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Left out of the climate communication loop

Rod Harbinson wants those out of the communication loop to find out how climate change will affect them.

Earlier this year I visited farmers in southern Madagascar and heard their concerns about the challenge of providing enough food for their families. The drought gripping the region is nothing new and the area has been plagued by periodic famine for as long as people can remember.

For these farmers the question of whether this drought might be caused by climate change was irrelevant. The most pressing issue for them was how best to cope with the day-to-day situation.

In their discussions they weighed up the pros and cons of different farming practices. They described how in recent years the cattle-drawn plough had become commonplace, largely replacing the labour-intensive method of using a stick to drill individual holes for seeds.

One young man explained he could plant a much larger area of land using a plough, and this in turn produced a bigger harvest. To which an elderly farmer responded that short-term results were indeed attractive, but this was quickly reduced by the loss of topsoil swept up from ploughed fields by the southerly gusts of wind rushing off the Indian Ocean.

These people live an isolated existence far away from the sphere of influence of central government, and were eager to tell me their concerns. They wanted to be heard by those who make decisions and those able to offer support.

Until eight years ago, there was no national or local media available. High illiteracy rates and local dialects make newspapers inaccessible for many, assuming the atrocious roads can be negotiated to deliver the papers in the first place. Few have the means to afford a television and, in any case, there is often no signal and in the villages no electricity.

The local market still plays an invaluable role as a forum for information, and regular market-goers are keenly interrogated for news upon their return home.

Local radio stations are beginning to transform the region’s media landscape, however. Signal coverage is still piecemeal and many people don’t have access to a radio, but that is changing fast, with wind-up radios distributed in some areas where there is no electricity.

The founders of ‘Radio Cactus’, for example, started broadcasting from the town Abovombe in 1999, with a tiny five-watt transmitter. Now they raise income from government, NGOs and local businesses to operate a 500-watt transmitter with a range of 100 kilometres.

Tuning into the airwaves opens up enormous opportunities for people. Sometimes this can transform their lives – from information about HIV and AIDS to discussions about water sanitation and crops.

Speaking on climate change recently, UN envoy Anwarul K Chowdury warned that the international community’s development agenda would lose credibility if the people most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change are unable to get the information they need to add their voices to the debate.

By urging the media, among others, to pay attention to the needs of the so-called voiceless, Chowdury drew attention to a critical issue.

Climate change scientists and policymakers now place almost exclusive faith in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide the evidence for, and likely impacts of, climate change.

The IPCC’s fourth assessment report, published in stages throughout 2007, is a culmination of the last five year’s scientific findings. According to the report, it is people in the global South who are likely to suffer most from climate change. People like the farmers in Madagascar.

But how much of relevance from the IPCC findings or the discussions at this month’s UN Summit in Bali will be communicated to them?

In reality, coverage of this Summit will be dominated by journalists from the global North. In fact, only around 10 per cent of the journalists registered to attend the event by mid-November were from developing countries other than the host country Indonesia.

Such a discrepancy of access to the Summit between North and South is likely to lead either to lower volumes of reporting in developing countries or greater reliance on using Northern-based newswire agencies – most likely a mixture of the two.

Millions in the majority world will have little chance to get trustworthy information about climate change, tailored to their context, in a language they understand, delivered by media they can access.

It is the fundamental responsibility of the international community to ensure that those most affected by climate change understand what it means for their future and can join the debate. This requires a big push by all in Bali and beyond.

Rod Harbinson is head of our environment programme

The Climate Change Media Partnership is supporting journalists from developing countries to attend the Bali Climate Change Summit. Bringing together Panos, Internews and the International Institute for Environment and Development, the partnership will ensure that journalists have access to negotiations about key decisions, and that they are supported with training and outlets, so they can report to their audiences more effectively.

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