Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Making sense of the global through the local

Way back in 1972, the meteorologist Edward Lorenz used an attractive rhetorical question to talk about unpredictability: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?  Lorenz’s exploration of the link between the aerial pyrotechnics of a tiny butterfly in the southern hemisphere and a violent vortex of powerful winds in the north may have been metaphorical.  But what he was getting at was that the atmosphere is sensitive enough for a disturbance in one part of the earth to have a cascading effect on the other.

Climate change is a case in point. Since the advent of industrialization, copious amounts of greenhouse gases emitted by the most industrially developed parts of the world (read rich nations) have had a devastating impact on the earth’s atmosphere but the consequences of these actions are being borne by the least developed  territories (read poor nations).  In other words, poor farmers in Bangladesh or Maldives or in one of the Pacific Islands are watching their fertile lands slip away into the saline depths of rising oceans because of decades of affluent, carbon-intensive lifestyles of those on another side of the world.

Yet, many people on this “right” side of the world are barely aware of the plight of their fellow earthlings, even less so about their own contributions to the sorry state of affairs. For them, it is a problem they have no part in. But what if the images from far-flung island nations are replaced by those of some of the most iconic American cities – New York or Boston or Miami? Well, these images don’t need to be computer-generated – it may well be a reality in our own lifetimes.

A study just published in the Proceedings of the NationalAcademy of Sciences warns that the “cultural legacy” of some of the best-known cities in the US is under threat of being submerged under rising sea levels. And these include New York City, Boston, New Orleans, and Miami. Indeed, the landmarks of these historic places could well become part of an underwater museum that no one will ever get to visit. But, as one of the study’s principal authors, Benjamin Strauss, told the Huffington Post, many of these “cities can be saved if people take swift action against carbon emissions.”

There is some hope that more people will pay heed to the long-ringing warning bells now that the threat is much more “local” than ever before. The influence of local events in changing perceptions cannot be underestimated.  And this is, by no means, limited to the affluent world.

In an article in the latest issue of PUS, Alex Lo of Griffith University, Australia, and C.Y. Jim of the University of Hong Kong, emphasise the importance of ‘localising’ climate change information for people to act pro-actively in climate mitigation actions. Their study found that “concerns about climate change increase with expectations about adverse weather events” in their own region. As “knowledge and/or experience of local weather events could enable people to readily comprehend the problem of climate change,” they say that “making the causal linkage explicit is crucial.” Clearly, climate action messages “tailored” for local contexts are important because “ordinary people tend to see global climate change as a distant probability or uncertainty that is geographically and/or temporally detached from their everyday life.”

The same issue of PUS also has an article by Adeniyi P. Asiyanbi on a Nigeria-based study which shows that “social situatedness, more than scientific facts, is the most important definer of overall engagement with climate change.” In fact, in echoing the findings of the Hong Kong-based study of Lo and Jim, Asiyanbi’s article makes a case for framing information about climate change which the targeted audience can relate to in concrete and easily conceivable terms.

The two studies are important not only for their practical recommendations for enhancing public understanding of climate science but also for empirical research in specific local contexts of Hong Kong and Nigeria.  As the journal's editor notes, the latest issue of PUS is particularly distinctive because it is the first issue in which all the articles featured are from outside the usual catchment areas of the US and Europe.  The issue also features research from China, India, Japan, Taiwan, and sub-Saharan Africa.

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