Knight International Fellow Addresses International Leaders in Climate Change at Athens Conference

May 52008

Knight International Journalism Fellow Arul Louis spoke about "Climate Change, Development, Democracy and the Media" at the Athens Summit 2008 Global Climate and Energy Security. He was one of the six speakers at the session on "Journalism and the Environment: Motivating the Public Opinion."

The conference brought together senior government officials, international civil servants, corporate leaders, financiers, academic and market analysts from the energy and environmental communities.

Louis is based at The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi. He is working on programs to help media better cover climate change and development by focusing on the poor. Impoverished people, who represent the majority of the world's population, are most affected by climate change, Louis said in his speech in Athens. Drastic policies aimed at addressing human impact on the environment also will most affect the poor, he said. Louis explored how media can make these at-risk populations active participants in the search for solutions -- especially in democracies like India where citizens can influence policy. Louis, a former New York Daily News editor, also talked about how media in industrialized countries can help societies deal with the development-and-climate-change dilemma.

View his presentation and read his speech below:

Earlier this year in New Delhi, we held a consultation for editors and reporters, where they met with top policymakers in the climate change field like IPCC head Dr Pachauri and UNFCCC chief Yvo de Boer to discuss how the media covers – and can cover – climate change issues.

We had an editor there whose newspaper publishes an edition in a state with a large population of tribespeople and vast forestland. He said – to paraphrase him – urban elites may be concerned about preserving the tigers, but our readers say they are the ones who get eaten by tigers.

That was his dilemma – how to make the climate change and the environment story relevant to those vulnerable audiences and others like them across the nations who live in poverty. And it's the same across the developing nations.

For the last 26 years, I have lived in the US and worked for US newspapers and returned to India this January to work with The Energy Resources Institute on programs to help media cover climate change better. The transition has brought a new perspective. Generally the debate about climate change tends to treat the poor, who are a plurality of the world's population as passive players. Yet because of their numbers and because of their voting power in democracies like India, they have an important role in containing climate change.

The media has to reach at least three audiences with the climate change messages in order to help find solutions: The world's poor; the elites in the developing countries and the voters in the industrialized nations.

I am mainly going to refer to the poor in India – because that's where I have been working on the climate message recently – but it should apply to other places as well. They bring the dilemmas of development and controlling into stark focus.

Here is a paradox: The poorest – both globally as well as within nations – are hit the hardest by climate change, yet they would also be the ones most affected by drastic measures to counteract climate change.

The reason for the paradox is that doing nothing about climate change will ultimately hurt them the most, yet stopping – or scaling back – economic development to blunt climate change would make it more difficult for them to raise themselves out of poverty because a better standard of living translates into more energy consumption. Schools are energy; better health is energy; more food production is energy. In other words, all of them require energy – and as of now it brings along greenhouse gas nightmares.

The question for those of us in the media who are concerned with climate change is: How do we get the message to those most likely to be the worst affected?

Quite often people from developed nations say India and China becoming the biggest polluters. But they conveniently ignore the per capita figures. The carbon footprint for an Indian is a meager 1.2 tons a year, compared to the global average of 4 tons.

And as far as energy goes, an Indian used the equivalent of 512 kilogrammes of oil, compared to 3,698 kg by an European.

And here is another telling piece of statistics: Cutting back carbon emissions by 30 percent through stringent measures may lead to a 4 percent drop in India's gross domestic product, according to an OECD study quoted by Bloomberg. This in turn could mean that the number of poor could soar by 17.5 percent by 2030.

I am not suggesting that every Indian should produce as much greenhouse gas as, say, an American. But it would be absurd telling the one in three Indians – and their counterparts elsewhere, who live on less than dollar a day to cut back on greenhouse gases. Well, what is left for them to cut back?

So the message has to be a different one for countries like India – and it is a mindboggling task coming up with one. And it is tougher getting it across.

First let's see what the message has to be: The poor, the rural folks, have seen first hand the effects of climate change – the unseasonal weather patterns, the floods, the droughts. And they usually are the ones most in tune in with the climate pattern, knowing them intuitively over the years. Many areas across India in the last and current growing seasons have seen sparse rains during the growing season, but flooding just when they are almost ready for harvest. Some areas like Bundelkund have had prolonged periods of drought, turning from lands of plenty to virtual dustbowls.

Here we have to see how to connect these first hand experiences of these people to what causes climate change; if they can see the link, it is no longer an abstraction. Now there is little they can do themselves – after all they don't drive Hummers or fertilize and mow their lawns or ride in planes. You could say that they cook with firewood and cowdung, which produce an awful lot of smoke and carbon emissions. A government survey says that 75 percent of the rural families run their stoves with these biofuels. But that's all they have to cook with.

Here, however, may be the glimmer of solutions – and also what may seem as problems in some cases.

What if they can get environment friendly stoves – or, at least, less polluting ones?

There are various solutions here: There are solar cookers that are quite lo-tech.

And then, of course, you could provide them with electricity. Here you would say that since coal is used to generate almost two thirds of the electricity in India, it would be a bad idea. But coal-generated electricity could still be cleaner than millions of hearths burning smoky biofuels. And even better, if they could be persuaded to demand more clean power – for example, from power stations with scrubbers and other things to make them clean up their act? And gas? Nuclear?Wind and solar farms? And, of course, more lo-tech and alternative technology?

Jeffrey Sachs, the development economist, said something important at that meeting in Delhi where the editor told us about the tiger and his readers. Sachs said that if we, the media, were to only paint doomsday scenarios and harp on problems, the people would find everything hopeless and tune out. He said the media should also present solutions so they see hope, see that there's a way out.

Cooking is a convenient metaphor here, appealing to a very basic need. Once we start thinking in that direction – how people can be involved in solutions – it could lead to solutions for other development-climate change dilemmas.

In a democracy like India, the poor ultimately have an important say in determining policies. Generally, more people in the rural areas, and among the poor, vote in Indian elections than the urban folks, especially the middle classes. Therefore, the poor can contribute to change.

The media can play a role in setting this agenda by raising awareness of the problems as well as the solutions and being a forum for public debate.

The second issue for the media and this segment of the people is how to get the message across. It will have to be in their languages and idiom – for which journalists and media organizations have to be trained. In addition to print and television, we will have to give greater attention to community radio stations that are fast sprouting. To be technologically more adventurous, how about the ubiquitous cellphones that have found their way into the remotes areas?

Now turning to the well off, the middle classes, the rich – all mostly in the urban areas and the fountainhead of greenhouse gases. Here the media's role is more clear-cut. At a personal level, they have to realize that they could – and should – do their part to cut back carbon emissions. and change their lifestyles.

Even if fewer of them come out to vote, they still wield a disproportionate influence on policy at all levels.

Besides being the source of unbiased information, the media has to be a forum for public debates on the issues of climate change and development so that a democratic consensus is perfected leading to action.

As for the media's role it, also has provide the contexts and the linkages that would keep climate change issues upfront consistently. Here's one way to do it: Almost every human activity has a climate change connection but climate change tends to get ghettoized as a beat. Rising sea level or melting glaciers aren't going to affect only the environment beat reporter.

Every journalist is going to face the consequences. As a part of my fellowship, I run a professional development program at Indo-Asian News Service, a wire service and the program is centered around climate change. For example, the local government reporter is working on a story on urban deforestation – the cutting down of trees for infrastructure projects. The political reporter on how climate change is finding its way into party programs. The real estate writer on green buildings. That's the way to keep the climate change alive – by making the connections.

Finally, the role of the media in the developed world. If India or China or other developing countries are to battle the twin scourges – poverty and climate change – they can't do it alone. The media in the developed countries has to raise the public debate on how the people of these nations have to contribute individually and collectively to reducing their own carbon footprints.

But there is also the international factor. While talking about how much more countries like India and China are pumping out greenhouse gases, the media should also put them in context. How low their individual carbon footprint is and linkage between energy use and health, the education and the nutrition of their people.

The public debate on climate change in the industrialized nations should take these factors into account and it should also look for solutions: Not handouts, not grants. But enhancing solutions like the clean development mechanism and technology transfer, developing technologies and the fostering of entrepreneurship in the developing countries to come up with answers. They need a political will because money is involved, after all! And policy decisions in the developed nations too depend on the will of the people.

Let's not forget, we're all together in this!