Monday, December 21, 2009

COP15 Summary: what the public and science can do next

The end result of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (COP15) was an agreement hammered out by the U.S., China, India, Brazil, and South Africa and recognized, but yet to be voted on, by the remaining participating nations. While the agreement would seem to recognize the importance and impact of climate change, the specifics - or lack thereof - has left many, from governments to NGOs to scientists, wanting and disappointed. No specific percentage reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, no guarantees for proposed financial support to underdeveloped countries currently dealing with the effects of climate change, in fact nothing is particularly binding in the agreement.

International strategy: the human element
So was it a wasted exercise? Well, not entirely. Certainly, going in expectations were incredibly high. As more and more research data slowly filters into the discussion (not fast or effectively enough, but more on that later) and as increased public awareness and media coverage puts more pressure on the decision-makers, meetings like COP15 place international diplomacy under a microscope and can give conservation strategists new insight as to what motivates international policy and how best to approach these political bodies in the future.

Since I was not in attendance at the conference, I can only comment on what I read and saw in the media. What struck me was the emphasis and subsequent turmoil over the human costs of climate change. Not that these are unimportant matters, but I think many were surprised that the emphasis seemed less on the actual degradation of the global environment and more on the impact in human terms: the polluters vs. those impacted, developed countries vs. poor or developing countries, and moral responsibility or blame equating to financial compensation. Those were the issues that seemed to take center stage or at least generated the most controversy (and a momentary walkout of delegates). It all seemed to say, "Damn the polar bears, the corals, and the weather - what about me?" And perhaps that is where we must realize that international policy will always be focused: on the human consequences; personally, politically, and economically.

I have mentioned this in other posts; talk about the human terms of climate climate change - how people are starving and dying right now, how water supplies and crop yields are declining right now, how the migration of peoples will threaten other nation's resources and security - and you can often get people's attention. In a similar vein, I am beginning to see shark and dolphin advocates place a greater emphasis on the human cost of consuming these ocean animals due to their high mercury content. Just wanting to protect shark and dolphins may not be enough; making people want to protect theses species because it will protect themselves may be the answer.

Making a difference at home
So, how can we influence international diplomacy? By tackling the issues right at home. When your community, state, or country can address the challenge of climate change - becoming more
"green", developing alternative energy sources, substantially reducing C02 emissions (350ppm and below) - then you set a new benchmark; you show it can be done and a new tipping point looms on the horizon, a positive one that, by example, prods and propels the international community to collectively go beyond tentative measures.

Although COP15, according to Alden Meyers of the Union of Concerned Scientists,
"clearly falls well short of what the public around the world was expecting . . .," the World Wildlife Fund declared, “on a more positive note, attention will now shift to a host of initiatives by countries, cities, companies and communities that are starting to build low carbon economies from the base up.”

Science: moving beyond the data
Working on my first white shark documentary and subsequently working with in the Arctic Circle, I soon realized there is a lot of research taking place within the scientific community, with considerable amounts of data and detailed studies or papers being generated. But there the trail begins to thin. What is reaching the general public? What is being brought to the attention of the policymakers? Not enough.

As a filmmaker and former marketing communications executive, I appreciate the value of effective messages, of connecting with the masses to gain consensus. And this is why I am interested in working with scientific research organizations: media communications needs to be an integral part of the research discipline, right up there with hypotheses, methodology, and analysis; it must not end in a scientific journal destined for the academic hinterlands. With many of the environmental issues facing the planet, it has been said that science will provide the answers - but only if science can communicate effectively so as to moderate behavior and influence policy.

Understandably, media communications is not something that most scientists and researchers are comfortable or familiar with, but there are several strategic components to consider in developing an effective media communications plan. One key piece is the translation of detailed data and analysis into three sequential steps that the layperson can understand: issues, implications, and solutions.

What is the problem, what does it mean to me, and what can I do about it? When research can address these points and make a personal connection, the better the work will be absorbed and appreciated by a broader audience. And in today's world, with so many environmental and conservation issues looking to science for the answer, this is imperative.

1 comment:

executive desks said...

I hope what happened in Copenhagen will bring good results. I don't want to think that it was all talk and no actions.