Friday 17 August 2018

Selling the global warming message

With more extreme weather events forecast to strike as climate change takes hold, Environment Editor Paul Melia talks to experts about communicating the science

Locals cut up and clear a fallen tree near the Salmon Leap Inn, Leixlip, Co Kildare after Storm Ophelia Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
Locals cut up and clear a fallen tree near the Salmon Leap Inn, Leixlip, Co Kildare after Storm Ophelia Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

As if proof were needed as to the destructive power of extreme weather, Storm Ophelia, which ravaged the country on Monday, showed just what happens when nature conspires to wreak havoc.

Experts believe climate change could play a role in the formation of hurricanes and they are absolutely certain that, as global temperatures rise, the world will endure more extreme weather events.

In Ireland, that will translate to summer droughts and winter storms with the power to devastate communities, destroy infrastructure and potentially result in the loss of life.

But there are still people who believe climate change isn't real and that the extreme storms which have struck Ireland in recent years are simply one-off weather events. They include Kerry TD Danny Healy-Rae, who suggested that Storm Ophelia was not a result of climate change and global warming was a money-making racket.

Apart from the societal need for education around climate change, the Paris Climate Accord also requires the State to act. Article 12 is clear about responsibilities on signatories, saying they must take measures "to enhance climate change education, training, public awareness, public participation and public access to information".

So how do scientists and Government bodies educate people about our new reality, a world which is already changing and where the changes will become more profound as the world continues to warm?

Vicky Brown
Vicky Brown

Dr Jonathan Derham works in the climate change division of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He was involved in the 'Race against Waste' a decade ago, which aimed to educate about the importance and benefits of recycling and segregating household rubbish.

"We had the same challenges in getting through to people," he says. "You cannot scare people into action, so you have to find the personal interest and the gains. It's about telling stories which resonate. With climate change, pictures of polar bears and icebergs don't resonate with Irish people. They have very little meaning for them.

"But one of the consequences for altered meteorological systems is that we get heavy rainfall events, leading to floods. That means putting in place flood defences and it means walking away from certain houses and rebuilding in areas less prone to flooding. But you can't have those conversations with science. They're emotional conversations."

Heritage group An Taisce runs the hugely successful Green Schools programme, with more than 3,650 primary, post-primary and special schools - almost 90pc of the total - taking part. Among the themes explored by pupils include litter and waste, water, energy, travel, biodiversity and global citizenship, which outlines how individuals can make a difference.

The emphasis is on a "democratic and participatory" approach, where students are encouraged to take an active role in running their school for the benefit of the environment, with the knowledge gained transferable to the home and wider society.

Schools such as Scoil Íde in Limerick also use science and observations to demonstrate how the seasons are changing, and next year an interactive exhibition will open in Powerscourt, Co Wicklow, which will set out the impacts of climate change in an engaging and high-tech way.

The Irish Independent is media partner to the Cool Planet Experience (CPE), with chief executive Vicky Brown saying the biggest difficulty is making the topic relevant, and getting people to care.

"It comes down to how information is presented and how people digest their news and information in the modern age.

"At CPE, we've adopted an approach of a common message but tailored to suit different subsections of the public. We look to the audience first and see what they want to hear and how they would like to hear it."

She says at primary school, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has done a "great job" in putting together new science and geography curricula aimed at getting children to explore their natural world and gain an understanding of it.

"The difficulty is that some teachers are not comfortable in teaching what they think are complex scientific topics,

"They already have a heavy workload that they need to cover and they see adding to this as difficult. This is especially true when you think about attempting a new hands-on experiment that you've never done before for 25 children," she says.

Supporting teachers with lesson plans, options and a place to ask for help can have real impact, and where children complete small-scale scientific experiments, it can help get "big complex scientific ideas across".

At second level, CPE ask what students want to learn about climate change. There are also 26 Cool Planet Champions, one in each county, who will shortly undergo training to help them communicate climate science, setting out the facts and allowing people to make up their own minds.

For adults, Derham says outlining the benefits to the bottom lines helps."We talk about co-benefits. Retrofitting homes is an example - you save money. Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels has an immediate impact on health. This is the double-dividend. The challenge is trying to convert the complex science into something relevant to a local community."

The National Dialogue on Climate Action will also help. It aims to reach out into communities, workplaces, sporting and social organisations, and set out the challenges and the actions which can be taken by individuals and communities.

"We know we have to get very sophisticated, using social media and print and tv," he says. "We will need multiple levels of engagement, because just one won't be successful. We have to get more sophisticated in our message, and we have to talk to communities."

Irish Independent

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