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A climate of no change

The common man in Pakistan still cannot relate with climate change. Why?

A climate of no change

The signs that the earth is warming are strewn all over. Pakistan itself is a witness to rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, shifting seasons and sea water intrusion. Elsewhere, you hear of early spring arrival, coral reef bleaching, and the spread of disease. Some call this global weirding.

“We are now well past the ‘ifs’ and ‘whens’ of climate change — it is unfolding here and today — whether we’re ready or not!” points out Nalaka Gunawardene, a Sri Lankan science writer and journalist who has been covering climate change for over 25 years, speaking to TNS.

And yet we seem to be ignoring these signs. The BBC’s Media Action Project report Climate Asia, found that in 2013, 65 per cent of Pakistanis did not know the meaning of climate change and ascribed extreme weather events to the will of God.

To be fair, there are feeble endeavours at neighbourhood, household and individual levels — recycling of trash , turning the stove off instead of allowing it burn on low flame, turning water taps off while showering, not washing the car with a hose… so on and so forth, but these attempts have not helped abate global warming. It’s too little, too late.

On the other extreme end are the apocalyptic warnings by the scientific community falling on our deaf ears.

“I rarely think about it; it doesn’t interest me, I don’t even understand half of it; El Nino, whatever that is, is happening thousands of miles away; what does it matter if a little bit of the Arctic ice melts; I will not live long enough for it to affect me” are common responses ringing out across the globe.

There are some who don’t feel they are the trustees of the earth or owe anything to the future generation vis a vis leaving the planet in a livable shape. “The next generation will come up with its own ways to save the planet,” they say.

Poorly understood phenomenon

Part of the reason for this apathy, even a decade after Al Gore sounded the alarm with his film, An Inconvenient Truth, says Gunawardene, is that the “phenomenon” remains poorly understood by “many policy makers and most of the South Asian public.

“Either too much is blamed on climate change, or too little. Either way, sufficient political will cannot emerge until there is more policy clarity,” he points out.

Read also: Adaptation before mitigation

People have to begin to see climate as an issue that affects their health, wealth and children’s welfare, says Gunawardene, who was part of the team of consultants that prepared Sri Lanka’s national climate change adaptation strategy.

While climate is difficult to define since no one has a timeframe of whether it is a trend over a decade, a century or a millennium; or over how much swath of the globe; defining climate change is even more problematic. How does a 2 degree centigrade rise in temperature actually affect the life of an ordinary man?

Environmentalists like Adil Najam, the dean of the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, at Boston University, insist “water, food, shelter, health…this is what climate change is all about. What could be more important [than these] to the common man?”

But whether the common man can or cannot relate to these highfalutin terms spewed out by the scientific community, environmentalist like Adil Najam, the dean of the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, at Boston University, insists “water, food, shelter, health…this is what climate change is all about. What could be more important [than these] to the common man?”

Climate change has to be brought closer to home

“Experts talk about climate change and journalists write about it as a ‘global’ issue rather than a Pakistani issue,” says Najam, adding that only when it becomes a high priority ‘political’ issue will media become serious.

“That means people will have to start getting angry about environmental degradation — about needless deaths in floods in Gilgit, about heartless neglect of drought in Thar, about manageable heatwaves in Karachi… get angry about it the same way we now get angry about corruption. When that happens, maybe we will see change,” he exclaims.

Read also: Editorial

Development practitioner, Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, heading Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) would like it to be addressed as a development issue. “Unless people see it as that and realise that the damage caused by the disasters are hampering development, there will be apathy towards climate change,” he says.

Connecting the dots

Recalling his mentor, Sri Lankan editor, Tarzie Vittachi’s advice that ‘ordinary people live and work in the day-to-day weather, thereby, unable to relate to long-term climate,’ Gunawardene says journalists face the challenge of linking climate change to everyday people’s issues. He says it can easily be covered as a political, security and/or a business story. “Even the cost of living can be linked to climate impacts. For example, when prices of food grains and vegetables fluctuate with extreme weather events,” he explains.

Still, to be fair, Gunawardene says the media has done a great deal to raise this issue in the public mind. But what is lacking still is sharp analysis and even sharper delivery. At the moment, he finds some media coverage “alarmist” and others failing to “connect the dots” leaving the audiences confused.

“There are no shortcuts: media needs to cover the complexity (including scientific uncertainties) of this big story. It’s time climate change coverage moved beyond science or environment pages/sections/strands in the media,” he says.

Najam blames the experts for having failed to communicate the relevance or urgency in real and “Pakistani terms”.

It’s not the lexicon!

Climate expert, Fahad Saeed, heading the Climate Change Unit at the Islamabad-based think tank Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) begs to differ that climate change suffered from a serious language/communication problem.

Calling the arm chair climate experts “dabblers” who hail from as varied a field as agriculture, water resources, health and have taken upon commenting and writing on the issue without carrying out any “thorough research”, he blames them for causing the confusion not only amongst the general public, but also the policy makers.

“It is the lack of putting forth convincing arguments that we remain unable to take the big chunk of the society on-board, even in large cities,” he adds.

Despite the conundrum around climate change acceptance, the evidence is all too clear and for all to see. Then why is no one scared of the looming threat climate change seems to be posing? “People do not prepare for threats that seem too far out in the future,” says Sheikh, who is also Climate and Development Knowledge Network’s (CDKN) Asia director.

Therefore, he insists, it is important to make adaptation plans that don’t span years but which are made on an annual basis. “The pace at which the science is changing, it is best to keep tweaking the adaptation plans as the former gets clearer,” he says, adding that these must be made by looking through the lens of Sustainable Development Goals as well as urban planning. “I am happy to note that LEAD has been supporting the process in Sindh province with their annual development plan and I know Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are following suit.

Zofeen T. Ebrahim

Zofeen T. Ebrahim
The author is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.

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