regulatory bodies, national and international corporations, that will allow impacts  to be managed and opportunities to be harvested.

Climate change Risks & Uncertainties for India:

Climate change risks to the India subcontinent are high and multidimensional.  Predicted rise in regional temperature and changes in the global climate system would alter monsoon system leading to 10-15% increase in monsoon precipitation, 5-25 % decline  in  precipitation levels in semi-arid and drought-prone Central India and a decline in winter rainfall in northern  India which implies decline in wheat and mustard crops in northwestern India, which will have a significant impact on national food security, regional crop mixes and resultant demand for irrigation.  Another study has predicted decrease  in number of rainy days over much of India  along with increased frequency of heavy rainfall during the monsoons.  Extreme precipitation events like the one in Mumbai in 2005 are predicted to increase substantially.  The most serious impact would be in river hydrology  in the Indo-Gangetic Plan and Brahmaputra river due to glacial melt and retreat of  Himalayan glaciers.  Significant changes in river hydrology and the demand for water for drinking and irrigation could have a dramatic effect on the growth and development of many towns and cities expected to mushroom across the fertile plans in coming decades.  Besides this, a mean sea-level rise that could reach 0.8 mts over the century would endanger huge stretches on the west coast including Mumbai, Kutch, parts of Konkan & Kerala, while significant settlement area is expected to be lost in the deltas of Ganges, Mahanadi,  Krishna, Godavari and Cauvery rivers on the eastern coast.

Climate change risks to urban areas can be seen in the massive expected transition in city growth wherein India’s urban population is expected to grow from the current 300 million to over 700 million by 2060  amidst a sombre scenario of inadequate water and sanitation, sewarage, solid waste management, poor housing, unreliable & inadequate  public transport system, poor roads,etc.. Climate change is also expected to accentuate environment related health risks specially water washed diseases like cholera & typhoid, diseases from lack of water and sanitation, besides malaria, which is predicted to aggravate from its current endemic areas of north and northeast India to become a pan-India phenomenon.

Managing a complex of six major risk groups i.e. temperature and changing precipitation patterns, droughts,  flooding and extreme rainfall, cyclones and storm surges, sea level rise and environmental health risk is a severe public policy and adaptation management challenge.  A risk-based approach to decision making is necessary to ensure that the uncertainity  is acknowledged and treated rigorously in the decision-making process. Assessment of risk is a complex undertaking requiring scientific and technical knowledge not just from climate scientists, but also from those who understand the consequences of those decisions on business, investment, society, etc Basically a risk management strategy reduces vulnerability by identifying win-win situations, no regrets decisions, or identifying other parties willing to accept the risks like insurance companies.

Since 1992 India has undertaken 4 offically supported national technical assessment of climate change risks.  Though co-ordinated by the Ministry of Environment & Forests, they were externally driven and primarily focussed on climate change science closely allied to the IPCC agenda and trends of analysis.  They were rather weak in engaging with the complex nature and intensity of vulnerability which is the most critical factor in risk management

How Media communicates these risks and uncertainities:

Despite  overwhelming amount of scientific evidence that human activities are causing global warming, debates about climate change are still characterised by a huge amount of uncertainity.   Uncertainity about climate change is unfortunately becoming a barrier to public engagment with climate change and behavioural change to fight it.  The most important task for effective communication about climate change is being clear that uncertainity is not an enemy of science but rather its stimulus and driver.  Like any area of complex science, uncertainty is a feature of climate science which will never go away.  Communicators and journalists have to first understand that science does not deal with certainties, but it weighs up evidence and tells which of the several options has the most support.  Therefore getting the message across that uncertainty is not a bad thing, that normal people’s everyday decisions are based on a certain amount of uncertainty will help to combat the belief that uncertainty should equal to no action.

Hitherto communicating climate change information  to both policy makers as well as to the general public has been insufficient.  It has been the opinion of some journalists that a monothilithic statement on climate science knowledge every five years is no longer the most helpful way to communicate climate change risks and uncertainties.  Instead  smaller more focussed reports aimed at target  audiences would not only make a more useful statement about climate science knowledge, but will also  be a less vulnerable target for climate change sceptics.  One mistake in the entire document  can  give reason for some to doubt the veracity of the entire climate change cannon.  Of course to the defence of the IPCC it should be said that they tried to quantify the uncertainties around climate change, and in their Fourth Report (2007) they specified specific probability ranges (  like more than 90%) and linked them to specific terms ( like ‘very likely’) and used these probability ranges and linked specific terms throughout the Report.

As a communicator it is necessary to explain to the people the difference between scientific uncertainty and the uncertainty that  comes from deciding how to respond to what climate change science tells.  Science can tell us about possible impacts but the choice of decisions based on what science says is left entriely to decision-makers.  It is essential to lubricate the science-policy interface with effective communication.  Climate scientists need to interact more and more with policy-makers and  climate science communicators.

Research shows that the best way way to deal with uncertainty is to talk about climate change as a risk.  Framing the issue as a risk turns the problem into something most people, social scientists, insurance companies can understand and relate to. Risk can be brought out through vivid mental images like rising sea levels washing away marine infrastructure, etc.  Research also shows that when uncertainty  is framed in a positive way, for example, when losses are shown as not occurring when  action is taken, then people are more likely to be goaded to take pro-environment action rather than resignation to fate.  Uncertainty is therefore not an inevitable barrier to action provided communicators frame climate change messages positively that can trigger cautious action in the face of uncertainty. We have a good example in the UK Climate Impact Programme which gives probable impact of climate change in various regions with visual images and probability information, which is more likely to goad people to action rather than resign to fate.

It is important to understand that media due to various agenda, or lobbying or misinterpretation or pure misunderstanding does not always report scientific research as intended by scientists. There has been much inaccurate reporting about climate change-related risks due to poor press releases put out by organisations.  The press is sometimes criticised for interpreting too simplistically a basic journalistic norm of providing balanced set of views, which can lead to presenting competing points of view on a scientific issue as equally supported which in fact they are not.  This creates the impression that the causes of climate change are more controversial than they actually are.

Often the media reports environmental issues as events rather than a process, like for example concentrating on the number of casualties due to a flood or drought or earthquake, etc.  If the story was looked at as a proces,  and not just as an event, then journalists could look at issues like what governance failures were responsible or contributed to the occurance of the disaster.

What is badly needed is extending communication to knowledge management so that through a community of practice approach, a network of stakeholders is built for the exchange of information, ideas, best practices,  technological lessons learnt, etc.  This will help built resilience of the community to climate change impacts whilst reducing their vulnerability.  And in that,  part of the war against climate change could be won!

This is a talk I gave during a seminar on ‘ Climate Change Risks & Uncertainties: How Media  Communicates’  at Centre for International Post-graduate Studies in Environment Management, Technical University of Dresden, Germany, which I attended on 19th April, 2013.