If we don't trust it, we don't believe it

25 Nov 2015 - 16:45

By Jennifer Leavy

Successful adaptation to climate change by households and communities rests on making informed decisions based on climate information. Yet, in our work to date in East Africa, we’ve realised that people tend not to trust such climate information. Here we detail the factors that we believe have caused this mistrust, and suggest ways to restore confidence in the science.

The first problem we found is the generality of typical climate forecasts. When information is generalised over too large an area, people at the hyperlocal level perceive it to be almost meaningless. People also believe that climate information often details climate patterns that are contradictory to what actually occurs. When this happens, people tend to disregard forecast information completely.

To remedy this, multiple sources of climate evidence need to be collated and contextualised: not just to the local level – and in accordance with the local norms governing access to and use of information – but also in terms of what the information means in relation to key areas of potential impact such as agriculture, water, land and health.

A second challenge we saw is that people at the community level tend to have little or no access to climate information. Information they do receive is typically presented with too much scientific detail and not enough practical advice, and often in the form of probabilistic forecasts which end-users have difficulty interpreting. This problem can be compounded by differences in language systems and interpretations of the meaning of the information – including differences in the perceptions of what are ‘normal’ variations in climate. To counter this issue it’s important to focus on how to translate forecasts and, in particular, how to communicate “information with risk and uncertainty”.

Meteorological forecasts need to be broken down and interpreted in ways that help local people to understand and use them in their livelihood planning. This could entail a meteorologist sitting with community members and working through each forecast with them. Alternatively, local communities could be trained to interpret and use climate forecasting information directly.

In East Africa, initiatives such as the Arid Lands Information Network centres (in 7 counties in Kenya, serving more than 8000 communities with internet access, training and ICT skills) can be a key intervention that enables access. The Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research has also been working to downscale forecasts to local areas of Ethiopia and give agronomic meaning to the forecasts.

Finally, the top-down nature of most climate science information and communication programmes reinforces socio-cultural norms and beliefs about forecasting and creates further resistance to climate science. Rather than unilaterally implementing climate science communication programmes and activities, policy makers need to work with focal people, such as local champions and representatives of local communities (e.g. civil society organisations), to ensure that all programmes and activities are congruent with community needs.

Achieving the things we describe in this article will require climate science communication to have dedicated resources and activities that are ongoing and continuous. However, we believe that these actions will build the public’s trust in climate information, and lead to more efficient and effective adaptation to climate change in East Africa.