It will take hundreds of Al Gores or millions of ‘little people’ to overcome the political inertia on climate change

Journalist Darren Samuelsohn has quoted me in a question he put to the former Vice-President of the United States, Al Gore in a rare two-hour interview for Politico magazine.

Politico Magazine: During the “24-hour project” [a Gore-led October 2013 effort to raise awareness about climate change], there were a lot of critics who said it didn’t get the right message out, that you weren’t the best messenger, either. There was one response in particular that summed it up that came from Mike Shanahan, from the International Institute for the Environment and Development: “Climate change needs a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King or a Mandela and Al Gore is none of those.” What do you say when critics note that Al Gore as a person polarizes half the country; you need someone different to lead the cause?

Al Gore: It’s not about me. And I’ve never tried to make it about me. And far be it from me to disagree with someone who says I’m not Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela. I have to plead guilty to that charge. I wish that I had the greatness of those three men.

But I’m enough of a student of history to know that Martin Luther King Jr., to pick one example, was considered extremely polarizing and was by many hated and despised. And in the South it was not uncommon to hear people trying to appear reasonable on civil rights but nevertheless digging their heels in, who’d say, “Well, if King would just get out of the way this would just happen.” I think that whoever puts his head up above the trenches and says, “We’ve got to do this” is going to attract the ire of people who don’t want to do it. And there are plenty of them.

Samuelsohn had reached out to me because I had written a post here about Gore back in 2011. Ahead of his interview with Gore, Samuelsohn wanted to know if my views had changed. For the record, here’s the full text of my response to Samuelsohn.

History should judge Gore well, as someone who staked much upon his belief that climate change was an issue to tackle and who worked hard in public and private to convince people that this is a battle we can all fight together.

Too few people with his power and political connections have been so bold. That said, Gore lacks some credibility as a climate-change messenger as his interest in the subject has seemed to come and go. Nor should this task fall upon one man’s shoulders, even if they are as big as his. It will take hundreds of Gores or millions of ‘little people’ to overcome the political inertia on climate change.

Where Gore can have the most impact is not in other countries but at home, by working to show that action on climate change is a bipartisan issue that all Americans can get behind. It needs to be less about Gore the personality and more about Americans doing the right thing.

You can read Darren Samuelsohn’s full interview with Al Gore here. It is an enlightening read and it ends with Gore in an upbeat mood.

Al Gore: It’s clearly wrong to do what we’re doing. It’s clearly right to change. We will change. It’s just a matter of time. And again, how long? Not long.

Climate change: Teens teach where others don’t reach

A 13-year-old girl interviewed me last week about my job, through which I communicate with journalists around the world about climate change and other environmental issues. She is part of the generation that worries about such things, according to a new poll. It’s the generation from which real leadership on climate change will emerge.

The UNICEF poll – published on 17 April 2013 — found that three-quarters of British 11 to 16-year-olds were concerned about how global warming will change the world. Two-thirds of them also worried about how climate change would affect other children in other parts of the world.

The poll said these concerned children want their government to act on climate change, but they may need to do that themselves. They will need to be teachers too. This is because the British government had decided to remove climate change from the national curriculum for children under 14. It’s a move that scientists, business leaders and others have criticised as “unfathomable and unacceptable”.

It is more than this. Under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change — which was agreed in 1992 and entered into force in 1994 — nearly 200 governments agreed to promote actions to develop and implement “educational and public awareness programmes on climate change and its effects”.

Their track record so far has been pitiful. By 2010, only Belgium (on behalf of the European Union), Colombia and the Dominican Republic had submitted reports on their activities. When I wrote about this on Under the Banyan in 2011, most of the readers from around the world who commented said their governments did little or nothing to educate their population on climate change.

More recently, some countries have begun to act. Last year, the government of El Salvador made it mandatory for all educational institutions to incorporate climate risks into their teaching materials. In March this year, the Dominican Republic launched a national teacher training programme on climate change. In the United States, new science teaching standards will include extensive lessons on human-made climate change. Suddenly it looks like British children are being left behind.

Kenya’s new national climate change action plan – unveiled in March 2013 — called for climate change and its impacts to be on the primary school curriculum. It says students at secondary schools also need “to be equipped with skills to support a future climate resilient economy” and that “at university level, climate change should be infused into the various professions.” It says:

 “Civil engineers, for example, need to learn how to design and develop structures that can withstand climate shocks. Doctors need to be aware of the effects of climate change on human health, while architects should have the skills and training to design houses that are climate-proofed and energy efficient. Teachers ought to be equipped with knowledge about climate change in order for them to be suited to teach a curriculum that integrates climate change across all subjects taught at schools in Kenya. Whereas it is already the case that climate change as a subject is now being taught at Kenyan universities, there will be a need for institutions of higher learning to develop policies to ensure that all students educated there are familiar with climate change, its impact and strategies for adaptation and mitigation.”

These are all initiatives to applaud. But given that governments took nearly 20 years to act upon pledges to educate their people on climate change, it seems clear that the people will also need to teach themselves.

While parents have a role to play in climate change education, they find it hard to be truthful about climate change without scaring their children. The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media published a long essay on this topic. But where governments fail and parents feel unsure, young people can talk with confidence to their peers.

They include Esther Agbarakwe, the 19-year old Nigerian who each Wednesday uses Twitter to coordinate a live conversation between climate experts and anyone worldwide who is interested (see #climatewednesday). Or 18-year old Merna Ghaly from Egypt, a leading member of the Arab Youth Climate Movement. This month Newsweek Magazine, in the United States, named her one of the top ‘125 Women of Impact’, alongside heads of state and business leaders. Or Esha Marwaha, the 15-year old student and member of the UK Youth Climate Coalition who organised a campaign that called on the UK Department for Education to reinstate climate change into the school curriculum.

These three young women are just some of the members of new band of passionate communicators who are not waiting for teachers or parents or politicians to lead the way. They are growing in number and are increasingly connected. They cooperate internationally in ways that nations will need to if they are to tackle climate change. They are the future and they are here today. More power to them.

This post is based on the 27 April editorial I wrote for The Thumb Print magazine (India).

A changing climate demands change in narratives

Last year I wrote — here and here — about my study of how media portrayals of pastoralists in China, India and Kenya can contribute to policy narratives that limit people’s resilience to climatic variability. IIED has now published my research and a short briefing paper that presents the main findings and recommendations.

Here is a summary of the research paper, which you can download here [PDF].

Resilient food systems depend on appropriate policies that enable people to take advantage of their own adaptive capacity. Pastoralists use their mobility to take advantage of resources – pasture and water – that are patchily distributed in space and time. Pastoralism can make major contributions to food security, livelihoods and economic prosperity. However, these benefits often go unacknowledged – by policy makers, donors and the public at large. This is in part because of development and media narratives that paint pastoralism as something bad that needs to change. This paper explores how the media portrays pastoralism. To do so, we analysed the content of newspaper articles about pastoralists in Kenya, China and India, and also invited journalists in these countries to complete an online survey and telephone interview. We identified significant gaps – and inter-country differences – in the media’s portrayal of pastoralists.

And here is a summary of the briefing paper, which you can download here [PDF].

Mobile pastoralism contributes substantially to food security, livelihoods and economic prosperity, and can increase resilience to climate change; but policymakers, donors and the public at large tend not to appreciate its benefits. Policy narratives portray pastoralism as an outdated practice, and the media stories that help shape policy processes and public opinion often contribute to these false portrayals. An IIED study analysed the content of stories from media outlets in Kenya, China and India, and surveyed journalists in each country. It identified significant knowledge gaps and inter-country differences in how journalists perceive and portray pastoralists and pastoralism. The analysis also found that media outlets in these countries under-report climate change, the economic value of pastoralism and the links between pastoralist mobility and resilience. Journalists, researchers and pastoralist communities need to work together to improve media coverage of pastoralism, and by doing so highlight pastoralism’s potential contribution to sustainable development in a changing climate.

If we cook these tiny wasps, we put the heat on hundreds of other species


From the wings of tiny creatures hang the fates of hundreds of bird and mammal species, and perhaps even entire rainforests. They are fig wasps and they play a disproportionate role in the grand drama of life on Earth. They shape our own story too because of this. But new research warns that these insects could be “extremely vulnerable” to global warming.

This matters because each of the 750+ species of fig tree (Ficus species) relies utterly on particular species of fig wasp to pollinate its flowers. Without the fig wasps there would be no fig seeds to create the next generation of trees, and there would be no ripe figs for animals to eat.

In the case of any other group of trees this would not be such a big deal, but figs are special. Their pollinator wasps only live for about a day and each wasp species can only lay its eggs inside the flowers of its specific fig partner. So, to keep their pollinator species alive, each fig species needs to produce flowers and figs year-round. This means a year-round supply of food for birds and mammals, and helps to explain why figs feed more creatures than any other trees do (see A job for conservation’s keystone cops).

In the late 1990s, I set out to find out just how many animal species eat figs. The answer is an astounding 1,200-plus species, including ten per cent of all birds and six per cent of all mammals – see Who eats figs? Everybody). That’s the variety of life that stands to suffer in some way if fig-wasps disappear. Now, in a new study in the journal Biology Letters, Nanthinee Jevanandam of the National University of Singapore and colleagues provide a chilling insight into what a warmer world could mean for these wasps.

In a laboratory, they exposed the pollinators of four Ficus species to temperatures between 25°C and 38°C and to a various levels of humidity. The lifespan of all four species fell steadily as the temperature rose. By 36°C, the lifespan of three of the species had fallen to just two hours. In the wild this would give the wasps hardly any time to find a fig of the right species in which to pollinate and lay its eggs. It would hurt both wasp and fig species. This is the Achilles heel of a partnership that has existed for 80 million years. It is here that we might expect to see the relationship break down, with consequences for other species.

This has happened before. In the 1990s, fig-wasps in northern Borneo went locally extinct after a severe drought, and in Florida they disappeared when a hurricane wiped them out. In both cases, fig-wasp populations eventually bounced back — thanks to the fact they can disperse for tens of kilometres in the day or two they live. But a sustained temperature increase — like that which climate scientists predict will be a reality worldwide by the end of the century — is a different matter. As we turn up the global temperature we change the chemistry of life.

I asked Nanthinee whether she thought fig-wasps could adapt to a rise in temperature, either in their physiology or their behaviour — by flying at a cooler time of day for instance. “Fig wasps can produce up to 12 generations in a year in the aseasonal tropics, and so acclimation or genetic adaption is a possibility,” she said. “But more research has to be carried out to ascertain this. As to the possibility flying at different times, it is difficult to predict.”

The wasp species she and her colleagues studied came from distinct branches of the fig-wasp family tree, so they think their results will be relevant to hundreds of other fig-wasp species, the trees they pollinate and the animals that eat their figs. But these little wasps might have surprises in store for us yet. After all, they survived the mass extinction that saw off the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. They might outlive us too.

Their story is a reminder that we are just new here, and that between our kisses, our fights and our smiles, we tend to stumble about breaking things before we know how they work.

Photo credit:
Valisia malayana fig-wasps at a fig of their host tree Ficus grossularioides (Nanthinee Jevanandam)

Related posts:
The humbling history of the tiny wasps that upset a Jurassic Park narrative.

Jevanandam, N., Goh, A.G.R. & Corlett, R. 2013. Climate warming and the potential extinction of fig wasps, the obligate pollinators of figs. Biology Letters 9: X-X.  Published online March 20, 2013 doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2013.0041

Missing women might explain failure of UN climate change talks


This giant spider has reminded me once again of who’s too often missing from the climate conversations we sorely need.

The spider straddles the main concourse of the Qatar National Convention Centre in Doha, host of COP18 — the 2012 round of UN negotiations aimed at tackling climate change.

This is a massive irony. While the spider — called ‘Maman’ — is a monument to motherhood, the negotiators who passed beneath her during the two-week conference were largely men.

In fact, there has never been a conference of parties (COP) to the UN climate change convention at which even one-third of the negotiators were women. In recent years women were the heads of fewer than 15 per cent of the national delegations. This chart from GenderCC shows the disparity.


This shameful pattern is set to change. One of the few rays of light to shine out of the Doha conference was a decision [PDF] by the nearly 200 governments present to promote gender equality in the negotiations.

What’s shocking is that it has taken 18 years for governments to get to this point. What’s saddening is that the language of the binding decision remains weak. It only “invites” countries to strive for gender balance in their delegations. What’s a source of hope is that gender and climate change will now be on the agenda of all future negotiations.

Until more women participate in the UN climate change conferences, we can expect a male-skewed view of the problem and ways to solve it. We can expect outcomes that fail to reflect fully the needs, wisdom and vision of half of the world’s population. And we can expect more of the bullying and indifference to suffering that have tainted the talks over the years.

The failure of the talks so far — the slow progress, the weak agreements, the lack of leadership — has been the failure of men. I’ve attended the negotiations for each of the past six years and each time I’ve come away less sure that the big men of the world who claim to be leaders have any real desire to lead.

This time it’s personal. This time I am a father-to-be with a child in my mind. So when I arrived at the Doha conference and saw the giant spider, it mesmerised me. I knew that Louise Bourgeois had made the sculpture as a tribute to her mother, who had died when Bourgeois was 21. I spent 30 minutes there deep in thought about my wonderful pregnant partner, thousands of miles away, about the family we will form together and the climatic changes our child will experience.

For the next five days, I took a photo of the spider every time I passed it and counted the number of men and women who stood beneath the sculpture. It’s not scientific, I know, but for every woman, there were 2.6 men. I wonder how many of them saw the plaque on the wall that named and explained the sculpture with a quotation from the artist:

“The spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend… Like spiders, my mother was very clever… spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.”

Clever. Helpful. Protective. That’s just what the UN climate change negotiations need to be but what, mostly in the hands of men, they are not. Perhaps they will be when more women —  more mothers — take part.


Climate change communication: ‘A’ is for audience

Suriya Begum is a poor young mother from Bangladesh. When her photograph appeared in a media story about climate change earlier this year, it was only so the article could show a victim — not so it could share her views.

The article presents plenty of facts but doesn’t refer to Suriya’s life or anyone else’s. Tan Copsey of BBC Media Action says this example highlights the potential – wasted in this case – for media outlets to explain what people know, think and feel about climate change.

Speaking at the Climate Communications Day during the COP18 conference in Doha he said: “Don’t you want to know, as a room full of communicators, how she is affected and how she gets her information?”

To answer questions like these on a grand scale, BBC Media Action’s Climate Asia project has interviewed 33,000 people in seven Asian nations. It has asked people about their values, priorities and perceptions, about where they get information, what they experience of climate change and how they react.

The full results aren’t out yet but some things are already clear, said Tan and his co-presenter Lottie Oram.

  • People across Asia are noticing climatic changes and what they see worries them.
  • Some people are adapting to new conditions. Others resist any change to their lifestyles.
  • And so far, people don’t get much information about climate change from the media, though they think it has a role to play in reaching them.

Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and IIED — where I work — organised the day to explore ways communicators can use new approaches to reach new audiences with information about climate chanage. In the discussion that followed Tan and Lottie’s presentation, it was clear that the gathered experts felt the mainstream media was failing to fulfil its potential.

First — whether in Asia or America or anywhere in between — editors still have some kind of blind-spot when it comes to climate change. There is a climate-change angle to most of what appears in a newspaper but the subject still rarely gets a mention, not even in the final paragraphs.

Even with supportive editors, journalists face some big challenges in reporting on climate change. Imelda Abaño, president of the Philippines Network of Environment Journalists mentioned the risk of danger. Indeed, across the world reporters are threatened, hurt or even killed for reporting on environmental themes.

Compared to the size of the story, media coverage of climate change remains disproportionately small. But the Climate Asia research hints that, for people like Suriya, journalism may be less effective than entertainment. It identified newer approaches to climate communication that appear to be gaining ground.

One idea from Indonesia is a ‘lifestyle-swap’ reality TV show about climate-related migration. In Vietnam, a TV game show pits farmer against farmer to show off and share knowledge of how to adapt agriculture to the changing climate.

These are the kinds of shows that appeal highly to specific audiences. And this is where Climate Asia is set to be a gold mine of information that should help people to better communicate about climate change, thanks to its detailed interviews with over 30,000 people.

At Climate Communications Day in Doha, Tan explained how the interviews in Bangladesh gave deep insights into what climate change means to women like Suriya who live in the slums of Dhaka.

Her priorities: “Her most important priorities are her child and family, shelter, electricity, food, having clean water to drink and staying healthy. She is particularly concerned about the health of her child.”

Her perceptions: “She perceives changes in climate around her. Where previously there were six seasons now she only experiences two – summer and winter. She is very worried about this and changes to her environment.”

Her actions: “She has raised her bed above the ground in case of heavy rains or floods.”

Her needs: “She’d like to do more to respond to the impacts she’s feeling but she doesn’t feel she has enough resources or information about what to do. Other people around her aren’t doing more – which is also important as she values being respected and fitting in people around her. She wants more information on how to conserve and use the resources she has.”

Her trusted sources: “She trusts the information she receives from family, friends and people from her neighbourhood. But she also trusts academics, teachers and religious leaders.”

Her use of media: “She prefers TV to other media – she trusts it because she can see it – she watches TV in a communal area, especially in the early afternoon when she’s finished with her household tasks and men from the slum are at work. She likes Bengali movies and TV drama serials. She talks about what she watches with other women in the slum. She once saw something about climate change on TV but didn’t understand it.”

Journalists and other communicators take note — especially to that final point. It is depressingly familiar. How often do climate-change communicators take the time to understand what audiences know, think and feel about climate change? Not often enough I fear.

*This post first appeared on IIED’s blog

Will Obama let the climate do all the talking?

Climate chatter may seem loud to those who seek it, but it occupies a vanishingly small part of public debate in the United States. This pair of images that Andy Revkin has shared shows this only too well.

Meanwhile, too much of what has been said and written about climate change has come from the shouters not the listeners — from oversimplifying environmental groups or conservative conspiracy theorists or powerful vested interests or proud anti-science billionaires. As an example of the latter, here’s what Donald Trump told his nearly two million followers on Twitter on 6 November 2012.

This kind of idiocy cannot sustain itself. It won’t be long before everyone knows someone who suffered the effects of an extreme climatic event. Climate change — that once intangible and distant concept — is doing the leg-work for the communicators who have struggled to make this issue feel real.

Hurricane Sandy hammered home that point. Whether or not humanity had a hand in the storm’s impact is fairly academic (see David Shukman’s report on what science can and cannot say at this stage). What really matters is that Sandy showed that even a rich city in the world’s most powerful nation is vulnerable.

Some commentators hope Sandy has blown open a door to a mature conversation in the United States about climate change. It’s a conversation the world needs Americans to have — both with each other and with the rest of us.

But a quick read of George Marshall’s thoughts on psychology and climate change suggests it might take more than disasters to get the conversation rolling.

This is where President Obama needs to step up. In his 2012 election victory speech Obama said: “We want our children to live in a world… that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” Does he mean it this time, or was this just another tease?

In the past Obama has flirted with a leadership role on climate change. But he has blown hot and cold — courting climate action in 2008 then shying away in 2009. He barely mentioned climate change in recent months — not even in the pre-election debates — and this in the year of a record-breaking US drought and super-storm Sandy.

Obama’s strategy has been to follow public opinion rather than lead it. This may have seemed astute, for few Americans are ready to confront a climate narrative that so forcefully challenges their worldviews, which hinge as they do on faith, freedom and the pursuit of the mighty dollar. But as Calestous Juma has pointed out: “The fact that you aren’t interested in climate change doesn’t mean climate change isn’t interested in you.”

It will take leadership, tolerance and safe spaces to encourage the American public to join the climate conversation. Obama must reject his old ‘now you see it… now you don’t‘ approach to climate change, which allowed his opponents to shackle the discourse to a political roller-coaster whose only destination was deadlock.

The world needs climate conversations that involve Americans as citizens, not just as Democrats or Republicans. The alternative is to let the climate itself continue to do most of the talking — and none of the listening.

A tale of typhoons, trees and tiny creatures that stood between a community and climate resilience

Nguyen Viet Nghi’s enthusiasm was infectious as he showed off a scene of remarkable renewal in what was once a disaster zone. We were in Da Loc commune, a sleepy part of Vietnam’s Thanh Hoa province. It’s a place that on a single day witnessed both the fury and the protective power of nature. The community learned well from the experience, but only after they overcame the attention of some tiny animals that threatened to spoil the story. Continue reading