How to use local evidence for climate action: 8 ideas from experts

Key takeaways from an event organized by the Swiss NGO DRR Platform in Bern, Switzerland
FROM: Masha Scholl, Maya Wolfensberger – 12. December 2018

“We couldn’t ski last winter because we didn’t have enough snow,” said the Swiss kids.

“The fields at my grandmother’s village were washed away and she died. Also, with her crops went the income that helped me pay for the school,” said a kid from Uganda.

During an exchange between schools from Switzerland, Uganda and Malawi organized by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), participants were shocked by the stark difference between the impacts of climate change experienced.

NGOs have the responsibility to transfer the evidence of climate change – that they witness in the field – to global policy platforms such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or the Global Platform for Disaster Reduction. But how can we do it effectively? On November 28 in Bern, the Swiss NGO DRR Platform brought together grassroot advocacy organizations, civil society networks, media and the Swiss Government to discuss the best practices of using local evidence for advocacy.

1. The topic of climate change is highly complex, and stakeholders are diverse. It may be tempting to try to talk to everyone about everything and end up spreading your resources too thin. “It’s important to identify your niche and target audience and set a focused goal and a clear message that caters well to the target audience,” said Jana Junghardt from Caritas.

2. “Make sure you have good company on your advocacy journey. Where one voice is easy to miss, several voices will come across,” recommends Jana Junghardt. An example of such cooperation is the Swiss NGO DRR Platform, which brings together 17 NGOs of Switzerland to be more effective in their work on disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. The Platform has recently produced moving video stories - featured in this post - about three people in Bangladesh, Colombia and Zimbabwe who struggle every day with the negative impacts of climate change.

3. “We should not undervalue the importance of touching people emotionally – even people working in institutions and making important decisions,” said Rupa Mukerji from Helvetas. She cited the case of Nestlé, whose employees were shocked by a Greenpeace campaign that showed the devastating effect of palm oil industry on rainforests and orangutans. The employee reaction together with the public outcry forced the company to review the sustainability of its palm oil supply chain. “We want the population in Switzerland to feel what those who suffer from climate change are experiencing – for example, when you live in a house in Bangladesh and water comes into your house every few months,” says Christian Lüthi from the Climate Alliance Switzerland, which brings together over 70 organizations across the country.

4. Attribution of observed changes to climate change is not an easy task as climate is often only one of many drivers that cause change. Careful accounting of the importance of confounding factors is therefore an important part of an analysis. Every emotional story should therefore be “backed by robust science – such as the analysis from IPCC reports – so that the evidence stands up to criticism by opponents.” (Jana Junghardt).

5. “Our products about local communities suffering from climate change shouldn’t be too glossy. To be credible and authentic, we need to show a certain amount of “dirt”. If it’s a farmer walking on the field, we should show their muddy shoes. I once interviewed potato farmers in Peru. We walked up the mountains and you could hear them breathe in the audio recording because we were climbing. You could tell we were 5,000 meters high. If the recording sounded as if we were in a studio the audience would feel disconnected,” recalls Thomas Häusler from SRF.

6. Communities possess the valuable local knowledge on how the environment around them is changing and how to adapt. For example, Simangaliso from Zimbabwe talks in this video about how she switched from maize to millet and sorghum because they survive water scarcity better. NGOs should not only use and spread this knowledge but also make sure their communication products reflect it. “It is very important to not show people affected by climate change as passive,” believes Thomas Häusler. This way, our message comes through as empowering rather than condescending and pessimistic.

7. “When we met with Simangaliso, she talked a lot about how nature had been changing, but she was not aware that these changes had anything to do with the global climate change,” recalls Sikhanyisiwe Dube from HEKS/EPER. To become climate change champions, local communities need to understand the science and politics of climate change. This is where   NGOs have a role to play.  “We go to the local communities, hear them out and support them in bringing their voice to the national and global level, creating important linkages between local evidence and government policies,” says Shivangi Chavda from the Global Network of Civil Society Organizations for Disaster Reduction (GNDR). And when communities learn to better understand and communicate their vulnerabilities, it’s important to “not forget to observe small-scale risks, which are not sudden or life-changing but which people encounter on a daily basis,” stressed Jesusa Grace Molina from the Center for Disaster Preparedness in Philippines. The small-scale risks account for 90% of global losses and strain people’s resources to address the larger events.

8. “When faced with climate change evidence, people often say, “But what can I do? Look at China, look at U.S., look at Trump,” says Daniel Maselli from SDC. “We should not only talk about “What should be done”, but also “What can I personally do to address climate change?”” Daniel Maselli initiated a Guinness World Record-breaking campaign: a giant collage of 125,000 postcards from children around the world demanding climate action from their leaders, which were placed on the diminishing Aletsch glacier in Switzerland. The young participants made personal commitments in the postcards, for example, “I will plant trees in the garden of my grandma” or “I will take shorter showers”. Daniel Maselli believes that grownups too should stay true to what we are preaching, from avoiding plastic bottles at events to limiting flight time. These might be “baby steps” given the urgency of climate action. But they remind us that everyone should “walk the talk”.

And the same principle applies to business and other actors that may be not so significant in the global emissions by themselves but jointly make a big impact. Such as the Swiss financial sector, which, according to Christian Lüthi, “is causing 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions than Switzerland as a country”. The climate alliance is addressing this problem in its Divestment Campaign that urges Pensions Funds and the Swiss National Bank to divest from fossil fuels. Beyond reducing our own personal carbon footprint all of us can leverage action by asking our pension fund to stop investing our pension assets in fossil fuels. All these individual actions can come together to a greater whole to foster a low carbon development and a climate resilient future.