In Durban, a day to focus on climate communication

Insight into the thoughts of policy-makers at Climate Communications Day, the first ever day-long public forum organized by and for journalists at a climate summit. They highlight how communicating climate change is an "orphan" issue.

News, 19 December 2011

Communicating climate change is an "orphan" issue among policy-makers, according to speakers at Climate Communications Day, the first ever day-long public forum organized by and for journalists at a climate summit.

There is general agreement that communications is important, but few governments or multi-lateral institutions seem willing to support it.

Panelists and presenters at the event held on 1 December in Durban, South Africa explored innovative ways to explain the science and challenges of climate change, including the use of religion, films, business and technology.  A session on how to use games to explain the complicated subject proved especially popular.

"Covering climate change is an especially challenging task for us as journalists. It's a complex, changing and to some extent unwelcome subject area," said Heather King, a reporter from "At Climate Communications Day, we were able to share experiences, stories, new approaches and best practices. It was content-rich and a highly useful networking forum."

“While there’s all kinds of attention and support given to various aspects of climate change – clean tech, adaptation, forests, agriculture, and so on – there is very little such support given to figuring out how to communicate climate change in an effective and engaging way," adds James Fahn, Executive Director of Internews' Earth Journalism Network. "It's generally left to the media to figure out how to do that, and frankly that means in some cases it isn’t done well."

Journalists at the event emphasized the need to scale down their reference frame – to turn this global issue into local stories by humanizing them and making them more visceral. In a sometimes heated discussion that reflected both traditional tensions and the rapid changes sweeping the media field, journalists debated to what extent they should allow advocacy to creep into their reporting, although there was a general agreement that the mainstream media has failed to convey the urgency of the situation.

"The day opened the doors for a collaborative approach to understanding the global context of communicating these issues," said participant Melissa Baird, of Ogilvyearth.

More than 170 participants attended Climate Communications Day, which was organized by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN) and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). Among the journalists attending were the 19 Climate Change Media Partnership (CCMP) Fellows from 15 countries brought to the UNFCCC COP17 Climate Summit in Durban. (More on the CCMP Fellows).

Fahn welcomed participants by noting that climate communications has become a field in its own right, which deserves a day-long forum of discussion and reflection at the summit, just as there is a Forest Day and an Oceans Day.

The event then kicked off with a video address by Randy Olson, film-maker and author of Don’t Be Such a Scientist, who criticized most efforts at climate change communications being too "cerebral" and not "visceral" enough, quoting the old saying that "a single death is considered a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic."

Following an intense discussion on the best journalistic practices, there followed several sessions on using different media and other channels to explain climate issues. Pablo Suarez of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Center and Janot Mendler de Suarez of the Boston University Pardee Center ran a participatory game and explained how they can be integrated into learning and dialogue on climate change work.

A group of religious leaders – Bishop Geoff Davies of the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute, His Eminence Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, President of Caritas Internationalis and Rabbi Hillel Avidan – discussed how science and faith can work together to address climate change.

Meanwhile, Jacqueline Frank, a veteran of the film business who now oversees media capacity work at the Africa Adaptation Program (AAP), dissected and compared some of the most prominent movies and documentaries on the subject. AAP and Internews also prepared a resource document that listed video and photographic materials available on the web, mostly for free.

Climate Communications Day concluded with a panel on the role of governments and multilateral institutions, with a focus on Article 6 of the Treaty, which enjoins member states to "promote and facilitate… public awareness programmes on climate change and its effects."

Achim Halpaap of UN CC:Learn described it as an “orphan article” because it receives such little attention and support in practice. Lucia Grenna of the World Bank agreed that her organization should do more to support climate communications and vowed to continue her efforts to push for it.

"Better communication about climate change is not only a cost-effective way to promote action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also a form of adaptation, as accurate and timely information can save lives and livelihoods," said Dr. Mike Shanahan of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

"Governments have an international obligation under the UN climate change convention to support efforts to communicate about this issue, but to date few are seizing this opportunity."

Garnering support and attention to the need for better communications is one of the reasons Climate Communications Day was established, with Hewlett Packard as a presenting sponsor. The World Bank, Connect4Climate and the Italian Environment Ministry also provided support.

Internews and IIED plan to carry out a 2nd Climate Communications Day at the COP18 Climate Summit next year in Doha, where they will also host, along with Panos, the sixth cohort of Climate Change Media Partnership journalism Fellows.