Climate Communication in the Time of COVID-19

Aditi Sinha, May 8, 2020

Communicating about climate change has never been easy. The subject is complex, marred by uncertainties and tends to evoke emotionally and politically charged responses. How then do we talk about climate change as the global community grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic today? How do we do this in a post-pandemic world?

In the last few years,  climate change moved to the  centre stage  of global affairs gaining a significant amount of media and policy attention. Today, nations are mounting emergency responses to COVID-19 to save lives and to restrict the damage to their economies.

As priorities have shifted, climate leaders and communicators must consider how to continue to highlight the climate crisis. One may argue that this may not be the best of times to champion for climate change. Because of COVID-19, lives have been lost, and communities and nations turned upside down. The disruptions to health, economy, livelihoods, business and industry are expected to draw the focus away from climate change.

It may be some time before we can use the terms “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” when nations across the world are  singularly focused on “flattening the curve”. We do not know how long it will be before Greta Thunberg and the “Fridays for Future” movement will take to the streets again.  Nor can we be certain when clean energy and climate action will dominate the global discourse again.

Even so, there are still ways and possibilities to drive the climate change conversation in this new and evolving context.

Beyond direct health responses, nations are launching economic and fiscal stimulus programmes that can shape their future. If some of these programmes are designed and implemented through a climate lens, it is possible for the post-COVID world to be greener and more sustainable. The United Nations is already spelling this out—by calling on governments to seize the opportunity to “build back better” by creating more sustainable, resilient and inclusive societies.  United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, has emphasized the “need to turn the recovery into a real opportunity to do things right for the future”, proposing climate-related actions that countries can take, to shape during their recovery process.

This is more so important given that before COVID-19 hit us,  many nations were on the path to their Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC).  We will need to quickly resume efforts in order not to lose the gains made since Paris 2015.

With healthcare now at the frontline, there is an opportunity to connect the COVID-19 crisis to climate change in order to identity common solutions. Robust and well-performing health systems can go a long way in protecting the public from health threats. This is where we can highlight the human cost of poor health systems when having to respond to any kind of crisis—whether it is COVID 19, the ongoing impact of climate change on health, or other factors such as the lack of basic water, sanitation and hygiene services than can weaken healthcare.

Population groups already struggling with poverty, marginalization, air and water pollution are disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19. More than ever, we will need to talk about cross-sectoral solutions that can address the structural inequalities in economies that affect both crises.

This is also a time for communication that is people-centric and speaks to values  of compassion and community. This is a time for communication to be sensitive. For instance, the lockdown has reduced economic activity, leading to localized improvements in air and water quality including the closing of the ozone hole over the Arctic. This is not a cause for celebration because the human cost of COVID-19 is so great. Equating this to a gain shows a disregard for people’s wellbeing, and can even go against the cause of climate action.  Instead, we need to talk about ways to hold on to some of these gains in a post-pandemic world.

As institutions  devoted to the cause of clean energy and climate change  in India,  we must continue to advance our core missions. In the face of COVID-19, we will need to re-think our current role and contribution, continue to find relevant ways to communicate the cause, and come out on the other side more resilient and tougher than before.

Aditi Sinha is Associate Director – Communications, Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation.

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