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Decolonising climate communication narratives

Updated: Jul 6, 2022

Renee Karunungan reflects on where she comes from and where she wants to see the future of climate communications

There is a non-white elephant in the room that needs to be addressed by climate change organisations: Climate change narratives are mostly western-centric and are out of touch with the realities and lived experiences of people from the global south, and/or minorities living in the global north. This includes even more ‘radical’ movements that seem progressive on the surface but sideline voices of black and brown communities who are disproportionately affected by climate change. If you’ve ever used ‘we’ when speaking or writing about climate, please check yourself. Because you subconsciously mean like you, probably.

I have worked in the field of climate communications and campaigning for over a decade – starting locally in my own country, the Philippines, and then internationally, with many different organisations that work on a global scale. Often, the most important communication decisions are top-down. In planning for campaign messages, for example, the people in the room tend to be composed of white people, despite having a network that includes countries outside Europe and America. The end result? Campaigns that are uninformed and distant and disconnected from communities who are at the frontline of climate change impacts.

A study by Rodder, for example, found that environmental non-government organisations are ‘ambivalent’ when it comes to communicating climate science, focussing too much on attributing climate events to climate change, without taking into consideration communities’ loved experiences, cultures, and beliefs. As a consequence, the messages do not resonate with local communities. Rodder argues that this happens because of the ‘social hierarchy’ of expertise, which puts scientific knowledge on top of this hierarchy and looks at lived experiences and anecdotal evidence as a lower forms of knowledge. For example, the Maasai in Tanzania attribute weather changes to God and views climate science ‘clashing’ with their beliefs. In this case, Sara de Wit says that the story of climate change must interweave climate science with their religious beliefs and morals.

Studies by Chao and Enari and Death call for radical and more inclusive forms of imagination, in the way we imagine the future of the planet. Chao and Enari emphasise the need to tell the story of climate change through the Pacific’s acts of struggle, solidarity, and self-determination as opposed to the Western narrative of the Pacific that focus on them as victims of ecological damage.

We also see the portrayal of brown or black people in the frontlines of climate change as subjects of white photo journalists. This usually happens during disasters. When typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest typhoons to hit landfall in recorded history, happened in 2013, journalists from all over the world came to the Philippines to cover the disaster. Many of these reporters were high profile and did what we call ‘parachute journalism’, going somewhere and reporting on a story where they have no or little knowledge or experience about the area. They came and they went on their planes after taking footage and photos of distraught survivors amidst a city flattened by a storm surge. I did not see any follow-up stories in international news about how the communities got back on their feet and how they rebuilt their lives. To them, my countrymen were just victims of a disaster, and that was the end of the story.

Climate movements must also move away from being too white. Some movements, for example, pride themselves in doing actions that get them arrested. But in a ‘hostile environment’ against people of colour, and where Black, Asian, and Ethnic Minorities face stop and search four times more than white people, these kinds of actions can hurt people of colour. In a statement, grassroots environmental NGO Wretched of Earth, who represent black, brown, and indigenous people said, “Many of us live with the risk of arrest and criminalization. We have to carefully weigh the costs that can be inflicted on us and our communities by a state that is driven to target those who are racialised ahead of those who are white.”

I once attended an event in London where a black climate activist shared how her group’s message that linked climate justice to racism, was sidelined in a climate protest because the organisers thought the message was ‘not in line’ with the message of climate justice. It’s instances like these that show how some movements take for granted the long, entangled history of climate change and colonialism. As activist Elizabeth Yeampierre points out in her interview with Yale Environment 360, “climate change is the result of a legacy of extraction, of colonialism, of slavery.” If climate movements want to be truly inclusive, they must recognise these intersections that black and brown people have long endured.

In terms of literature, Death’s study shows that climate fiction (cli-fi), particularly novels treated as canons, are dominated by European and American perspectives, and calls for the inclusion of African climate fiction novels in the emerging canon of cli-fi literature. For example, works by African novelists Nnedi Okorafor, Lauren Beukes, and Doris Lessin challenge the dominant imagination of climate futures.

Another study by Sabherwal and Kacha, found that most communication strategies employed by climate organisations tend to cater to, “Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic” (WEIRD) populations and instead propose a framework that is based on inclusive research, an understanding of local public concerns and vocabulary, designing messages based on context-specific insights, and testing the effectiveness of messages before disseminating to the community.

When journalists, photojournalists, and climate communicators talk about climate change, they need to be careful about the ‘white gaze,’ or assuming that their audience is white. White gaze is the eyes of a researcher who turns up their nose when communities talk about their personal experiences rather than climate science. It is the eyes of white policymakers who do not acknowledge the wealth of knowledge of indigenous people. It is the eyes of a white climate activist who sideline the voices of black and brown activists. As Freire said, “no one can say a true word alone – nor can he say it for another, in a prescriptive act which robs others of their words”.


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