Earth Day 2015; The difficulty of telling the climate change story in slow motion

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Earth Day 2015; The difficulty of telling the climate change story in slow motion

Climate change is the biggest threat to humanity. Yet environmental activists have struggled for two decades to tell a story that doesn't leave the public feeling disheartened and disengaged. This story is not about polar bears. This is about real effects on human beings, we're talking about food scarcity, water scarcity. I can't think of a better campaign to go out on. It is the story. My story. The story about a common fate for humanity. Relating stories about slow-motion environmental crises like climate change is notoriously difficult.

The problem with this story is it's so big, and it doesn't change much from day to day. News Media is brilliant at capturing momentum, or changes, or things that are unusual. If the climate change story is basically the same every day, every week, every year, I think Media loses heart,and the momentum for the story. Yet at the same time we have more information about how our inter-connected planet is changing than ever before. Satellites, sensors, and networks (both professional and social) are gathering important environmental data at an unprecedented level, from the sky to the earth. Satellite and sensor technology are growing in number and advancing in precision. Recently,NASA has made a series of announcements about their new earth observation missions and NOAA has announced two new supercomputers to process the data into global forecast and climate models. Knowledge at a global level is important, but often it's the local changes and the responses to them that inform decisions, and generate the most compelling media coverage. One of the main trends we see is that visualizing the context of this change with data — big and small — is a key component to understanding this evolving story.

Rebecca Moore of Google Earth Outreach told how she used mapping to explain how a planned development project would cut down acres of redwood trees in the Santa Cruz Mountains. "Seeing it is a game changer," she said. One of the key methods employed to help journalists and media understand and cover the environment is GeoJournalism. By contextualizing local news with visuals derived from satellites, sensors, and open data, GeoJournalism has been used to explain the drivers of deforestation in the Amazon, track rhino poaching in South Africa and see how marine protected areas affect ship traffic in Indonesia.

Deforestation, is mapped by InfoAmazonia. With so many systems out there tracking the status of the planet's health, telling this story with vigor and imagination should be more feasible than ever. But in many parts of the world, it's not quite that easy to understand the background to this slow motion crisis. Data on its own is not knowledge. Stories from and about people living closest to environmental hotspots breathe life and urgency into the data by adding local context. How, why, what and who is driving the changes? When that classic journalistic information is included, data can become evidence that engages people in the issues. But for many of the local Geojournalists, access to critical evidence needed to support their stories is a challenged by a lack of communications infrastructure, underfunded research institutions or reluctance by authorities to provide open data.

Even the United States is not immune to this issue. Last month, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden testified before the Senate about the 2015 Budget. He was questioned by Senator Ted Cruz, chair of the Senate Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee. In response to the senator's proposal for NASA to adopt a "‘more space, less earth" strategy, Bolden said, "It is absolutely critical that we understand Earth's environment because this is the only place that we have to live." Clearly, the Earth's changing environment is a high stakes affair, and local media and environmental bloggers will have an increasingly important role in telling this story. Big global media outlets are shrinking in size and smaller ones often lack the capacity to report on international environmental issues. Local media are often the best qualified to make sense of what's happening on the ground, especially when a satellite can't clarify it. We've gotten to the point where data and the tools for explaining it are in the hands of Environmental activists and communicators around the world. But to transform the global issues of climate change, deforestation, and air pollution into local, compelling stories it helps to see the big picture from the earth to the sky.

Leveraging technologies, skills, and perspective -from satellites and sensors, to community of knowledge — is at the core of not just understanding but responding to slow-motion crises and why activists, journalists, scientists, and technologists need to work together to communicate this important human story. Earth Day celebrations will just end up as another hilarious carnival,if the main gist of climate change story is left out. Bernard Wainaina is an Independent Agribusiness Advisor and CEO at Profarms Consultants®,Nairobi,Kenya. He mainly works with Agribusiness Youth Groups in Eastern African Region.

By Bernard Wainaina CEO,Profarms Consultants® LinkedIn;