Music offers a breakthrough for communicating on climate change

Music offers a breakthrough for communicating on climate change

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Date: 17th November 2013
Author: Mairi Dupar
Type: Feature
Tags: communications, disaster risk reduction, disaster risk reduction, knowledge management

Mairi Dupar, CDKN's Global Public Affairs Coordinator, joined an eye-opening Development & Climate Days event in Warsaw.

An animated group of communicators and humanitarian and development workers gathered in Warsaw today, in parallel with COP19, to discuss how to achieve a breakthrough in climate change communication strategies, leading to massive public awareness, action and pressure on decision-makers to tackle the problem.

As negotiators prepared for the second week of climate talks—typically a difficult and slow-moving process—Liz Carlile, Communications Director of IIED, enjoined participants not to leave the job of saving the planet to the climate negotiators. “They are negotiators not decision-makers. The decision-makers need all of us behind them and that’s about communications.”

The ‘Development and Climate Days’ (D & C Days) saw participants singing songs, improvising collective rhythms, and playing games with dice and cards. These unconventional activities were conceived as a way jump-start creative thinking on climate communications. The event drew more than 60 participants from relief and disaster risk reduction agencies, and climate and development organisations, working from the global to the community level, from countries as diverse as Uganda, Kenya, Nepal the Philippines, Germany and Poland.

Singing the same tune

Music dominated the day’s discussions in several ways. First, participants shared experience on grassroots communications strategies that have changed communities’ behaviours and have led to new decisions on climate compatible development and disaster risk reduction: many of these positive experiences involved music and performance arts.

Shaban Mawanda, a programme coordinator for the Ugandan Red Cross, said: “Our communities in Uganda and Kenya like music, dance and drama. If you want the village to hear, you just play the drums and they will come. So music dance and drama are very powerful.”

Inviting community members to get actively involved, rather than sitting back and being lectured to, seems to be the key to success. “Whatever they do, let it be designed by the communities themselves,” said Mr Mawanda. “If it’s mass media such as radio, if it’s a poster in the village, let it have a face that they know. We have also  tried to promote the use of participatory video, where communities are involved in gathering documentation of their activities and then they come together and view it on the screen,” he added, an activity that has led communities to understand their shortcomings in disaster risk preparedness and has led to strengthened disaster plans.

Donna Lagdameo of the Philippines Red Cross found that the use of song not only grabbed community members’ attention, but also had the advantage of making her messages infectious. “I cannot stress enough the importance of repetition in climate messaging,” she said – and demonstrated how she has used popular Filipino nursery rhymes – set to music – to communicate climate impacts and solutions. Once she has engaged community audiences this way, it has been easier to develop local plans for climate resilience and disaster risk reduction, she said.

Could improvisation help us respond to climate impacts?

The second role for music in today’s discussions was around the possibility of musical improvisation to stimulate creative thinking in disaster situations.

This was a ‘gear-shift’ from the earlier debate --  it’s not literally about using music and drama to communicate with people in crisis.  It’s about figuring out whether the unique skills that improvisational musicians and actors use to deal with unexpected and uncomfortable situations  can be transferred to the field of climate risk management.

Pablo Suarez, Associate Director for Research and Innovation at the Climate Centre, suggested that this unconventional proposition might shake people out of their comfort zones and lead to new innovations. As an inspiration, Dr Suarez screened American musician Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Demonstration of the Power of the Pentatonic Scale Using Audience Participation’ and his improvisional performance with Joey Blake. Watch the films and you will see McFerrin and his collaborators tune into each other’s body language and constantly anticipate and respond to each other’s actions, in the search for harmony.

To test workshop participants’ ability to improvise, Dr Suarez distributed simple plastic shakers and gave them five minutes, in small groups, to create musical performances. Like McFerrin and his collaborators, the group members had to coalesce quickly around a basic creative idea, and balance autonomy (‘doing one’s own thing’) with control (‘having someone in charge or establishing the beat’) and with group cooperation (‘having a common script’). One set of participants did not share a common first language, and struggled to communicate verbally, but were nonetheless able to produce a simple, harmonious performance; while another group, who were already friends and could communicate easily in English, created an even more sophisticated performance in their allotted five minutes. Dr Suarez said he will carry out further research to figure out if the skills provided by musical improvisation—anticipating and responding swiftly to others in a group – could be relevant to communities in the face of climate disasters. Could development of such skills equip them better, psychologically, for dealing with the unexpected?

Carina Bachofen, a technical advisor to the Climate Centre, said that commercial businesses are beginning to be interested in the power of improvisation to unleash the creative potential of their employees : for instance, in designing new products and services, and management solutions. This particular ‘cross fertilisation’ from the arts has barely reached the environment, development and humanitarian sectors. The Climate Centre will test the potential further in the coming months, and share its developing thinking at future D & C Days.

Engaging conversations lead to effective solutions

The theme of two-way communications continued throughout the D & C Days. Further sessions explored the potential of ‘serious fun games’ to generate awareness and action on climate disaster preparedness. Meanwhile, participants from Taiwan and Japan stressed the transformative power of social media to mobilise the public around disaster preparedness and disaster response. Naoki Mori of JICA reflected on how the Japanese public’s response to the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 2011, although not climate-related, could offer important lessons for all types of emergency preparedness. “Social media can play an important role in searches, rescues and fundraising,” he said.

One of the strongest messages of this successful day’s event was that there is a time and a place for one-way, broadcast communications about climate change and climate-related disaster. An evacuation order by a government leader in the face of a dangerous storm might be one such occasion.

However, in just about every situation, audiences want to be empowered partners, too. They don’t just want to be on the receiving end of climate communications but they want to join a conversation about what climate change means for them, and about creating solutions. In those parts of the world where internet technology is reliable, social media have played a transformative role in people’s expectations of, and participation in, such a big conversation.

Photo courtesy Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.


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