Climate change: educating a diverse population

The recent IPCC special report calls for urgent and unprecedented action to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in order to contain temperature rise to 1.5 °C and prevent catastrophic events. It also cautions that developing countries like India, with large coastlines and agrarian economies, are especially vulnerable to the crippling outcomes of global warming and risk greater poverty if the advised limit is breached.

India has been called upon by experts to lead a response, by forming a global coalition of countries that will protect vulnerable populations and geographies from potential devastation. Among existing initiatives, the International Solar Alliance intends to sustainably increase the use of solar energy in India and other member nations. Many of the country’s corporates took early action and already implement measures to de-carbonise their businesses. In the development sector, social enterprises and other organisations have been striving to educate people and encourage practices that reduce GHG emissions in everyday living. 

Current efforts need a massive fillip to respond to the call of the IPCC. The importance of mass education in formulating a plan of action cannot be emphasised enough. A significantly larger number of people must be made aware of climate change and its implications for their present and future lives. This is no mean task, given the sheer diversity of the country on several counts and the challenge of engaging with people with varied levels of education. Several considerations will come into play. 

Global warming is already part of academic curricula and must continue, concurrent with a mass awareness campaign at the national level. The latter would address different groups of people, including young students, who are influencers and adopters of change. It would also especially target adults, as they have the capacity to implement mitigation action here and now rather than in the future.

Messaging about impacts of climate change could be bifurcated, with core information common to all audiences, and region-wise capsules relevant for lifestyles and occupations in different parts of the country. For instance, its influence on rainfall, drought, food and water security may be communicated to all. Outcomes such as warming oceans and rising sea levels, intensified cyclonic events, impact on fishing could be emphasised to coastal populations. In contrast, largely agrarian audiences could receive information and know–how mainly about alternative crop-growing, manuring, water management and irrigation practices.

Children below five have been identified as being relatively vulnerable to events such as heat waves and health crises influenced by a changing climate. The importance of nutrition, preventive healthcare, safe water and sanitation practices could be discussed, and their benefits highlighted in combating adverse events. 

The issue of gender equality plays a role in climate change.  Like children, women too have higher vulnerability, for instance, in times of food and water scarcity. Research also indicates that women respond and adapt to climate impacts differently from men. Gender distinctions that influence response and adaptation capacity must be taken into consideration in educating about the issue and encouraging desired responses. Factors such as access to schooling, higher education and employment come into play as women have considerable influence in bringing about change in their homes and communities.

Advocating lower use of fossil fuels and encouraging people to adopt sustainable practices would be contingent on their access to viable alternatives. What fuel should fishermen replace diesel with for their boats and trawlers? Education on the subject already comprises and must continue to include the know-how and provide access to resources that enable taking mitigative action. 

Engaging with people with dissimilar education raises questions about how much and what information to impart and to whom. The ease of understanding foundational terms such as GHGs and global warming would differ considerably. The melting of distant Himalayan glaciers may find ready relevance among fewer rather than larger numbers of people and ideas such as ocean acidification may be alien even to the well-informed. Hence, an approach of horses-for-courses would need to be worked out. 

Then, there is the issue of terminology and language. Clearly, communicating with diverse audiences would require multiple vocabularies in different vernaculars. With respect to delivery, the campaign could employ multiple media, leveraging the spread of mobile telephony and its varied use in broadcasting, information and entertainment. Different formats may be considered, such as stories, music and folk theatre. For those who are differently abled, information must be disseminated in ways they understand best.

Most importantly, there is the question of who bells the cat. Who would initiate, fund, design, create, execute, manage a nationwide campaign and measure its effectiveness? Where would the responsibility for monitoring and course corrections rest? The government comes to mind first in answer, however, it may be useful to take a different path. Could a coalition be formed of non–governmental stakeholders from different spheres, to deliver at scale and with the required impact?

Such an alliance could comprise corporates in the energy and non–energy sectors, NGOs with varied areas of focus, educators, social entrepreneurs, communication specialists, print, television and digital media organisations, individuals, grassroots workers, funding agencies, philanthropists, impact assessment teams and more. An initiative of this nature will almost certainly involve governments. However, the coalition would lead and drive the initiative to educate the country and bring about changed practices in everyday living that mitigate climate change and support people to adapt and build resilience to its outcomes.

The government is firm that economic development and poverty alleviation are the nation’s priorities and climate change mitigation and adaptation support these goals. This is perhaps a reason that the subject is not prominent for many, though the consequences certainly are. Climate change needs to attract much greater attention and investment for awareness and action, for education is invaluable in diminishing the challenge it poses to sustainable economic growth.

(The writer, based in Bengaluru, is a keen observer of climate change)

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Climate change: educating a diverse population

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