About 8 years ago when I had to decide on a topic for my post-graduate dissertation, I settled on perception and usage of television weather forecast information. This did not sound fanciful enough to many, though I was super-thrilled about it. This is because I thought it was going to look into a subject which was out of the norm, at least, within my settings.
I wanted to look at a topic that was hardly a bother (in my view) to many Ghanaians. Fundamentally, I wanted to find out if people, in the least bit, paid attention to the weather forecast segment which had become a staple of television news bulletins and whether they used that information in decision-making.
However, at a crucial moment of the project, it became difficult getting Ghanaian literature to back my study. This, of course, confirmed my instincts that other researchers had hardly done anything on the subject matter in the local context. I was, however, able to get some from other parts of the African region, especially Southern Africa. That was when I came across the word “El Niño”.
Until I read that publication by one researcher called Klopper, I didn’t even know that there was something called El Niño nor the fact that it refers to an abnormal weather pattern, caused by the warming of the ocean surface, which bring about reversal in the usual pressure, wind and precipitation patterns, leading to perilous impact on human activity. How could I have known that since this phenomenon usually happened in the Pacific Ocean near the equator? Mind you, El Niño can wreak havoc on weather systems around the world, including causing threatening storms, flooding, pushing up nutrient-rich water from the deep waters of the Pacific coast which in turn affects marine life as the ocean is the main source of food for them.
Now, more than ever, just like my study which did not come across as fanciful but later became quite significant, it has become very necessary to talk about something which may not resonate with many- CLIMATE CHANGE. Though there are some people who consider climate change as a myth or believe that the effects of climate change are distant, climate change is real. That is why it should form part of our daily discourse. We need to talk about it in our homes, offices, churches and, most essentially, in the media. I give emphasis to the media because that is the main source credible information for many. Moreover, the role of the media in shaping public discourse on this subject matter can never be ignored.
On Ghanaian primetime media, I hardly hear dedicated discussions about the weather, let alone climate change. The best we get from the media are reports on climate change events. Hard to say, but this is the rather not-the-best state of affairs. This is in spite of the fact that the effects of climate change are dawning on us already. Obviously, we haven’t taken the climate change agenda seriously unlike how other nations have. Could it be that God has been too generous with us? Maybe, we’ve been so blessed that we hardly record natural disasters of great magnitudes like other countries that the phrase “climate change” does not even ring a bell. How could it, when we don’t recurrently experience severe droughts, hurricanes, tornados and blizzards? No wonder most of the African studies I found were conducted in southern Africa including Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Zambia and South Africa where residents regularly suffer grave drought disasters resulting from El Niño.
Mind you, we cannot be apathetic, thinking all the talk about climate change is mythical. As far back as 8 years ago, some of the respondents of my study who were farmers told me about the seeming drastic changes in the weather patterns they knew and were accustomed to which had affected their farming activities, plans and schedules. They told me the traditional rainy season which started in May through to June/July (which is their planting season) was gradually fading away as there were records of heavy rainfalls akin to that which was typical of June rainfall being recorded in the month of October, a pattern they could not find any justification for.
A Ghana Meteorological Agency (GMET) publication that I read at the time said that about 80% of all natural disasters in Ghana were weather and climate-related including frightful convective weather (lightning, thunderstorms, gusty winds), thick fog, thick haze, flash floods and droughts. All of us being at risk to the effects of adverse weather conditions, any natural disaster could affect a countless number of people.
In recent times, we can all see how we experience very extreme weather conditions as well as largely inconsistent weather patterns. For example, the heat I experienced yesterday drove me bananas. I had to use a wet face towel to literally douse the heat that was hitting my body. What’s more, the National Climate Change Policy (NCCP) document acknowledges signs of the direct manifestations of climate change in Ghana to include increased temperatures; rainfall variability, which includes unpredictable extreme events; sea-level rise; and, increasing greenhouse gas emissions and loss of carbon sinks.
Though not an expert, climate change communication research as an area of interest to me has got me reading a bit more around climate-related issues. Climate is the predominant atmospheric condition over a period of time typically categorized into seasons. When we talk about climate change we, therefore, mean that the predominant atmospheric condition has seen some major changes and has most likely brought about drastic alterations in typical weather patterns. A more technical definition of climate change was provided by The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2001 as:
A change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods
Core to this definition is the role of humans in contributing to climate change. If humans contribute to climate change then these humans need to know how they do that, what it means to their livelihood and survival and what they should do to avoid its effects and how they can adapt to its effects as well.
This then leads us to the subject of communication. The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) for instance, advocates effective communication of disaster risk information to mitigate the effects of disasters that might not be easily prevented. It is no wonder that every climate change strategy considers communication as a key driver to achieving goals and objectives. And rightly so, climate change communication is highlighted in Ghana’s National Climate Change Policy (NCCP) document. It has been clearly specified in the document that “communication is critical to engage all stakeholders on Climate Change”. Without communication, we cannot be informed about what is happening and; we will not know what to do to avoid or prevent the effects of climate change. Now the big question is: how and who must communicate climate change?
Even before we delve into the ‘hows and whos’, the ultimate goal of communicating such critical information should be to provide useful information for decision-making. I read somewhere that for scientific information to be usable, it needs to be scientifically sound, communicated effectively, interpretable, and actionable. Admittedly, communicating scientific information may not be an easy task since it can be technicalese-laden. It may even become slightly complicated when sections of the targets of that communication are illiterate.
Considering that climate change could even have an effect on commodities and food production, it is important for governments to have clear-cut policies on it. Government agencies responsible for research into the phenomenon, create awareness and ensure implementation of policies regarding climate change should also be up and doing.
Media practitioners have a big role to play in all of this. They should be engaging policymakers and implementers and not just reporting events on climate change. The media should set the agenda for climate change awareness, education and policy. Being the fourth estate of the realm, practitioners must engage experts to shed light on this phenomenon so members of the public can fairly appreciate it; task policymakers to include more voices in policy formulation, and make sure policies are executed through follow-up reportage.
If possible, some of the practitioners should be thinking of specializing in the area in order to offer effective education to audiences about climate change. From an informed angle, a journalist also puts himself in a better position to pose worthy and pertinent questions to experts and policymakers.
Experts should also be trained to provide us with usable information in simple terms. This will whip up public interest and ultimately impact on our actions and inactions as all hands are on deck to fight climate change.
Likewise, researchers should communicate their finding not just in books and journals but find relevant platforms to share their finding with the wider public. The anecdote of Ghanaian researchers conducting studies, burying findings in journals and putting them on library shelves must be done away with. The availability of communications technologies makes it possible to publish open access, although that sometimes comes at extra cost. That said, we should not lose sight over the fact that this targets only a marginal percentage of any population as only a handful read journals. That's why researchers must find additional innovative means to share findings (for example, through social media) so that a great deal of people can have access. This will make their inquiries more relevant and useful.
Even before I take a breather, I would like to share some useful information about how climate change is affecting Ghana and what we can do to mitigate its effects. It has been reported by the Ghana Agricultural News Digest that climate change is affecting Ghana’s natural resources such as vegetation, water bodies and forests. It further reports that should the nation continue to experience climate change, it will have dire consequences on agriculture, fisheries and food production, which will subsequently grossly affect the nation’s food security. The visible signs of climate change in Ghana are torrential rains, unbearable scorching sun, uncertain rainfall patterns, severe and prolonged harmattan and rising sea levels.
Clearly, climate change is not good for us. So, what can you and I do about it? Let’s all in our own small ways green our homes, neighbourhoods and communities; make every effort to reduce any form of pollution; recycle whenever possible, invest in renewables and consume organic foods. This is not exhaustive but can help a great deal in fighting this menace which affects all and sundry.
I have shared the little I have gathered. It’s your turn to do the needful.
Until next time…
- The writer is a lecturer at the Faculty of Information Technology & Communication Studies of the University of Professional Studies, Accra.