By Dr. Hannah Reid
The science behind climate change is becoming increasingly clear. Each new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report provides more detail on both the physical basis of climate change and also on mitigation andimpacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. It’s not unreasonable to assume that global levels of public awareness about climate change and confidence in what steps we must take to tackle it should be equally high, and that this in turn will lead to strong political responses. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that this linear model of policy-making – whereby knowledge affects public opinion and political action – does not reflect reality.
Global Awareness on Climate Change
Some countries fit this model better than others. In Europe, for example, results from a 2007/2008 Gallup poll showed that awareness about climate change is high, and some 59% of people see 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 10 top performing countries in a recent climate change performance assessment were European.
In other parts of the world, however, the picture is quite different. The general public in Africa, where people are particularly vulnerable to climate change, is amongst the least aware about climate change issues. The 2007/2008 Gallup poll revealed that some 48% people in sub-Saharan Africa had not even heard of climate change. Few thus believe that global warming will have serious consequences.
In the USA, a Gallup poll in 2014 concluded that more than half of Americans were a little or not at all worried about climate change. This could in part be because of a concerted effort to refute or undermine the scientific consensus on climate change. For example, between 2002 and 2010, anonymous conservative billionaires donated nearly US$120 million to more than 100 anti-climate groups casting doubt on the science behind climate change.
Who to Blame for Slow Progress?
Many NGOs and individuals – myself included – hoped our leaders would use the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference to take the decisive action required to address climate change. We left Copenhagen disappointed, and in some instances disillusioned with both our leaders and the UNFCCC as a global forum for addressing climate change. But could the apparent weak political commitment seen at Copenhagen and other fora be in part because of weak public pressure? We must not forget that in democracies, the electorate chooses the politicians whose job it is to represent and serve them. If the electorate isn’t loudly demanding that climate change be prioritized, perhaps it is no surprise that our representatives don’t take the decisive action that science tells us is needed.
The Communication Gap
So how can we shout louder? How can we engage and motivate the general public in our respective nations to prioritise climate change above other concerns? How can we get better at mobilising civil society through climate change advocacy? Since the Copenhagen conference I have personally chosen to focus more of my efforts here. I still believe that the UNFCCC provides the best platform for negotiating a global deal on climate change, but I think work at this level needs complementing with greater efforts to engage the general public and push for change from the bottom-up.
Each year, UNEP produces an Emissions Gap Report. This shows the widening gap between what reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are needed to keep within an acceptable range of global warming, and what is occurring. The first UNEP Adaptation Gap Report assesses the gap between adaptation needs and reality. But I argue that there is another gap we need to address: a communications gap between scientific knowledge and public perceptions of climate change. Perhaps more effort to address this gap would help raise the profile of climate change enough to bring the level of political action and ambition in line with what science tells us is needed.
A Short History of Climate Change Advocacy
Climate change advocacy perhaps began at the international level, with NGOs working to influence governments negotiating emerging global agreements and monitoring the implementation of these agreements. Many of these NGOs have also been active at national levels, pushing industrialised country governments to adopt greener policies.
Climate change is a development issue as well as an environmental issue. Unpredictable weather patterns and the increasing intensity and frequency of disaster events such as droughts and floods will hit the world’s poorest hardest. As people understood this better, the presence of Southern NGOs and development NGOs increased at the global fora. Adaptation was soon the equal partner to mitigation in the UNFCCC negotiations.
These networks and civil society organisations have been able to shift government policy, raise awareness amongst civil society at large, and importantly, make the connection between climate change and local level development issues at the national level. Advocacy activities have focused on how to help countries and communities understand and adapt to the changes experienced and expected, and also how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In Zambia in 2011, for example, advocacy by a number of civil society organisations led to the Environmental Council of Zambia rejecting the Environmental Impact Assessment prepared by the Fly Dragon Wood and Lumber Company Limited for logging in the Mutulanganga Forest and adjacent areas. This logging would have decimated the local reserve and the benefits it provided for poverty alleviation, adaptation, conservation and carbon sequestration.
The Road Ahead
In 2014, the Southern Voices on Climate Change Programme developed a set of climate change advocacy toolkits. These share the experiences of networks in the South conducting climate change advocacy and also provide guidance and a number of analytical and practical tools to help civil society actors plan and deliver their climate change advocacy activities better. They particularly emphasise how to support poor and vulnerable communities, and ensure their voices are heard by policy makers.
The latest round of UNFCCC talks has just ended in Lima, and eyes now are focussing on the 2015 Paris negotiations in the hope that they will adopt a new, universal and legally binding agreement for a post-2020 world. This must address emissions reductions and how to help developing countries adapt. In the coming year, we should all be thinking what we can do to push our political leaders to achieve the result needed both in Paris and at home. Improved advocacy to close the gap between what the science tells us is needed, and what perceptions the general public and policy makers have of climate change will help.