In the first half of 2020, the world was getting accustomed to lockdowns, quarantines and anxiously thinking about what COVID-19 meant for the state of the world. Meanwhile, extreme weather events insidiously persisted across the globe. Down to Earth reported that at least 207 natural disasters occurred globally in the first half of 2020 alone, which was above the 21st century average of 185 disasters. Given the recent Typhoon Goni (Super Typhoon Rolly) in the Philippines, raging wildfires in California, Hurricane Eta and Iota in the Americas and Cyclone Nivar in South-East India, this figure is set to rise by the end of 2020.
India is no stranger to extreme weather events. Over the past year, large swathes of people struggled to cope with the bereavement caused by extreme weather events along with the challenges of the pandemic. The floods in Assam, Kerala, Bihar, Karnataka, Arunachal Pradesh, parts of Meghalaya and Rajasthan, along with cyclones, landslides, droughts, locust attacks and heatwaves brought communities to their knees. The scale of these impacts felt by communities is starkly divided on gender, caste and class lines.
Women and girls are more likely to be negatively impacted by extreme weather events, says Daisy Dunne. They are vulnerable to mental, physical, reproductive and maternal health issues, domestic and sexual violence, and food insecurity. Meghan Rowling from the World Economic Forum reports that women are overburdened with higher levels of care labour and domestic responsibilities while facing displacement and relocation to camps. In low and middle-income countries, these risks are exacerbated as women's very lives can be at stake following extreme weather events.
Amit Mishra and Nikhil Eapen from The Wire write that extreme weather events severely reinforce long-standing inequalities for low-caste, low-income communities. After the 2018 Kerala floods, tribal communities who had been living in isolation for centuries were displaced, becoming the worst affected. Landslides, which have become commonplace in the Western Ghats stretch in Kerala since the 2018 floods, are notorious for taking the lives of people, especially plantation workers. In 2020, the infamous landslide in Pettimudi that occurred as a result of incessant torrential rain resulted in the death of over 80 people. Among the worst affected during this landslide were the plantation workers who belonged to Tamil Dalit communities, reports Aathira Konikkara. This event highlighted the systematic mistreatment of Dalit plantation workers since the colonial era. The Dalit voices against the atrocious working conditions in plantations are constantly suppressed and never surface in Kerala's mainstream politics due to the social location of the Dalit workers. This situation is not unique to Kerala either. The UNDESA found that increased exposure to extreme weather, susceptibility to damage caused by weather events and inability to cope and recover from these events due to social hierarchies disproportionately impact Dalit and Adivasi communities.
It goes without saying that these extreme weather events have a huge impact on development indicators. The Economic Times reported that Cyclone Amphan caused $13 billion worth of damage to infrastructure and crops in West Bengal alone. Meanwhile, BusinessLine identified that given the COVID-19 pandemic and weakening state finances, Cyclone Amphan came as a huge blow to the West Bengal Government and resources were spread thin. Extreme weather events also impact the already fragile public health system through the breakout of infectious, vector and water-borne diseases and skin infections. A study in the Nepal Journal of Epidemiology found that the 2018 floods in Kerala saw an outbreak of Leptospirosis (rat fever) and dengue in Kozhikode district, causing 70 lives in a short span of time. Extreme weather events also have a considerable impact on education and literacy. Children who are victims of extreme weather events end up as climate refugees, experiencing a loss in continued education. With educational material, classrooms and other infrastructure getting destroyed or, in some cases, schools being closed for extended periods of time, learning gaps only increase.
Given the concerning impact these events have on our society and economy, it is important to discuss why they are happening to begin with. Extreme weather events have a myriad of causes. Take, for example, the annual floods in Kerala. Researchers, scientists, politicians and the public have their own explanations for why the floods have occurred every year since 2018. Some of these causes stem from profit-motivated activities of the capitalist class such as mining, quarrying, deforestation, encroachments and unsustainable tourism. Other causes can be traced back to continued colonial practices of plantations, monocropping and cash cropping. Then, there is heavy rainfall and the simultaneous opening of dams in the state. Each one of these is wrapped in a complicated mess of local politics, economics, and ecology. There is no blanket solution. However, the persistence, intensification, and recurrence of such extreme weather events, in Kerala and elsewhere in India, hint at a larger looming phenomenon shaping our world for the worse in lieu of immediate action. That phenomenon is climate change.
Climate change is an environmental, developmental, and governance problem that requires global cooperation and action. Communities in developing countries, in particular, must be informed about the impacts of climate change and how to take climate action.
And who better to play that role than mass media?
Nicholas Roxburgh (et al.) writes that television, radio and newspapers have traditionally provided platforms for the important mediation of the climate change discourse. In turn, such mass media platforms have become highly influential in shaping public understanding of, and behavioural intentions regarding climate change and the ensuing era of extreme weather, says Dorothy Arlt. A study conducted by Lukáš Lehotský (et al.) of the media discourse on coal mining in the Czech Republic shows that the media also plays a powerful 'agenda-setting' role by shaping people's perception of the importance of an object or topic including climate change. They do so by intentionally (or unintentionally) creating a sense of importance and credibility regarding newsworthy stories and as a result, media can make certain discussions visible while tuning others out.
Mass media also plays a role in influencing government policies, legislation and actions. Media outlets provide a publicly visible space for governments to engage in climate action and debate as observed by Marck Stoddart and Jillian Smith in their study of Canadian news media narratives. This further allows the public to hold political representatives accountable. It has been observed that media reporting shapes the policy agenda on climate change while also aiding the understanding of domestic agendas regarding climate change. Tobias Keller's study of climate change reporting in India identifies that India is a key player in international climate negotiations due to the growing economy, emissions and intentions to gain leadership in international climate politics. Therefore, given the media's important role in the climate change discourse and India's position in international climate politics, it becomes a necessity for increased coverage of climate change in the context of extreme weather events.
Keller's study showed that media coverage of climate change in India was relatively low compared to other countries where it was twice as high, although it has been substantially increasing over the past 20 years. The study also identified that although reportage covers the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change, there is more emphasis and importance given to global climate politics than local issues and priorities. There is also a common trend to report on specific extreme weather events without contextualising them under the larger backdrop of the climate crisis*. Due to the style of reporting and the structure of stories that are often adopted by media houses, reportage on climate change is left out during editing to emphasise the more immediate weather event*. There is also limited space in traditional media formats where reportage on the environment or climate change competes with advertisements and preferred news articles on politics that gain more traction. Often, articles on climate change are 'shelved' to be published at a later date, foregoing its relevance in the context of extreme weather events*.
The study also shows that there is less coverage on climate science and the environmental impacts of climate change than its socio-political effects. This may be because journalists and readers face challenges while reporting and reading respectively on the scientific elements of climate change due to overuse of jargon by experts in the field*. They also identified that Indian media was largely sceptical of those who opposed or rejected climate change, unlike, as observed by Liisa Antilla, American media that offers plenty of space in their publications to frame climate change as a debate, controversy or uncertainty. Indian media houses also support scientists, scientific institutions while defending the IPCC. This shows that while there is an overall favourable trend towards increased climate journalism, there is scope for improving the nature of climate journalism in India while also overcoming certain challenges that journalists face.
Climate journalism is not a new phenomenon in India. The country has a long history of environmental journalism that has been key in shaping discourses around environmental movements. India's first environmental magazine, Soochi Mukhi, was circulated in Kerala during the Silent Valley Movement in the 1970s and was significant in the popular science movement and in environmental education*. Since then, the Indian media has gone through many ebbs and flows. Vaishnavi Rathore writes that liberalisation in the 1990s brought out the 'middle class' voices into the limelight, and environmental concerns were discussed in the public sphere like never before. More recently, there has been a movement towards reporting on issues of the environment and the climate in emerging independent online newspapers and websites that offer a lot more space and freedom than traditional forms of media. However, a large part of our population still relies on legacy media, i.e., television, radio and newspapers, as their news source.
So, how do we bring discussions of climate change into these long standing traditional institutions?
Firstly, vernacular media must be leveraged for climate related discourse. The Economic Times reported in 2010 that Hindi, Tamil and Marathi were the three most preferred languages among graduate newspaper readers, while English came in seventh place. Regional languages continued to dominate in magazine readership trends as well, with Hindi, Malayalam and Bengali being the most popular, followed by English. This demolishes the notion that English language media is all powerful. It is important for science to be localised by reporting in local languages in print, radio and television, says Bothina Osama. It allows scientific communication to reach a wider audience and enables communities to engage with scientific developments meaningfully. This involves not only translating scientific concepts such as 'climate change' or 'global warming' to local languages but also an engagement with experts from local communities proficient in communicating science via the local language.
This leads me to my second point, fostering a strong relationship between experts and journalists. Climate change as a concept is vague. It is difficult for individuals to understand climate change through day-to-day observational trends such as a slight change in the weather over time, especially over decades, observes Maxwell T. Boykoff in the seminal 'Who Speaks for the Climate?'. Having scientists as sources makes reporting more reliable and accurate. Bothina Osama writes that making the link between extreme weather events in a localised region to global phenomena like climate change requires scientific accuracy that can be provided by local experts who have research experience in the region. Inputs from scientists must be reported without jargons. This is important to convey both the immediacy of the climate crisis and the urgent need for climate action. The responsibility lies both with the scientist to be accessible to the public and the journalist to write it in an accessible fashion. Communicating with scientists is key in bringing climate change discussions to the reportage of extreme weather events because they represent how we experience climate change and global warming on an everyday basis.
Issues stemming from climate change cannot be devoid of politics and identity. Apart from extreme weather events, climate change reporting can be done in the context of any and every development issue in India*. Farmers' crises, poor governance, inadequate & inefficient infrastructure, social inequality, public health concerns, education, literacy — all these have a climate change angle to them. Exploring these issues via the larger lens of 'climate change' will make discussions of climate change interdisciplinary. It will facilitate long term discussions by roping in people from all walks of life towards climate action.
The media can play a big role in transforming climate change discourse in the context of extreme weather events. Foregrounding climate change in news reports on floods, droughts, cyclones or hurricanes frames them as direct outcomes of climate change that require immediate attention, action and adaptation, rather than a chance occurrence.
The use of ‘*’ at the end of the sentence indicates that the information has been taken from interviews of journalists conducted by the author.
Sahana Subramanian is a researcher at Azim Premji University's Center for Climate Change and Sustainability. She is also a freelance illustrator focusing her work on highlighting environmental issues in India.