Re-Imagine Climate Change Communication

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Show Off Our World and People Will Save It: Is This Enough for Climate Change Communication?

Impulse text by Dr. Inez Ponce de Leon, Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines

I am both a molecular biologist and a science communication scholar: I was socialized to believe that scientific knowledge would save the world, and that we needed information in order to thrive, survive, and make decisions. This is not surprising: many scientists are trained this way because they learn science this way. They have to sit down in a classroom for a few hours and take notes, and then go to a laboratory to produce research that will then be published and add to our store of knowledge.

There is nothing wrong with this setup. Knowledge and information are key when making decisions, but they are not the only ways to make decisions. As I progressed in my science career, I also began working with other scientists to inform people about genetics and (my favorite subject at that time) genetically modified organisms. I saw the world as an objective place where people needed only knowledge, beautified and dressed up, in order to move forward in their lives. I could not understand why farmers and NGO workers shouted at me and told me that I wasn’t reasonable. What else could science be but reasonable, and imparted via facts?

As I entered science communication, however, I understood why facts are not everything. The rest of the world is not socialized in the sciences, and it is not sitting down like some blank slate, awaiting the verdict and wisdom of scientists. Science is one among many languages that we speak, one among many cultures in which we work, one among many systems of knowledge that we draw information from. Science is one among many, and insisting on its dominance was dangerous because I made no effort to study the people whom I professed to serve.

Thus began my research into the different paradigms of research, and how each paradigm informs how communication is carried out.

Paradigms: Classifying Research, Directing Communication

When I first came to climate change communication, I had to let go of the idea that everything hinged on the information I would show to people. I also advocated – and continue to advocate – the use of a systematic method of carrying out research and proposing communication projects. This method is guided by Brian Trench’s concept of the models of science communication, but I added the paradigms as written by Lincoln and Guba when they first attempted to systematize qualitative research.

Paradigms are ways of seeing the world: they dictate the assumptions we make about the nature of reality, what we believe to be legitimate science, what we think are trustworthy research findings, and what we believe to be valid knowledge. Each paradigm is a self-contained structure of logic; each paradigm is mutually exclusive, because there are varying ways of understanding the world, and each way is governed by a belief of how reality is structured.

Post Positivism believes in an objective reality that is made up of predictable patterns, but which can only be approximated given the lack of complete individual objectivity on behalf of researchers. Instead of relying on individual researchers to measure reality objectively, post-positivism relies on collective objectivity (hence the need for peer review). Post positivism also holds knowledge in high regard, since knowledge, no matter whether it is expressed in images or words, and no matter what its language, is deemed objective.

In such a paradigm, communication is carried out entirely by a science communication professional who relies on knowledge and information. This information is packaged according to the perceived needs and wants of an audience, and then is sent out, all with the expectation that people will make predictable choices and will act on the information/message in predictable ways. This is the method behind websites, printed communication materials, and documentaries on climate change. There is hardly any consultation with a community or audience, and the power of delivering the message lies entirely in the hands of the researcher.

Critical Theory believes in an objective reality that cannot be seen, simply because years of socialization – as brought about by class struggles that give rise to cultural beliefs and ideologies – can cloud our view of this objective reality. We see what we are taught to see, says critical theory; we therefore cannot objectively see the world, and only those who experience a phenomenon can see it for what it truly is.

When applied to climate change, critical theory posits that different communities see the problem in their own way; they must be empowered to solve their own problem by first acknowledging the problem, and then formulating their own solution. This is at the root of many grassroots communication projects, which facilitate discussions in communities. These discussions should ideally lead to community unity and cooperation. Examples might include asking communities to create a map of their community, so that they can identify vulnerable areas, or what makes them vulnerable to hazards.

Constructivism does not believe in an objective reality. Rather, it posits that we all construct our reality based on our language. We see what we have a name for, says constructivist thought. Therefore, we cannot objectively see or experience what others do, but we can all engage in conversation so that we can appreciate other people’s reality and therefore work together on a solution.

When applied to climate change, constructivism posts that different communities see the problem in the way that their language has taught them, and to work with them, we all have to engage in constant conversations and cooperation. This is at the root of many conversation-based communication projects, such as that written about by Peter Rudiak Gould in his account of climate change in the Marshall Islands.

Not all communication is about a transfer of information. Communication can be facilitated in such a way that communities have the power to solve their own problems. Communication can be conversational in such a way that communities and subject-matter experts can come together to find a solution.

And not all decisions are based on information – this is a new insight I received after doing research on Philippine communities affected by Typhoon Haiyan.

Every Community Sees Risk Through a New Set of Eyes

The Philippines is no stranger to extreme weather events, but as of late, we have had violent storms. One was Haiyan in 2013: we had storm surges as high as 17 m on the eastern seaboard, and provinces on the western seaboard (which had hitherto not been hit by violent storms) were destroyed. Warnings about Haiyan had been sent out days before the event, and many blamed the government for a variety of things: template warnings that had no context, slow information dissemination, and even not translating the term “storm surge” into native languages.

All these assumptions belong to the Post Positivist, deficit model of communication, which assumes that people need scientific information in order to make a decision. I traveled to five different locations to look at how people understood the warnings: 2 on the eastern seaboard, which always experiences violent storms; 1 on the western seaboard, new to the phenomenon; and 2 in the center, where storms do pass, but where communities are finding ways to change the way they live in order to adapt to a new normal.

I thought that people would understand storms and ask for more information about the weather. Instead, every single province I went to had a different culture; and within communities in that province, there were even more sub-cultures. Every single place saw the phenomenon differently!

Eastern seaboard towns were so used to typhoons that they didn’t care because they believed God would save them – and if God didn’t, then it was their time to go anyway. They just wanted to be told where to evacuate. They didn’t care about information. They wanted to be helped. They wanted the storm surge to be called a tsunami because they saw tsunamis on TV, and that was what the storm surge looked like.

The western seaboard towns knew what a storm surge was. They did not want any translation. They just wanted to be told about the weather earlier. They wanted to receive information. One town had a system in place to deal with hazards, but the other did not, because they said they could just wait for the town mayor to tell them what to do.

One central town, on an island, had trained people to evacuate whenever they were told; but they knew nothing about the science of storms. They did have rich indigenous knowledge that they used to gauge their environment. Another central town on another island was slowly developing its own ways of dealing with storms, but the most interesting way was how communities bonded after Haiyan and created their own networks of passing on information from neighbor to neighbor.

What does this mean for climate change communication? We have different community cultures, and at the community level we have different ways of seeing the world that do not necessarily involve having to know what sea level rise means or what GHG emissions are. One mayor, in fact, lamented how people in the Philippines were being pressured to change their habits, when the Philippines was merely a victim, and the bigger countries (or the bigger cities in the Philippines) were the ones truly at fault.

Mine is a country of over 7000 islands and over 100 living languages. Mine is a country of cultures that have existed for thousands of years, but that have changed drastically with the arrival of Spanish, then American, then Japanese colonizers. Mine is a country of different understandings, and simply laying down templates of graphs and charts, or simply showing beautiful images of vanishing wildlife, or simply talking about emptying watersheds and flooded streets will not be enough to teach climate change.

How do we communicate climate change, a long term subject, for places where indigenous knowledge is rich, but communities have been taught to wait for aid and information? How do we communicate climate change, an interdisciplinary subject, for groups that do not want to find out more information? That do not have the necessary habits of looking for more information or asking questions? That have different cultures even when communities are mere hours away from each other?

What kind of world do we show to those people whose worlds are governed by experience and the here and now?


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