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FEATURE: Five lessons for communicating climate risk


Experts from the Raising Risk Awareness project, Roop Singh, Juliane Nier and Emma Lovell, share five lessons on communicating climate risk from their work with local scientists, media, policy-makers and practitioners in India, Kenya and Ethiopia.

Have you ever wondered how climate change contributes to extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and heatwaves? Immediately after a disaster, there is often a lot of confusion around the cause of the event, the response efforts and future risk. There is also a window of opportunity to learn from the event, and to build back better and help people prepare for future hazards.

Communicators and journalists help us understand the scale and severity of these events and their impacts, as well as providing crucial information on emergency response and adaptive measures. It is critical that these actors understand the climate science behind these events: this will help guide decision-making and thinking in the context of future risks and raise awareness about climate change and climate variability.

Here we share five lessons on communicating climate risk from our work with local scientists, media, policy-makers and practitioners in India, Kenya and Ethiopia through the Raising Risk Awareness (RRA) project:

  1. Not all extreme events can be attributed to climate change

While climate change is changing our atmosphere, it does not necessarily mean that there are observable changes in the risk of extreme events in all parts of the world right now Extreme events are a natural part of the climate system and have occurred over the course of history. The science of extreme event attribution asks whether the frequency and/or intensity of an event has changed because of climate change.

A finding that an extreme event was not attributed to climate change can often cause confusion – especially in countries where there is generally a widespread consensus that climate change is occurring and impacting local weather.

Communicating about whether or not climate change has played a role in an extreme weather event can therefore be a challenge. It can often lead to misreporting, but is also a political dilemma which has the potential to affect funding streams and programming accordingly.

A focus on climate science only, can result in a lack of focus on the real causes of suffering and damage after an extreme event – for example, poverty, bad infrastructure, lack of early warning systems and other factors related to increasing vulnerability and exposure of populations around the world.

As such, communicating climate science accurately, with proper explanation and context, can help boost the credibility of attribution science and support decision-making around risk and exposure.

  1. Talking about vulnerability and exposure makes climate attribution easier for people to understand and act on

A holistic assessment of risk is needed, which combines climate science, vulnerability and exposure information to help inform decisions for a changing and uncertain future climate. The vulnerability and exposure component of analysis provides a more human entry point for communicating climate risk. It also helps to strengthen understanding of the socio-economic, political, cultural and environmental context within which the impacts of an extreme weather events occur. This is particularly important when communicating with decision-makers, who may not think to include climate information in decisions about rebuilding or recovery after a disaster.

Experience in communicating such information during the RRA project suggests that communications should start with the ‘big picture’ – that is, the non-climatic factors that resulted in the impact – and then conclude with the frequency (and change in frequency) of the event to strengthen the case. See our vulnerability and exposure analysis for India, Kenya and Ethiopia.

Communicating climate risk requires an understanding of who is exposed and vulnerable to extreme weather. This includes asking questions such as ‘how many people live along river banks?’ and ‘who cannot move to safety because social customs or lack of physical ability prevent them from moving freely? For example, in Chennai, India the Raising Risk Awareness team found that many vulnerable people living along river banks did not receive warnings of the release of water from an upstream dam that would flood the river because the release was in the middle of the night. As a result, over 470 people died and the city came to a standstill, forcing decision-makers to understand and assess the vulnerability and exposure of people living in Chennai and at risk of flooding.

  1. Communicating complex information needs to be locally led and globally supported

Analyses on the changing likelihood and intensity of extreme events have the potential to inform a wide variety of people on how climate change is impacting their cities, homes, and businesses. But it is the person delivering the message that often dictates whether information is perceived as legitimate and credible. Reaching different audiences means harnessing different messengers or spokespeople from a range of disciplines and different levels. To do so, partnerships are needed to bring together local scientists, communicators and policy-makers, to help improve access to such information in a timely way, and to help influence those responding and preparing for changing and uncertain future risks.  This can take time – sometimes years – and sustained engagement, but is critical if information is to be trusted and understood by the people it needs to reach. For example, during the RRA project the team plugged into CDKN’s network and trusted relationships which have been grown over seven years as well as the Red Cross Red Crescent network which has strong in-country presence for decades.

Engaging different forms of communication, rather than only written policy briefs and summaries, may also have potential to engage audiences. See our whiteboard animation on attributing extreme weather events. Local communicators can also tailor information to make it relevant, for example, to the decisions a particular policy-maker is faced with at that time.  Technical aspects of communication, such as translation, must also include local experts and global scientists, as scientific language often does not have a direct translation and requires many iterations to ensure it is correct. See our translated infographics on making informed decisions to prepare for extreme weather events in Hindi, Amharic and Swahili. Our experience in the RRA project suggests that the contextual appropriateness of content and how it is shared is of high importance. For instance, for an animation in Hindi we included culturally sensitive dress to make the video more relevant and appropriate to our target audience in India.

  1. Real-time attribution can engage journalists, but there are trade-offs

Many journalists are interested in expert insight into the causes of a disaster immediately after it occurs, rather than only the impact of the disaster. Timing counts – providing a release date and time of the scientific assessment as well as embargoed copies helps journalists plan their articles. A trusted set of journalist contacts with whom scientists have an established relationship can help ensure that attribution analyses are conveyed accurately and picked up quickly by news outlets to reach a wide, global audience.

This process also allows for two-way communication between journalists and scientists, which improves understanding and builds trust. Research suggests that, to influence policy, it is important to provide information at key points during the policy-making process after disaster response and recovery have finished. Depending on what the communications need to achieve, this suggests that different timescales of information delivery should be explored in future attribution work. For instance providing scientific information immediately after the event, a few months after the event and before post-disaster policy decisions as relevant.

  1. Close collaboration between scientists and communicators ensures information is useful for decision-makers

Communicators and scientists are often wary of each other, given the intrinsic tensions between ensuring the science meets the highest ethical standards for precision and that information is presented in easily understandable and meaningful ways for decision-makers. Confidence intervals, error bars and return times communicated only in scientific terms can become confusing for decision-makers and the general public. To bridge the gap between scientists and communicators, it is important to have communicators involved from the beginning of the analysis, and to avoid a disjointed approach where both groups and decision-makers work independently of one another.

The Raising Risk Awareness project research on communicating uncertainty tells us that climate science must be tailored to the users’ needs; for example emergency responders may require detailed quantitative estimates of uncertainty to develop response plans while other users may prefer qualitative assessments. Communicating such findings will be more efficient and accessible if done so through local communicators who understand the given context and can tailor the information to the local needs.

The Raising Risk Awareness project brings together scientists from World Weather Attribution (WWA) initiative – an effort led by Climate Central with the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, University of Oxford, University of Melbourne and Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute – with the Climate Development Knowledge Network (CDKN).

Picture: Barry Pousman

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