Climate Change Information Overload?

5-30-09, 10:18 am

Original source: IRIN News

JOHANNESBURG, 29 May 2009 (IRIN) – Millions, possibly even billions of people will be affected by the impact of climate change, some reports say; gloomy ones tell you it is already happening, more optimistic ones say it will happen by the end of the century.

'The numbers are scary but what does it mean to an ordinary person who is more concerned about the price of a loaf of bread?' asked Mike Shanahan, press officer for the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), who warned there was a 'danger of all us drowning in the amount of information being produced.'

As the next big UN climate change meeting, to be held in Copenhagen in December, draws closer, reports on the impact of climate change have been proliferating.

The media are supposed to turn these numbers, reports, predictions and projections into 'meaningful information' for the people who will be affected by the unfolding impact of climate change.

The Geneva-based Global Humanitarian Forum in its climate change report, The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis, released on 29 May, attempts to do this: 'The impact of climate change today affects 13 times the number injured in traffic accidents globally every year, and more people than the number of people who contract malaria annually.'

The more reports produced on climate change, the better for creating awareness, argued Michael Rubinstein, head of media relations at the US-based think-tank, International Food Policy Research Institute. 'Each report reinforces the message that there is a progressive drumbeat on the issue; that there is now a global consensus on the extent of the impact of climate change.'

He said this was particularly important because until recently there had been 'false equivalency': reports tended to produce views from both sides of the climate change debate, from people who believed in it and those who did not.

The steady flow of numbers on those likely to be affected, or the amount of money needed, reinforced the message that climate change was a reality, Rubinstein said. Several hundred reports and briefing papers have already been produced since the beginning of 2009.

Howard Cambridge, research associate at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), a Swedish research institute that produced more than 100 reports in the run-up to the UN climate change meeting in Poznan, Poland, in December 2008, said the ability to sift through reports to identify those based on original research – 'the definitive texts' – had to be learned.

IIED and SEI have run workshops and courses to help those in the media disseminate scientific data. But is the message getting to the people out there, Shanahan asked. 'I think most people tend to glaze over – how would they know what US$50 million or $50 billion is?'

He said there was a need for governments to run massive public awareness campaigns, similar to the ones about HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. 'If that does not happen, I think people are going to think this will happen to people somewhere far away.'