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FEATURE: Reporting climate change in India


In Malkangiri, one of eastern India’s poorest provinces, lives Mangu Adari. The year before last, Mangu planted paddy, millets, lentils and beans on his two hectares of somewhat unproductive rain-fed farmland. The monsoons arrived early in June, a month in advance, and then the rains stopped for weeks; most seedlings wilted. Last year, once again, the monsoons held back until the end of July, too late for Mangu to plant much else except some quick-growing vegetables. Mangu is now deep in debt.

In India, stories about climate change impacts often feature farmers like Mangu. Despite the country’s growing economy, a quarter of its 1.2 billion people face high levels of poverty. Climate impacts are directly exacerbating this situation.

The good news is that climate change scepticism in India has reduced over the past three years. In part this is because there’s no denying the effect climate change is having right now on people’s lives. But public understanding of the phenomenon remains low. The media is tasked with filling the information gap, preferably in a way that empowers people to make a choice about greener alternatives.

For those telling climate change stories, establishing a convincing connection between the changes people are experiencing and the science behind them is a major challenge.

Meteorological experts are hard to find, and many of them are hesitant about giving categorical statements to the media of the kind that journalists need to substantiate their stories. Scientific climate modelling highlights the range of scenarios and high degree of uncertainty about the sort of impacts an area will suffer, and when. There is also a language barrier. While India’s English-language media coverage of climate change is growing, albeit not at a pace commensurate with the urgency of the issue, regional-language coverage is struggling (and consequently regional audiences – the majority – may not be receiving the information they need). One of the most important reasons is that international scientific data is almost all online, appears in English, and much of it is jargonised. What’s more, reporters often cover a range of beats, making it difficult to devote time to delve into, understand and portray satisfactorily the complexities of climate change.

One result is that climate change issues are yet to come into their own in terms of daily newspaper space. They remain a subset of environmental issues, which are given a lower priority, behind politics, government, sports, health, cinema and even fashion. Another reason for low coverage is the typical 300-word limit for newspaper reports. This permits little scope to substantiate convincingly a valid angle.

The good news is that editors can be proactive game-changers. My editors have trusted me to identify what it is important to report. They go that extra mile – from London or Bangkok – to understand thoroughly the socio-economic aspects of remote villages in India. Most of my stories relate to grassroots communities. I enjoy the query and reply sessions that go back and forth as they edit my stories. The end result is always rewarding, including the questions and feedback from readers that follow. Journalists’ networks and social media are also an invaluable channel for feedback and online discussions, and help one to keep an ear to the ground in the rapidly-changing climate information world.

My writings on climate change over the last four years from various regions in India and South Asia hopefully have served to better inform national and international policy-makers working on climate issues specific to India – for example the impact of climate change on the livelihoods of forest-dwelling tribal communities resulting from excessive, unregulated mining-related deforestation.

All in all, I feel that negative and alarmist reporting has had its time. Most cynics are converted. The big stories now revolve around constructive reporting of communities’ climate adaption and mitigation techniques. The global community is looking for solutions and to share knowledge. For example, farmers in pockets of India and other developing countries are looking back to their traditional adaptive practices, which had evolved with local climates, calamities and economic circumstances, and are now forming collectives to protect their livelihoods.

Manipadma Jena is a senior development journalist in India. She writes for Thomson Reuters Foundation AlertNet Climate, & Inter Press Service. In her first blog for CDKN, she describes some of the challenges of reporting on climate change in India and the region

Picture courtesy Outlook India

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