Changing the Way Climate Change Is Communicated in Asia

Changing the Way Climate Change Is Communicated in Asia

Seven Asian countries. 33,500 interviews. 100 focus groups. 42 two-day assessments with communities vulnerable to climate change from the Sunderbans in Bangladesh to the heart of a Sumatran rainforest. Sometimes the numbers don’t tell you the whole story. But these numbers give you a sense of the scale of the Climate Asia project which has dominated the last two years of my life.

At the start of the project, we had a clear goal. To change the way climate change is communicated. To take it away from the preserve of the policy wonks who talk in acronyms and, instead, think about how you might talk about these issues with a taxi driver in Delhi or a farmer in Sumatra. Working at the BBC, you’re repeatedly reminded that “Audiences are at the heart of everything we do.” So we set out to do that for climate change communication. And we did it properly too, by conducting research. Lots of research.

But we couldn’t just ask people – hey, what do you think about climate change? Many people in Asia have never heard the term and in some languages the words don’t really exist. But as one Bangladeshi government representative put it, “People may not know what climate change is, but they are feeling its impact.” So, after a process of formative, qualitative research we decided to break down climate change into simple concepts that people could understand. These included:

  • Climate: changes in temperature, rainfall and extreme weather events;
  • Impact: whether their ability to earn money, keep healthy, or do their job had been affected;
  • and action: what they’d been doing to respond, from rotating crops to using renewable energy.

To change the way climate is communicated, we also needed to know what media they used, what formats they liked, as well as whom they trusted and talked to.

Conducting the research presented its own challenges. How do you cope with one of the largest power cuts in human history, or trying to conduct research when there had been floods, record temperatures or just good old-fashioned strikes -I learnt the Bengali word “Hartal” very quickly. Climbing out of an upturned car on a muddy road in the Sumatran rainforest was also fun.

The results are vast, varied and very often surprising. People are noticing changes in climate. When asked about the last 10 years, over three-quarters said that temperatures were rising. Forty percent of people said that the severity of extreme weather events had increased, while 52 percent said rainfall had been unpredictable. This surprised me. I assumed many people would not have noticed changes yet or that any changes would be very small.

People said they were experiencing impacts as a result of the changes they’d noticed. But these impacts don’t occur in a vacuum. People often described relatively small changes in temperature or rainfall interacting with development and social factors. In one community in northwest Bangladesh, villagers had to walk for hours to collect water because the ponds and wells they used have dried up. In this village, men are finding it hard to find wives, because who would want to move to a village with no water? Meanwhile all the young women are making sure they marry outside the village to improve their lives.

Communication also seems to be playing a role in affecting how people perceive change. In Nepal, where there has been quite a lot of media coverage about the future impact of climate change, people are really afraid of what might happen in the future. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. Fear can be disempowering, putting in place a psychological barrier to action for people who are already short of money and information.

But it’s by no means all bad news. The results also really reaffirm the importance of communicating with people to help them take action to respond to change. Across the region, people who felt more informed and who were involved in communities that acted together were more likely to be taking action to respond to the changes they noticed and the impacts they felt.

We also found inspiring stories of action, such as the women in Uttarakhand (in northern India) who went from village to village singing songs about the importance of protecting natural resources, or the farmers on the central coast of Vietnam who were trying an astonishing array of action to respond to floods and extreme weather.

Our research data provides a treasure trove of possibilities for people working across climate, development, media and academia and is all handily searchable on an interactive data portal with great data visualizations. You can find out everything from whether people think agricultural productivity has increased in the Mekong Delta to how often people listen to the radio in Nepal. For those of you willing to get deeper into the data, we’ve also developed a regional segmentation based on how people are feeling and responding to change – some people are struggling while others are already adapting. There are also communication guides and research tools.

Finally we’re looking at taking people’s media preferences and what we’ve learned about communicating to encourage action to create some rather interesting and innovative media. Watch this space.

Tan Copsey is a research manager at BBC Media Action working on Climate Asia, the largest ever study of people’s experience of climate change in seven countries – Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan and Vietnam.