Challenges and opportunities in communicating risk

Submitted by Sukaina Bharwani | published 25th Mar 2011 | last updated 30th Mar 2011

Learned lessons from developing climate risk communication strategies and implementing them on the ground have helped us to understand better the challenges and opportunities associated with the process of communicating risk and the outcomes that can be obtained.

Learned lessons on challenges

Differences in background and technical expertise

Approaching a diverse range of stakeholders that comprises diversity of disciplines, training and perspectives can be a major challenge in the effective development of a two-way dialogue to communicate risk. Disciplinary divide increases the complexity in trying to agree on time periods, relevance of key climatic issues and climate information, and priorities with respect to adaptation decisions. Addressing this requires the development of materials that address very different levels of competence, expertise, knowledge and comfort using innovation and creativity.

Relevant terminology

The use of terminology also varies vastly across disciplines, cultural background, and educational levels, and can cause complications in the clarity of message and confusion in the analysis and interpretation. Time for explanation and interaction (i.e. two-way dialogues, learning by doing, hand-on exercises), as well as clarification of terms (creating a common ground based on common understanding of the basic concepts) are fundamental to overcome this challenge. In case a message needs to be transmitted to a community involved in the process, it is critical to use the local language and examples and terminology that are familiar and easy-to-understand for the participants (also noting the impacts on a project’s activities). Complex climate information needs to be presented in locally relevant terms to the stakeholders engaged in the learning process if positive change is to be enhanced.

Lack of awareness

It is a challenge to communicate the relevance of climate information for decision-making when time and resources are a constraint, and there is a general lack of understanding of the applicability of the outputs, benefits and limitations of climate science. Moreover, the complexity related to uncertainty analyses, numerical results and statistical methods tend to cause reluctance/indifference in an audience that is not familiar with these procedures and information formats. In order to avoid frustration and false expectations, it is important to create awareness of the applicability of the information within the context of work of the receiver/participant using a format that is familiar to them and easy to understand and use in further communications (e.g. through training of trainers that can learn and further disseminate the message to a wider audience).

Time and spatial scale relevance

Providing information on climate change and risks that is relevant to the short-term planning framework of local communities and policy makers can represent a great challenge given that climate predictions for the next 10 years remain an unattained objective of the climate modelling community [On this time scale the anthropogenic climate change is extremely small compared to the dominant internal natural variability of the climate system, consequently most climate change projections focus on the mid- to late 21st century]. While climate scenarios (for example, the IPCC targeted period between 2045 to 2065) can shed significant light on the trajectory of expected changes for planning adaptation, issues of relevance and uncertainty of climate information for short-term planning/decision-making (i.e.5-10 year action plans) remain a subject of debate.

Indeed, the short-term nature of information needs underscores the fact that many sectors are still dealing with adaptation to current pressures and climate variability, and while communities may come to recognize the importance of long-term changes in climatic trends, coping with short-term fluctuations is a primary concern for them. As a result, local stakeholders tend to rely on weekly to seasonal forecasts for decision-making rather than climate information. It is however crucial to build capacity among technical professionals and policy makers to take a longer view of the problem and integrate climate information into long-term decision making as to avoid practices that could lead to maladaptation.

It is also important to note that information needs differ at the local and national scales. Long term planning (e.g. poverty reduction strategies, development plans, etc.) including considerations and commitments set by international agreements (e.g. MDGs, international treaties, etc) are more common to national scales. Thus, mainstreaming climate change adaptation and climate risk considerations into long term planning processes is perhaps more appropriate and effective at national scales. In case successful risks communication practices have been implemented at local scales, the challenge lies in bridging scales and information needs to up-scale these practices to a national scale.

Looking ahead: Outcomes and opportunities

Implications for adaptation decisions and knowledge networks

In general terms, understanding climate risks can enhance local capacity to integrate climate considerations into decision-making processes, pre-disaster and development planning. Adaptation strategies can be encouraged by communication strategies based on two-way dialogues supported through participatory processes and expert consultations. Participatory processes that engage communities in the learning process can empower and support them to take their own adaptation decisions and share the learned message with other communities. In addition, the development and implementation of risk communication strategies can promote partnerships and networks between institutions working with climate change at the country or project levels. Networks can in turn enhance social and institutional learning and contribute to build capacity for adaptation.

Applying key considerations for complementary and successful risk communication strategies

Encouraging participation and dialogue, understanding the level of information detail required and the local know-how and gaps, knowing the assumptions that must be considered, learning by doing, listening, sharing key issues and strategies, using creativity and creating an open environment are all important steps to consider in the development of effective risk communication strategies. The focus on the content of the message is as important as the attention given to the process, as both will have implications in the way information is transmitted, understood and eventually used to take decisions and implement actions. Promoting social learning and flexible thinking models that account for uncertainty is key for integrating the information received into robust decision-making processes that support adaptive practices that can cope with global changes. Combining different risk communication tools and methods tailored to different backgrounds, technical expertise and training can help targeting a wide range of stakeholders.

Upscale and outreach of risk communication strategies

Up-scaling effective risk communication strategies will depend on the relevance of the message for national interests and development plans, and interest of national-level policy makers and international community to support processes of knowledge sharing, social learning, and national capacity building for adaptation. Up-scaling successful strategies used at local scales demand bridging information needs specific to local contexts with information needs that are relevant to national agendas. This process will demand the generation of climate information that is relevant for decision-making for adaptation at national scales. Tools and methods used to target a wide audience such as TV and radio broadcasts, as well as posters and videos may be more effective for communicating climate risk at national scales. In addition, tools and methods tailored to national-level policy makers and international cooperation agencies can contribute to create awareness among the stakeholders that need to support the process.

Supporting the outreach of effective risk communication strategies demands the use of tools and platforms that promote information and knowledge sharing and contribute to the strengthening of social networks and communities of practice. Narratives, videos, local and national perceptions, descriptions of climate risk methods and tools, lessons learned from building adaptive capacity and implementing adaptation measures, and interpretation of climate data can be elements embedded in the process of sharing knowledge on risk communication with the wide public. Collaborative spaces such as weADAPT , and tools such as the Adaptation Layer can play key roles in the outreach of successful experiences and strategies to communicate climate information and risks to a global community using flexible and dynamic mechanisms of open access.

References

This material is largely based on the ACCCA project Synthesis Report

Authors: Tahia Devisscher (SEI Oxford), Fernanda Zermoglio (SEI Oxford), Jon Padgham (START International), Anna Taylor (SEI Oxford)