Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Climate Change awareness: facts or scaremongering?

“Alarmism is excessive or exaggerated alarm about a real or imagined threat. So an alarmist basically inflates a potential threat beyond the real issue”. - New Anthropocene

After going through the data and learning of how climate change stories have plummeted in most global media and also noting, as keen observer of Ghanaian media, how a similar trend is happening in Ghana, I started thinking of the possible causes. One thing that struck my mind is the trend of the articles that are published on climate change! It always seems to be predicting doom! Can that be what is throwing people off?

I took time off to talk to a few non-scientist friends and find out from them what they know about climate change. I just sent this message via Facebook, yahoo messenger and skype: “My friend, please I want to ask you a question so kindly answer me. It's just for research purposes and I want a quick, frank answer. When you hear CLIMATE CHANGE, what comes to your mind? Is it good news or bad news? What emotion does it convey?” The answers I received within 5 minutes were really insightful. I am reproducing some of the answers I got in this piece:

“This climate change thing, I am even tired of hearing it. If we are going to die, let’s die. After all, we shall all die one day” – An accountant, Ghana

“Climate change means unpredictable weather patterns. It’s bad news, we are always see the bad effects of it who will be happy to see the effects of drought, acid rain, storms and hurricanes-just to mention a few”- Banker, Ghana

“Scary, some kind of the world is changing from good to bad. That's the feeling I get. I've never thought about any positive side” – IT person, Ghana

“When I hear climate change, it's a bad news for me” – Secretary, Burkina Faso

I think it is good news. With much attention to the gradual depletion of the ozone layer, I personally don't like to walk much under scorching sun – IT person, Ghana

“I know it has got something to do with the change of weather over a period of time. It could be either good or bad depending on the pattern and I am even sure that we as humans also contribute to this climate change” – Business Analyst, Ghana

“All the negative things we have done to destroy the environment are now coming to hurt us. It’s bad news. I am afraid for the future” – Development worker, Ghana

“Tsunamis, flooding, disaster, all are bad things. It is bad news” – Student, University of Ghana.

“They say little rainfall and that means no farming and no food. It is bad news. It makes me afraid” – Electrician, Ghan

“Climate change is bad weather. High temperature all the time, flooding all the time. It is causing many problems in Accra, especially” – Fashion designer, Ghana

“When I hear of climatic change, I get the sense that weather is changing not for the better but for the worse, and these are basically due to our own parochial harmful activities. it doesn't sound as good news to me, this is due to the fact that almost all the news I have heard on air about climatic change are directed at the worsened side of the climate. The emotion it conveys is not comfortable at all, I believe much can be done to reduce and possibly eradicate the issues of negative climatic change” – Civil Engineer, Ghana

Those were the responses I got from a cross-section of people. Out of the first 10 responses that came, only 1 person said climate change was good news although the continuation of that answer made it difficult to see the good news in it. This gives a fair representation of how the climate change message has been preached and the feeling it conveys in people. Then I ask myself, what can be the consequences of such a situation?

I don’t believe climate scientists are alarmists or are doing scaremongering but if that is how the ordinary people feel, can’t we do what we are doing in a different way to achieve better positive results? Whatever is perceived as scaremongering has the tendency of making people switch off and treat or such news as a nuisance. How can we put out the facts of our changing climate without sounding alarmists or scaremongers? I believe there is enough evidence of what is happening around us that can be pointed out to the world. There are discerning people in this world that can make informed decisions from facts. All of us climate change scientists and communicators should begin to learn more innovative ways of educating the world without sounding as doomsday prophets. For example, are there not opportunities in climate change; can’t we bring that to the fore as well? It’s time to change tactics.

“Comment is free but facts are sacred”. - Scott, Charles Prestwich


  1. It is a hard call. People educated about climate change don't need to come across as "doomsday prophets," but they do need to communicate the dangers of climate change. Even if you want to speculate on the positive impacts, the general impacts of climate change are still going to be wholly negative. When the ice sheets crack and melt in the sea nearly every coastal city - including Accra, Takoradi, Cape Coast, etc. - will become unlivable. It is hard to sprinkle sugar on that and make it sound nice. I think sounding the alarm and getting people informed about the negative consequences of their actions is probably the best approach. I enjoyed your piece, especially the various quotes! I don't understand, however, the person who said a depleted ozone would somehow lead to living with less heat. Thanks for blogging, Benji, and greetings from California! (I'll be back in Ghana Sunday night)

    1. Hi Douglas,
      My regards to your family in California. How is California? What is the general attitude of people in California towards climate change? You have given great insight and I always enjoy reading from you. For the quotes, I decided to take the first ten that come in within the first five minutes, although there was an eleventh one that beat the five minutes. I decided not to edit the responses and just present them as they came. Waiting for you in Ghana.

  2. There is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that people are considerably aware of climate change effects and are already using various coping strategies to avert the severity of it all. The reality is that it is no longer scaremongering because they are living with it. Some coping strategies in themselves exacerbate the effects of climate change and it is like a vicious circle of poverty and despair. What I sometimes wonder is that the major contributors to the exacerbation of climate change effects are the very ones who try to resist measures to enhance carbon sequestration. What are we talking about? They have chopped off all the green vegetation, fragmented and devastated all tree communities in their locations and now asking the rural poor in the developing countries to conserve theirs so the planet can become habitable for all. Talking to some of these rural poor, who have nothing to lose except their poverty,(did you say their life or livelihood?) they think it is hypocrisy of the highest order. Why can't they cut down the trees and have sky scrappers and high rise buildings like those in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles etc. Well, guys we have a long way to go to re-educate our folk and reassure them. If they can't farm the way they do, then what incentives are there for them to move away from that and adopt and adapt to the new technology that would save the earth and create a conducive climate for all. Food for thought... For me whenever a new baby is born I have a strong feeling (just a feeling) that God wants the eart to live on and continue. Let us not lose hope. We can do it but it would need the cooperation of both developed and developing countries. Climate change affects bot categories with almost equsl severity. We all know what has happened in recent years that are attributable to the effects of cclimate change.

    From: Prof Steve Amisah, PhD, Faculty of Renewable Natural Resources, KNUST, Kumasi.Ghana

    1. Dear Prof Amisah,
      Greetings, Sir. You have raised a very critical issue which is similar to what I had written earlier for February 2012. The whole issue of what is right to be done and the morality aspect of the climate change adaptation/mitigation negotiations is really complex and sometimes even disappointing. You have raised an issue that has become a big puzzle to the whole world. As your student (I will always be), I am happy with what you have put in me and I will continue to do my part as you always do. We shall not lose hope. Thanks for your great thoughts; always a delight!

  3. First off, I need to state that "people's perceptions are their reality". So if a lay man has a "doomsday" perception of climate change that becomes the reality they live with as well as their responses. If their perception is all negative, a local-global cataclysm, the resultant coping strategies will be predominantly fatalism and hopelessness (as opposed to adaptation). You probably need a follow up question on what people think they can do about climate change and/or its impacts. Having said that, I need to point out that people's perceptions are formed based on information dissemination. In this case, if they see it as a one-sidedly negative occurrence, then it speaks to the way the experts are communicating to the public regarding climate change. Undoubtedly, climate change is double-pronged with constraints and opportunities. I have personally witnessed coastal communities in the Ada area, previously consuming untreated water and exacerbated by salination through tidal inundation, now benefiting from treated water. Also, low fish landings have prompted a shift from fishing to onion farming in some communities. These are opportunities climate change presents which some communities are taking advantage of. BUT it is more complex than that. How does climate change affect the totality of these people- their livelihoods, houses, culture, family cohesion etc? What is the true cost inherent in these changes? Finally, I have to point out emphatically that "if it takes like a duck and smells like a duck, it is probably a duck". That is to say if all people hear is negative, it is probably the reality of the climate change episode: it is imbued with untold challenges. Whichever way it is sliced, the negatives far outweigh the positives. Climate change will demand of humans, societies and their institutions to adapt (i.e. adjust to changes)to unprecendented uncertainties. As somebody aptly described it " the complexities of climate change make the uncertainties themselve uncertain". This is therefore the crux of the climate change dilemma: trying to accommodate or cope with uncertain uncertainties. How do you prepare to shoot such a "moving and elusive target"? When do you know your adaptation is successful when you only have limited knowledge of the complex, ever unfolding variables? Where do you find the resources to keep up in this abyss of trial/error (adaptive learning)? Surely, Climate change may not be all negative, but it has complex ramifications which certainly will be asking A LOT from societies and their institutions.

    Ken Mensah

    1. Wow! Ken! Ken! Ken!
      Now I am feeling more sorry for not being able to visit Ada with you during your study. You have shown some opportunities that Climate Change may bring. Are we highlighting this enough? Adaptation to climate change is basically, 'adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects. Adaptation can be carried out in response to (ex post) or in anticipation of (ex ante) changes in climatic conditions. It entails a process by which measures and behaviors to prevent, moderate, cope with and take advantage of the consequences of climate events are planned, enhanced, developed and implemented (adapted from UNDP 2005, UKCIP 2003 and IPCC 2001). It therefore means that when we are unable to identify and take advantage of opportunities in CC, then we are increasing our vulnerability! If I owe you USD 10 and you owe me USD 8, then I only owe you USD 2. But if I don't know u also owe me, then I only know I owe you USD 10. Maybe if I even dig deeper, I will get to know that you owe me USD 20; in that case, I do not owe you at all! There is a need to start active research in identifying CC opportunities. I agree with Prof Amisah that "there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that people are considerably aware of climate change effects . . ." but it seems they are only aware of the negative effects because that seems to be where the information and communication has targeted most. As you put it "if their perception is all negative, a local-global cataclysm, the resultant coping strategies will be predominantly fatalism and hopelessness (as opposed to adaptation). One day I will put out some responses I got from some villages on what they think they can do about climate change and/or its impacts; it was amazing.

      Anyway, "If it tastes like a duck and smells like a duck, it is probably a duck". "Whichever way it is sliced, the negatives far outweigh the positives".

    2. We need to also keep in mind that 7 billion people live in the world, and that there are certain areas - "breadbaskets" - where hundreds of millions of acres have been turned into agricultural production zones for staple crops. If environments shift in ANY direction, the stability of such agricultural zones will be threatened. With such massive areas of urban human settlement, we have declared certain areas "rural" and certain areas "urban" and designed a global infrastructural system to produce, market, and consume natural resources. Many sources of protein, such as fish stocks, also rely on relatively consistent water temperatures. My research in the Volta Region of Ghana has also focused on how farmers are taking advantage of emerging environments, but the entirety of the impact is wholly negative - bush fires, savannization, increasing infertility in the soils, lower rainfall and more extreme weather.

      The fact of the matter is that we are displacing billions of tons of co2 into the atmosphere that was previously held in the earth or in forests. This increase in greenhouse gasses is dangerous to the stability of the climate, jet streams, nutrient cycle, etc. Sure, we need to think about adapting to emerging environments and using appropriate agricultural methods in areas with changing climates. But these should hardly be thought of as "advantages" unless, of course, you are living in an area that is experiencing increasing rainfall or even decreasing rainfall. Climate change, however, needs to be viewed as both a global and a local problem.

  4. Hi Colleagues, I must admit that I like Ken's style and analysis of scenario thinking on climate change effects and throwing some light on possible "benefits" of climate change.If fish populations are dwindling in response to climate change forcing Ada livelihoods to adapt and move from artisanal fishing to "destroy" vegetation so that they can go into onion farming, what then happens to the carbon sequestration and ozone depletion complexes scenario?. Personally, other than a struggle to feed the future, I don't see any positive aspect of this example should we examine what goes into the preparation of land, hydrology and water fluxes and balance in onion farming. Rightly Ken pointed out that this is really complex and I agree with that. One of the main contributors to the problem of climate change is unsustainable agricultural practices that do not take into consideration agroforestry interventions. "A decorated donkey is still a donkey". If people get "chased" out of fishing because of climate change effects, and they move to another place on the same planet, it certainly will catch up with them again and again. The problem will still confront them in the future. They can't hide their heads in the sands od Ada like the proverbial ostrich for too long. I again agree with Ken. Our knowledge about climate change issues are fragmentary and incomplete. Our predictions are not exact and when you don't know all the variables precipitating the changes, then your adaptation or coping strategies remain rather restricted. We need all the information that we can get and we need to carry the societies and communities along, particularly those that are relatively vulnerable and lack the fundamental knowledge on climate issues. Yeah, "for lack of knowledge my people perish", so says the BIG BOOK. I still believe we can do something...we might not be able to do it all but together we can brave the storms, floods and desertification..God help us. I would have thought that the rising sea levels would rather inundate nearby freshwaters to increase salinity but Ken has observed the opposite. There is something we dont know and we will be happy to investigate this in a more scientific manner to explain the strange observation. Ken,I go with you, we don't know it all. It may taste like a duck or smell like a duck but for all we know it might well be Swan.Taxonomy can be very tricky! Great contributions by all!Kudos!

    Prof. Steve Amisah, PhD
    Faculty of Renewable Natural Resources
    Kumasi, Ghana

  5. I'm so excited with the knowledge I'm gaining here. Some major issues have come up and I suggest we take it a step further and possibly develop some research questions. I can see that such research will have to cover diverse geo-climatic zones over quite a long time. It cannot be the one-off kind of study. There has to be study areas where we can have some panel data. There is need for observations on multiple phenomena over multiple time periods for the same study areas in order to arrive at some hard facts and good recommendations.

  6. Europe's Deep Freeze: Why Climate Change Is Not (Entirely) to Blame

    Read more:,8599,2106773,00.html#ixzz1mX4kEk5a

  7. This is a useful exercise and am pleased with the responses from Prof. Amisah, Doug and of course our own Benji. I think developing research questions for different geo-climatic zones over multiple phenomena and multiple time frames is a step in the right direction Benji. Prof is absolutely right, I overstated the point- it may smell and taste like a duck but might actually be a swan. our current knowledge of CC is so fragmented and incomplete one cannot be too confident with assertions

    Having said that I need to correct an impression here regarding CC related opportunities in Ada. Prof Amisah's intution about water salination is salient here. Truth is that, there is salt inttusion into water points (in a paper we submitted for publication we made the point that even with the Ada sea defence project salinity is likely to intensify in surface water bodies chiefly in the Volta estuary and nearby water sources). The point I was trying to make about the shift from untreated to treated water is actually external to the ecological dynamics i.e. as a result of coastal inundation traditional water points are salinized. These CC related changes have triggered socio-political responses by agencies outside the local communities to provide treated water for locals. So the way I look at it is that CC opportunities may be either internal or external to the actual social and ecological setting. We should bear in mind that major components of the drivers of change are beyond the control communities, and the impacts are so advance that the social and ecological domains themselves have lost their adaptive capacity to cope with it. This where we marshall social and institutional forces to ameliorate the impacts, in this case "imported but treated water". With regards to the shift from artisanal fishing to onion farming, Prof and I are alluding to similar concerns with regards to weighing the ecological costs involved in such a switch. But given that rural coastal folks of Ada cannot reverse low fish landings, I believe it makes a lot of sense to find alternative means to "live with" the exigencies of CC. This is where Benji's "dollar analogy" comes into sharp focus.


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