It's getting hot here: Southern advocacy to address climate change

A new advocacy toolkit aims to close the gap between the science and the lacklustre ambition and action by the public and policy makers on climate change.

Hannah Reid's picture
Guest blog by
9 January 2015

Nine toolkits are available to share the experiences of Southern networks carrying out climate change advocacy (Image: Southern Voices)

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports show that greenhouse gases are at the highest levels in history and that climate change is changing human and natural systems. 2014 was the hottest year on record and 2012 set a record for economic losses from disasters

While the science is clear, affecting people's attitudes to climate change is less clear-cut. 

Some policymaking models suggest that public awareness of climate change can be heightened if people are provided with clear scientific knowledge, which will spur on strong political responses. 

Europe fits this model better than elsewhere. Results from a 2007/08 Gallup poll of people from 128 countries from around the world showed that awareness about climate change in Europe was high, and some 59 per cent of people saw climate change as a very or somewhat serious threat to them and their family. Europe has been notable in its leadership at the UN climate change negotiations, and eight out of the ten top performing countries in a recent climate change performance assessment (PDF) were European.

But this linear model – whereby knowledge affects public opinion and political action – does not reflect reality in the South, or, indeed, even in some countries in the north. 

Take America as an example. Results from the same Gallup poll cited above showed that almost all Americans aged 15 and above were aware of climate change, but 35 per cent of them didn't believe climate change was a serious threat. Neither did many Russians and Chinese; more than one-third of each (Russia 36 per cent and China 38 per cent) thought it didn't pose a serious threat to them or their families.

Over a third (61 per cent) of the world's population were unaware of global warming, with developing countries less aware than developed, according to the same Gallup poll. People in Africa were least aware of climate change, despite their particular vulnerability to its potential effects. Almost half the population interviewed (48 per cent) in sub-Saharan Africa hadn't heard of climate change and only 36 per cent believed that global warming posed a threat to themselves and their families.

The poll showed that where populations are more likely to be vulnerable to the effects of climate change, their perception of the threat posed is, ironically, relatively low.

Communications gap

We need to address the gap between scientific knowledge of climate change, which tells us that we urgently need to address the problem, and the priority that the general public, media and policymakers place on the issue.

While the process of influencing public opinion is a complex business, perhaps more effort to address this gap would help civil society shout loudly enough to bring the level of political action and ambition at both international and national levels in line with what science tells us is needed.

Accountability to the electorate varies between countries in the South, but greater climate change awareness among the general public in the South could push elected leaders and other influential stakeholders to prioritise climate change. With current trends indicating the world will move beyond the 1.5-degree target, sensible policy responses in the countries most vulnerable to climate change are needed more than ever.

Many Southern NGOs and networks working on climate change are carrying out advocacy activities in their countries using a 'learning by doing' approach. Some of these networks and civil society organisations have been able to shift government policy, raise awareness and make the connection between climate change and local development issues at the national level. 

For example, the Climate Change Working Group in Zimbabwe, a coalition of environmental and developmental civil society organisations, individuals, academia and local media representatives, has successfully advocated for a national climate change policy and strategy. The Media Learning Group in Vietnam is improving networking between media professionals and NGO advocates to improve the way climate change issues and projects are communicated in the country. More of this advocacy work is needed. You can find out more in this report (PDF).

The road ahead

A new set of climate change advocacy toolkits share the experiences of Southern networks carrying out climate change advocacy, and provide guidance on how to plan and deliver climate change advocacy activities. 

The nine toolkits show how to plan and strengthen advocacy networks, frame the debate through good communications and by engaging the media, influence decision-makers and engage the public. They particularly emphasise how to support poor and vulnerable communities to get their voices heard by policy makers. The toolkits, developed by the Southern Voices on Climate Change programme, are available in English, French and Spanish, and focus on the following topics:

  1. Start here! Introducing advocacy and the climate change advocacy toolkitsOne of the nine advocacy toolkits produced by Southern Voices (Image: Southern Voices)
  2. Planning advocacy
  3. Framing the debate: Messages and communication 
  4. Strengthening advocacy networks
  5. Influencing decision makers 
  6. Engaging the public
  7. Engaging the media
  8. Supporting local voices
  9. Policy implementation and finance

We need to get better at closing the gap between what the science tells us is needed, and the scale and ambition of political responses. Improving our advocacy skills is a key way to do this.

Dr Hannah Reid (hannah.reid@iied.org) is a research associate with IIED's Climate Change Group and biodiversity team.

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