If you want to begin to comprehend just how far-reaching an issue climate change is, how many stakeholders need to come together to make it work and what kind of broad impact this kind of coordinated action can have, just pop into any climate conference. It’s a cantankerous coming together of government officials, policymakers, climate activists, the media, lawyers, the private sector, think tanks, financial institutions, non-governmental organisations, academia, diplomats, farmers…literally any job from any sector you can think of is represented here. It makes you appreciate the scale of the problem and also the kind of commitment we are seeing across the board. But when you are on Team Qatar at these events, you always feel like that kid whose birthday party no one came to… except for the parents and a couple of elderly neighbours. It’s lonely out there.
In almost every global challenge – be it economic growth or food security or inclusivity – Qatar proves that it is a unique case study, the results of which cannot be extrapolated from anything we have ever done anywhere in the world. Climate change is no different. Which is why this month we explore the various factors driving intra-national climate debate, or the lack of it, how this can be improved and why we should care.
Most of the experts we spoke to more or less agreed that dialogue related to climate change is low and difficult in the region for a variety of reasons. “It’s not something that worries your average person on the street, or keeps them up at night,” says Dr Mari Luomi, Senior Research Fellow at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, who works on sustainable energy and climate change issues and is the author of ‘The Gulf Monarchies and Climate Change’. “Here in the GCC, unlike many parts of the world, the society doesn’t feel the impact of climate change.” Many other countries are witnessing tangible effects of climate change, she says. Coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is something that affects the whole country. Frequent flooding affects millions in Bangladesh. Sea water intrusion is a scary reality for many small island nations. The dire air pollution levels in their cities have put mitigation at the forefront for Chinese youth. “Here, people do not depend on nature or are not directly exposed to it,” says DrLuomi. “It’s already very hot. The Arabian Gulf is for now relatively insulated from extreme weather events like major storms or sea level rise. There is also very little agricultural production here and this is where the impacts of changing climate are felt more directly. This has an impact on people’s awareness.”
But there are other issues closer to home that are capable of instigating debates on climate change. “The recent spate of subsidy reforms that saw fuel prices being hiked around the region has created a bit more awareness when linked to debate on the global energy landscape. The big push we are seeing towards sustainable, smart cities is also helping us talk more deeply about these issues,” she says.
Neeshad V S talks about another factor that affects climate change communication within the nation – the difficulty to mobilise. He is the national focal point for several NGOs and is most notably the Co-Founder and National Coordinator of Arab Youth Climate Movement Qatar (AYCMQ). The Qatar chapter is one of 17 operating across the region and it’s glaringly obvious to Neeshad that his counterparts in other countries can do a lot of things he can’t. “The social environment is not very conducive to campaigns of any kind at an individual or an NGO level. In a few Arab countries where our chapters are most active, they could organise events easily with local participants. This has a huge impact, I think – the lack of on-ground activities makes meaningful engagement difficult. Face-to-face communication here is very low so there are fewer opportunities for public engagement. Which is why one of ACYMQ’s strategies is to reach out to the hyper-connected savvy population on social media and drive conversations there,” he says.
Small events that are centered around the environment are rare and subsequently so is the possibility of meeting people one on one in casual settings that encourage frank conversation. Government and quasi-government organisations host events, but neither regularly nor reliably with negligible participation on the community level. Neeshad would love to run his own awareness and conservation programmes and campaigns but loack of sufficient support and, at times, funding for NGOs or social groups here makes this a difficult task. That’s a shame because it’s desperately important to get diverse and young voices to spark a debate on this. Qatar Environment Day went by quietly last month, with no one even noticing. And, a five-minute photo session at a tree planting event without community enegagement doesn't make much of an environmental campaign.
Still, he tries to make the best of the avenues open to him. ACYMQ has partnered with entities like the French Embassy, Qatar Green Building Council, Qur'anic Botanic Garden and ROTA, which helps them increase involvement with public, especially young people, during the events they host. “Because of the youth perspective we share, we find that a lot of these organisations want to engage with us. And we are happy to increase awareness about their causes and the environment in general through our focused social media outreach. It’s our key tool,” he says.
Climate Outreach was created specifically to address the challenge of communicating climate change among different types of communities in many countries in Europe, North America and Asia. It specializes in research-based climate communication that uses academic understanding around this issue, supplemented with its own activities that revolve around what is called “deep listening”, working with particular groups to understand their cares, their values, where climate change fits into lives and what images and words are more effective in delivering the message.
The firm began looking into the region when it was approached by a few organizations in the UAE and other GCC countries about communicating climate change in the Gulf states. Executive Director Jamie Clarke says that very little work has been done here around bringing these topics into mainstream public discourse. “The idea of planning constructive public engagement around an issue that is based on the use of fossil fuels is a big challenge in terms of impact when the society’s wealth is built on fossil fuels,” he says. “The social background of our lives and cultures can help or hinder the process.”
Which brings us to what seems like a naïve question but one that begs to be asked – why is effective communication of these issues so important, especially in this region where civil society doesn’t necessarily have a huge impact on policy or governance? “The situation here is certainly different from where much of the work in terms of public engagement is being done, like in the US and Europe. That’s why we are keen to operate, help and advise Arab states where the context is so different; we’d like to learn from different cultures and provide our understanding to help in that process. Language around climate change has often been dominated by the Western perspective which might disengage the values of many other people around the world,” says Clarke.
He goes on to add that every country around the world has a unique relationship between population and policy. “But public engagement is key to the success of any policy. Especially if lifestyle changes need to be made, then having the population understand and be engaged with the process is going to be way more effective, no matter what type of government we have got in place. Which is why it’s important for people to relate to these issues from their perspective; it’s not just about science or big economic numbers, but things that are important to them. We have to work on taking climate change from scientific reality to social reality,” he says.
AYCMQ’s solution to this conundrum is to double down on its engagement with the youth, especially nationals, who have direct access to government jobs and might very well be shaping future policy in the country. “Already the UAE is doing this; working closely with young innovators, entrepreneurs and environmental activists in this space and collaborating with young people from other countries in creating a social platform for them to engage in,” says Neeshad.
DrLuomi doesn’t dispute that, despite the large transient population, educating the general public and students is as important as ever. “But these are long-term goals. We need action now,” she says. Which is why she is a proponent of targeting people in positions of power with this messaging. “The question is how to increase awareness among high-level government officials and CEOs of companies who are invariably Gulf nationals who are born here, will remain here and so have a stake in the future of this region.”
Holding a mirror to society
The media is always a good place to start when you want to begin to understand how the society is engaging with a certain issue. In his academic paper “Protecting the Gulf: Climate Change Coverage in GCC Print Media” which was published last year, Dr Bradley Freeman, Associate Professor of Communication and Information Studies at the American University in Dubai, analyses how ten English-language newspapers from the six GCC countries address climate change. An environmentalist himself, Dr Freeman believes that irrespective of what we do, we should all find ways within our scope of work to investigate and take on climate change. It was in this vein that he carried out content analysis on environmental coverage in regional blocs like the GCC and ASEAN. This, coupled with his familiarity with the media in the US and Europe, gives him a broad perspective on what is unique about the media narrative on climate change in this region. “It’s quite different here and a lot of that has to do with things outside the issue itself like the kinds of media structures that are in place,” he says.
On how the media and societies play off each other, Dr Freeman begins with a caveat. “Newspapers are beginning to have less and less influence on public opinion. We can’t say that increased media coverage means immediate transformation of people’s perceptions and lives. It’s cumulative and a number of researchers in mass communication agree on this. The media can affect us on three levels – awareness, attitudes and behaviour, and each is harder than the last. Newspapers tend to lack the emotional appeal that is needed to change attitudes or behaviour so they tend to work best on the awareness level,” he says. “I don’t want to discount the ability of newspapers to have an influence but it’s usually in combination with other factors like an event.”
“Typically, in this region, the level of concern is often talked down to a large extent,” Dr Freeman notes. “Someone in the government has a new mandate to talk about the environment, they will have press releases or events to encourage other people to be concerned about that. Or they launch some kind of initiative. The coverage is not usually, say, a group of concerned students for the environment. It could be, but it would still revolve around some kind of event called internationally or by the government.”
On the perception of the media, viz. whether there is any government-led censorship, Freeman says the average media audience is not overly concerned with that. “And when it comes to environmental coverage, it’s hard to gauge what kind of effect any level of control has. In some cases, a newspaper is more likely to write about climate change because a certain government ministry may have decided that this is a big issue that they want to promote.” In fact, a study comparing The National in Dubai and Khaleej Times in Abu Dhabi notes that there were more articles on environment issues in the latter because the Abu Dhabi government was keen to talk about all the work they were doing in this area.
Exhibiting neither skepticism nor catastrophism, the general coverage can be broadly understood within a gradualism-oriented frame, Dr Freeman says. The articles are also more remedy-oriented. “The undertone is that, ‘Yes, burning fossil fuels contributes to climate change but we are not the ones burning them. We are just selling them. Massive emitters like the US, China and India have a much bigger responsibility. We have to play our part but ultimately our impact is very small. But rest assured it’s going to be okay because we can have international meetings and treaties and policies, and everything is going to be fine.’ That’s the message.”
There is no need for catastrophism when climate catastrophies are the new norm, Neeshad feels. “It’s enough to just report on what’s happening around the world and connect the dots. You just need to correlate these incidents with climate change while providing critical information backed by scientific studies.”
DrLuomi too has some suggestions about how environmental coverage can be improved in regional media. “There should be an increase in science journalism. Despite the increasing research coming out of the region about the impact of climate change in the region, we don’t see much of that in the news. For example, there was a very interesting study done by the Abu Dhabi Global Environment Data Initiative with specific cases of the impact on energy, water, marine environment, coastal infrastructure, food security, air pollution, etc. on national and, to some extent, regional levels. There is a range of studies being done and if the media would publish them, it would bring the topic closer to home for the audience. Second, it’d be great to read about local leaders and nationals in key positions talking about this, about what they are doing every day that has a positive impact on the environment. This will have a lasting impact on the public. And finally, the media can do more to highlight businesses that are embracing sustainability. These are the kinds of stories that give concrete ideas on how you can green your economy and showcase positive examples of climate action by companies.”
It’s obvious that the most effective way to communicate an environmental message is to dial up the emotional appeal. This is why climate communicators are increasingly turning to faith leaders and artists who can disseminate the message on a spiritual level.
Climate Outreach too undertook some work with five main global faiths around what kind of language works most positively for them, Clarke says. “It all stems from our perspective of effective and relevant messaging. Faith is the guiding principle for a lot of people and we need to be able to talk about climate change within the context of their faith. We came to some interesting conclusions about the commonalities of language that work across all faiths as well as differences in their approach to the environment, communities and narratives. And when Islamic scholars came together to make very strong commitments to climate action around the time of the Paris Agreement, we found that they used many of few words we identified as key in order to make the message feel relevant to people for whom the Islamic faith is very important. This was very encouraging and we hope to continue to expand that work and make it more effective,” he says.
Neeshad, who wrote about the Islamic perspective on environmentalism, says, “Islamic scriptures talk about conserving water and protecting the earth, and designate every human as a steward of the environment. These are part of the principles to be followed as a Muslim. This message, however, has been forgotten over the years and faith leaders are now trying to revisit these teachings. These activities are ramping up now with Pope Francis’s support for climate action and with leaders from various religions coming together before COP21 to stand for the environment. All over Morocco, during COP22, Friday sermons focused on this aspect of Islam and called for initiatives that will help all the mosques go green,” he remembers. “Coming from a pious place and being talked about as a religious duty, this might have a bigger impact than cold scientific reports.” Similar approach should be taken up aggresively by countries in the Gulf, he feels.
In this respect, Tarsheed has demonstrated some out-of-the-box thinking. Not only did they try to engage worshippers after prayer time at the Education City Mosque but they have supported films through Doha Film Institute that speak about conservation which has proven to be an effective strategy.
Artists like Olafur Eliasson have shown how art can communicate our concerns about the environment in wa ay that even thousands of news articles can't. The UNFCCC is also now increasingly focusing on art in helping to get the public on board. To get a sense of art-driven dialogue in the region, we spoke to Khalifa Al Obaidly, Director of the Artists in Residence programme at the Fire Station.
“I feel the art scene in Qatar is similar to that in the rest of the GCC in the sense that most of the art produced is for decorative purposes and though some senior artists reflect their personal impressions and reactions to news from the Arab world, I don’t find a real dialogue with the society.” But Al Obaidly does say that art being used as a vehicle to raise awareness about young people leads diverse government bodies like the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy and Qatar Rail. “In fact, we are holding a big show at the Fire Station with Qatar Solar Technologies towards the end of the year where we will exhibit works of art by created students and established artists using solar lights.”
Like everywhere else, it’s important here for the government to take the first step, according to Al Obaidly. “It’s very rare to find artists in the region whose art is focused on interacting with the audience to deliver an environmental message. The government ought to encourage artists in this direction as well, instead of relying on commercial companies to craft awareness programmes for the society. Done in a very corporate style, I don’t think these are particularly effective in resonating with the people.”
Photo courtesy: Negotiator Tracker