Author: Sonia Whitehead, July 2 2014 - The world engulfed in flames, smoke smothering innocent bystanders, cow carcasses lying on dry bed of earth - these doomsday images have become synonymous with climate change communication efforts. But the feeling of helplessness they evoke is one of the reasons why many audiences feel disempowered to take action.

Communication can, however, encourage people to secure food, water and shelter, improve economic opportunities and security, reduce the risk of disasters, and cope with crises. It can also help build awareness, motivation, self-belief, knowledge and skills and support communities to discuss common issues and work together, inform public policies and hold leaders to account.

Climate Asia - a two-year research project by BBC Media Action launched last September – is looking at how we break down climate change into a language that people can relate to. By better understanding how people in Asia are being impacted by climate change in their everyday lives and how they are (or are not) adapting, we hope to help develop better communication tools that motivate people to take action to improve their lives.

We spoke to around 33,000 people in a survey across Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan and Vietnam. These people were not climate scientists or policymakers but farmers, fishermen, housewives, and slum dwellers who live at the frontline of changes in the environment across the region.

We split these people into five audience groups based on the impacts they are feeling, how they are responding, how willing they are to change, how much information and resources they feel they have, and how able they feel they are to work with their community. This enabled us to tease out the particular challenges facing different audiences and prioritise those who are in most need of communication or best able to act as human mediators to encourage action in their communities.

Current communication worries people

Our research in Indonesia showed that people in rural areas and smaller cities were feeling impacts of changes in weather - crops were not growing as they had done, they were suffering from water shortages and increases in pests were affecting their health.

But despite a large communications effort and an evolved climate change industry, people in Indonesia felt the least informed on how to respond to the impacts that they were feeling. A range of factors shape this perception - exposure to media, communication with peers, personal beliefs, trust of information sources  and education levels.

We also found that current communication campaigns are worrying people. Those in the largest cities who were most aware of communication initiatives were also more worried about impacts of climate change in the future.

Communicating information alone does not lead to action

While we found that people in smaller cities and rural areas often did not have access to appropriate information to take action, communication cannot just be information alone.

For those who are already feeling impacted by climate change, changing their jobs or altering the crops they grow is risky in a very complex environment: they are facing conflicting demands and needs, and the benefits of taking action are often unknown or unclear.
Our research showed that social support is crucial - people who feel isolated and don’t make decisions as a community are not taking as much action. Therefore there is an opportunity to increase engagement with climate change and encourage action now by framing communication around community participation. It is also vital to root communications in peoples values. For instance in Indonesia, people have strong desires to protect health, the environment and provide for future generations.

An impactful example we came across was in Yunnan, China, where farmers were being encouraged to grow coffee as it would make them more money than logging. Rather than simply informing them about deforestation, communicating a practical, climate-smart alternative motivated villagers to take action. It is how advertising works - identify the key driver to action and then communicate it in an engaging way that resonates with the target audience.

Tailoring communication efforts

Communication initiatives for climate change and adaptation are many and varied but most top-down and supply driven - focusing on sharing information that organizations are producing rather than responding to the specific needs of communities.

However it is clear that communicating adaptive responses that people can take is still in its infancy, and it is not always clear what actions people should be taking. The challenge now is to link our detailed understanding of how to frame communications with the latest thinking from experts on how people should adapt to better design communication strategies and evaluate their effectiveness.

Click here for reports and interactive access to the Climate Asia data.

Click here to access this blog on the Forests Climate Change website.
Image credit: Just call me mo/flickr