Season 4     EPISODE 1
September 21, 2022

How to talk about climate

Navroz Dubash, policy adviser and professor at the Centre for Policy Research, and Sahana Ghosh, science journalist at Mongabay India, discuss what's not being discussed in the climate change narrative, and how this may be hampering climate action.

18 min read

Edited transcript of the episode:


Rachita: When it comes to the climate crisis, there is a whole lot that needs to be done. And as we think about low-carbon development pathways and policy shifts, perhaps what gets less emphasis is the story we’re telling. Scientists and the media have done a great job telling us why we are in this mess. But what does it mean in the context of our day-to-day lives today? Shouldn’t we be demystifying climate science? How do we move away from the doom-and-gloom narrative to one that’s more empowering? Can individual action make a difference?

Sahana Ghosh and Navroz Dubash, my guests today, have answers for us. But, first, introductions.

Sahana Ghosh is a science journalist reporting on biodiversity, climate change, environmental health, and gender for Mongabay-India. She is a member of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network, where she’s developing frameworks for better reporting on climate change in India and South Asia with a focus on events attribution and scientific accuracy. As an executive member of the Science Journalists Association of India, Sahana is also helping advance science journalism in the country.

Navroz Dubash is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, where he conducts research and writes on climate change, energy, air pollution, water policy, and the politics of regulation in the developing world. For the past 25 years he has been involved in advising on both national and global climate policy, and has authored and edited several books and journal articles on a range of topics relating to the climate crisis.


Rachita: Sahana, I’d like to start with you. What do you see as the biggest gaps in the current narrative around the climate crisis in India? And how do you think we can change this?

Sahana: So in terms of the biggest gaps, I think there is a need for more narratives in the vernacular media and regional media. And I understand that they do have a problem with the vocabulary of climate change. How do you translate, how do you interpret certain terms, you know, that we use, while describing climate change? I think there’s definitely a gap there and that’s a challenge. And one of the ways out is to have maybe capacity building of regional media, local media persons, you know, because they are the ones who are doing the work on the field. So training them and also getting trainers to really understand what their needs are so that we have more effective communication on climate change in the vernacular as well, because there are people who are reading newspapers as we are speaking. For example, on the Assam floods, how do you communicate the climate change discourse? Or how do you talk about attribution analysis, for example, if there are events like this in the vernacular? So I think there is definitely a gap there.

And there is an opportunity there as well for us to really dive deep into it, get experts on board and develop the climate change vocabulary for local media persons for regional media houses. So that’s one point. But then how do you cover climate change consistently? How do you cover climate change from the lens of finance, from the lens of livelihoods, from the lens of science, from the lens of human rights, from the lens of wildlife, from the lens of landscapes? So having somebody or a bunch of people heading these climate reporting desks, and not working in silos, you know, working with other partners in the newsrooms, because that helps you to really understand the interfaces, say, between, you know, somebody who’s writing on finance, writing on business, and what is the connection between, say, those beats in journalism with the climate beat. So instead of just isolating or working in silos, these reporters or these desks can actually work with reporters who are working in other different fields. So these are some of the gaps and opportunities that I feel we have.


Rachita: Thanks, Sahana, for that. I do want to come back to what you were saying specifically with regard to what the media can do differently. But, before that, I’d actually like to hear from Navroz as well. So, Navroz, what do you see as the biggest gaps in the current narrative? And how do we change it?

Navroz: So just to try and complement what Sahana said, I think a lot of what she said, I really agree with in terms of how one goes about communicating, in particular, the vernacular languages, and so on. I’m just going to try and complement that by talking about what we communicate, because climate change is a really tricky issue.

To communicate, it seems very abstract. Increasingly, we’re talking about the climate emergency or climate crisis, which is really in this kind of apocalyptic overtones of an existential crisis. Yes, it’s an emergency. Yes, we have to act urgently. But we have to complement that with language that helps people relate  climate change to their lived experience.

So when it comes to adaptation, and when it comes to impacts, in addition to things like the attribution that Sahana talked about, which tries to put a statistical kind of bounds on how much a particular event is tied to climate change, of course, that’s important to link what we see with climate change. I think it’s also important to relate that to the kind of everyday experience. So there’s a lot of debate going on in India these days around agriculture and farmers. How do we tie the increased likelihood and increased frequency of heatwaves back to labour productivity for outdoor labour activities such as farming or labour of various sorts? How do we link back the decline in crop yields over time, not just tied to heatwaves, but actually systemically over time in important crops in India like maize? How do we link that back to climate change? How do we link back the growing challenges that cities face during monsoon times to the greater intensity of rainfall that we’re seeing due to climate change?

And the link is in some ways even harder to do on the mitigation side because the mitigation or the removal or rather the limitation of emissions is often tied up with the kinds of questions around North–South equity, that we caused the problem, that somebody else caused the problem. But actually, there’s a number of things that India can and should be doing that are in our own interest, which also will help limit emissions. So building more sensible cities in terms of limiting the burdens of commuting or limiting congestion in cities, which would also have emission savings outcomes, thinking about the future of Indian job creation, and how the industries of the future can also help us create jobs.

These are the kinds of narratives I think that we need to be building out. While we are growing our energy needs, which we need to, or we are growing our energy use, which we need to, can we do so in ways that deliver more services by investing much more energy efficiency? So a lot of the day-to-day policy decisions we engage with are shot through with climate implications. And we’re often not making those linkages very clear.


Rachita: Thanks, Navroz. You know, you mentioned this overarching discourse around climate emergency or the climate crisis. And that has been the prevailing narrative for so long now. So if we’re talking about shifting it within India, then who leads the charge, right? Is it everyone that needs to be talking that way? Does it start with policy, but then, you know, the media takes it on, because this is the kind of thing that takes time. And it really needs to percolate through the entire population. So how do we do that?

Navroz: Well, just to briefly follow up, and I’d love to hear what Sahana thinks. You know, we need to operate on both these tracks simultaneously, and it can be a bit dissonant.

We cannot sustain a narrative that says, because it’s an emergency, a country like India has to forgo or postpone energy use and development.

Because it is a climate emergency, we can’t really postpone action. But we cannot sustain a narrative that says, because it’s an emergency, a country like India has to forgo or postpone energy use and development, right? We have to, in the short run, use carbon, because our energy systems are still dependent on it. But we have to progressively use less carbon. And we have to progressively squeeze more out of every unit of carbon. So that’s really the way to tell the story.

And I think for us, as Indians, there’s a global story to be told, to write, that every country comes to this with a different way of making a contribution. And that shouldn’t be understood as India not contributing. So it’s a tricky conversation to have, both in terms of our own internal politics, as well as in terms of global politics.


Rachita: Sahana, you tell stories for a living and you make…you know…help the average citizen make sense of the climate crisis? So do you have thoughts on this?

Sahana: Yeah, I definitely have thoughts on this. And what Navroz said, you know,

I’m just going to complement that the lived realities, the lived experiences of people, you know, they do matter in these larger and very tricky narratives, bringing those realities, bringing those lived experiences out in the front. That’s what we’ve done. And that’s what the vernacular media has done a lot, you know, they’ve done a commendable job in bringing out these local stories.

How do you connect the whole global warming, the whole climate change narrative, to local stories?

Now, the challenge is, how do you place these local stories in the global context? Why should a reader somewhere in the US or somewhere else be concerned about these stories? You know, how do you connect the whole global warming, the whole climate change narrative, to local stories, so that even readers, even communities feel that, you know, they are not alone in this. So I think it also helps you in a lot of community action, generate community action or collective action, which is what awareness is also all about, you know, at the same time, understanding that our policies also need to be focused in the right direction. And, you know, like Navroz said that we are aligned on coal for the short term. So we need to really write about those realities as well. While we also write about what could happen in the future, what is India going to do about it in the future?


Rachita: Thanks, Sahana. You know, you mentioned community action and feeling like you’re part of the bigger picture. And that really got me thinking about what individuals recognise is their role in making a difference, right? And I think one of the gaps, like you rightly said, between sort of awareness and action, especially when it comes to individuals, is really not understanding, you know, if I choose to have a bucket bath versus a shower, or if I use less plastic, or if I’m more intentional about the waste that I create, is that really going to make a difference? And I’d love to actually ask both of you, and maybe Sahana you can go first and, you know, Navroz after that, about does it really make a difference and what can individuals do in this fight against the climate emergency?

Sahana: So it definitely makes a difference. Rachita, in my opinion, you know, understanding the nuances of climate change, ads that tell you that you use bamboo brushes, right, but the edge of these brushes have plastic. So everybody’s sort of jumping on to the bandwagon of using eco-friendly products. But what is the life cycle of that product, right? There’s a lot of myths also surrounding about, say, bioplastics or plastics that you could use and they’re non-polluting plastics. So what we need is nuanced reporting on this; analysing, you know, these kinds of products, and take it to the community, and let the readers then take a call that, okay, if they are going to buy that bamboo brush or a product which again has say, a plastic tip, or something else at the end. Or how has that bamboo been sourced, you know, so if they can sort of go back and really get an understanding, make sense of it; I think we also take care of addressing misinformation, at least in terms of the media.

And, definitely, people feel a sense of ownership or sense of control, because when they do read the news, you know, or they see the news, or they see visuals of, say, floods, and they do feel the despair, but maybe small, small actions, which they take, you know, makes them feel more in control. But what are these actions, are these the right actions that are being taken as well. So I think that nuanced reporting, with the help of experts, this is where for me people like Navroz can come in and say, “Hey, this is a myth and this is the fact.” So myth-busting also really helps a lot in terms of enabling community action. 


Navroz: So, indeed, I think individuals can make a difference. But they can make more of a difference acting in different ways. And when there’s supportive conditions, in a sense, right? So let me explain what I mean by that. For an individual who chooses, for example, not to use their car to go to work, or to go shopping or whatever else it might be, it becomes both more feasible for that individual if there’s a good public bus system, if financially it makes sense, right? And we have to recognise, as I think Sahana also said, that climate change and the environmental conditions for life, that’s really what’s at stake. There’s also kind of a social justice and equity side to this—we cannot put the burden of adjusting to climate change on the backs of the poorest. So telling people, well, look, you know, do things that make your life harder, is also a challenge. So, yes, the individual acting as a consumer has a role to play. But that role is enhanced if the infrastructure is in place, if the knowledge is available about how to make sensible choices, and there isn’t misinformation, and if the incentives are in place, right? So if the government says, we are going to make it less and less attractive to use a private car, and more and more attractive to use a bus, so in some countries, for example, you know, people are subsidised for parking fees, well, we shouldn’t subsidise parking fees; you should subsidise public transport. And that makes it more likely.

So the individual is empowered by knowledge, the right infrastructure and by the right incentives. So we all have a role as consumers, hopefully backed by all these things. But then the other role that we all play is as citizens. So we have to be willing to say, you know what, we’re not going to vote against the government that makes it more costly to drive. We’re actually going to vote in favour of a government that makes it more costly to drive and that takes that money and makes better quality, in cities like Delhi, air-conditioned buses, makes those buses travel more frequently, have them be safer. We’re actually going to vote as citizens in favour of those things.

Also, when it comes to accountability, so we see a lot of voluntary action by businesses in addition to by individuals, how do we know if those businesses and their voluntary actions are actually adding up to much? We need to have some kind of accountability mechanism. And that’s where, again, we have to support governments that hold businesses accountable.

Being individually empowered is really important, but not forgetting that we are part of a collective, multiple collectives.

So I think we all have to be engaged, but in ways that are nuanced, both in terms of our individual choices and in terms of what we support at the polls, and we can also be engaged in our role as communities, right? Trying to make sure that waste burning and waste collection happens in a responsible way in our communities, I definitely think being individually empowered is really important, but not forgetting that we are part of a collective, multiple collectives—in our colonies and our communities, in our cities and in our nations. So all the way up to our role as citizens.


Rachita: Thank you both. You know, not too fine a point on it but both of you talked about the need for more nuanced and accurate information. Navroz, you spoke about infrastructure and incentives. And the fact is that it doesn’t exist today, right? Maybe some of it is starting to exist in some parts of the country, but it doesn’t exist everywhere. So in the absence of a ‘highly conducive environment’ for some of this individual action, to put it bluntly, I mean, does it really make a difference? I mean, how do we as individuals recognise or understand that if I make this choice versus this other choice, what is it amounting to?

Navroz: I think you’re right to say that we’re at the early stage of having that kind of supportive environment. But I do think the door has been opened, right? So if we look at corporate India, there’s much more attention to reporting on these issues, which is the first step to accountability.

I think, at the level of schools, and especially among the youth, there’s a lot more interest in this and a lot more sort of willingness to say that India’s development trajectory needs to actually internalise the reality of a warming world. So, in a sense, the demand is there. The supply may not be quite there yet. But I think the fact that we’re having more conversations, and there’s more kind of requests for that knowledge and ways of making that linkage…I think that is promising.

We’re beginning to realise that high-carbon pathways to development are no longer possible for India.

And, you know, to some extent, the supply is that we’re starting to see, even at the government level, a lot more support for things like battery storage technology, or electric vehicles being part of the development possibilities for India in the future. Is it as cogent as it could be? Probably not. Is it as well thought through as it could be? Probably not. But it’s now becoming part of the mainstream conversation about India’s economic future, that India too has to think about development in ways that internalise the fact that the world is moving to a low-carbon future, to put it differently, we’re beginning to realise that high-carbon pathways to development are no longer possible for India.


Rachita: So I actually want to talk about behaviour change, both of you have spoken about this a little bit. And, of course, we will need it at multiple levels across different systems. So in order to achieve the targets that India has set for itself, to achieve net zero by 2070, what needs to happen to ensure that, actually, that behaviour change is in fact happening outside of demand and outside of, obviously, leadership intent?

Sahana: So in terms of behaviour change, you know, I’ll also talk a bit about the behaviour change that has happened in the media landscape as well, when you talk of climate change reporting. So, for example, with urban flooding, you know, we’ve seen an increased engagement of, say, civic reporters, they are assigned to the city beat, for example, in newspapers, and they have been connecting climate change to what’s been happening in the cities, you know, and they’ve been asking for more, say, capacity building or reaching out to more people, reaching out to more stakeholders to understand why this is happening. I think within the media too there has been a behaviour change for sure. And I think this reflects in the reporting, which in turn, you know, helps in behaviour change in the sense that if there’s urban flooding, and if people are reading about it from the lens of, say, civic responsibilities, or from the lens of, say, civic action, you know, what the municipality could have done better, or what they already did better but they failed and what needs to be done in a more enhanced way? So then they’re reading about this, you know, because a reporter has also integrated climate change into her or his civic beat reporting.  So I think that also enables people to understand that criticising or ranting on Twitter probably isn’t enough, maybe speak to your local councilors, maybe go out and band together and see what exactly can be done, have a dialogue and a discussion with the proper context that look, you know, our locality gets flooded every year and with the projections that extreme weather events are going to be more intense, can we do something about it?

I think it makes spaces for discussions more amenable as opposed to, say, more adversarial.

So I think it makes spaces for discussions more amenable as opposed to, say, more adversarial. It’s not a one-sided communication that happens when the community, say, decides to write a letter or send a petition to somebody in their local civic body. And that has started because, you know, the reporter also decided that no, I also need to really relook at this problem, from a different perspective, from the lens of climate change.

So, for me, I think this has been a very good example, because I’ve seen this happen in terms of reporters, who have sort of said that, you know, your beat is the city beat, but city beat has so many stories, you know, and specifically climate change stories. So I think that has begun to happen and more and more people are gaining an awareness and this is why you’re also seeing a lot of protests, for example, against cutting of trees in cities like Guwahati, you know, where schoolchildren are coming up, we’ve had the Fridays for Future momentum also gaining and pushing all of this ahead.

And I think this makes local governance take notice that we cannot be doing what we were doing, we cannot just maintain the status quo. They also know that people are starting to do this. And once people start to notice that if they vote us out, you know, it’s my turn, it’s our turn now to really push ahead and to really make the changes in terms of policies.


Rachita: It’s encouraging to see that that’s changing within newsrooms. We still don’t have a development beat right now for the social sector, but that’s a separate story. So, Navroz, within the government, you know, what needs to change at multiple levels of bureaucracy?

Navroz: So before we go into what needs to change in the government, I just wants to reflect on how you pose the previous question, right, which is itself a kind of a choice of narrative, which is, what do we need to do to get behavioural change in the direction of net zero. And let me just put it out there that I have a really conflicted view on the net-zero narrative. Net zero is very compelling, because it has this nice word and it’s zero, right, we have to get to zero.

And then they have the fudge factor of net, which basically means, well, we don’t have to get to actual zero emissions, we have to get to zero emissions once we take into account the amount of greenhouse gases we suck out of the atmosphere. So if we can suck more out of the atmosphere, we don’t actually have to get to zero. So it’s kind of a fudge factor. Plus, in India, this is all by 2070. If you want to induce behavioural change today, it doesn’t really help so much to invoke a target that is 50 years out, right? So if you want to induce behavioural change today, it’s really much more about what kind of city do we want to build today? And tomorrow?

I think the choice of narrative is really important.

You know, do we have any idea what technologies will be like in 2070, that’s as far in the future as 1970 was in the past. So, you know, it’s not so motivating to think so far in the future. And so I think the choice of narrative is really important. So I really prefer to say that India is growing really rapidly. We’re building the kind of country that we’ll see in 2040, 2050. We’re building that today. And we will have more or less made those decisions in the next decade. This next decade is critical.

And I think a big part of that is, what do Indian cities look like? Where are India’s jobs going to come from? Day to day, how do we want to live? Because those choices are much more motivating. And, incidentally, they’re also the ones that will really drive the greenhouse gas emissions trajectory that India is on. So using that then to turn to the question you actually asked me, which is, what is happening inside the government?

I think that we have been in a mode where the government is making changes somewhat opportunistically, and I don’t mean that in a bad sense. So where there are openings, renewable energy prices are coming down because of various global forces. Let’s double down on renewable energy. Good idea. But are we thinking about whether the electricity system of the future can handle the amount of renewable energy we’re putting into the system at the same time as we’re still building out our coal-fired power plants at the same time as we’re not investing enough in either storage or transmission?

Let’s be clear what we’re trying to do. The history of 150 years of development has been a process of co-evolving and unlocking the incredible energy latent in fossil fuels; we’re now saying we have to do the same thing, but without that incredibly convenient set of fuel sources. So we have to remake our visions for the future; it means we have to coordinate across parts of government that could happily work separately. The ministry of coal could work separately from the ministry of power that could work separately from the ministry of urban development—no longer, right?

One of the things we need is coordination structures within government that break the silos.

If you’re looking at your cars being electric vehicles, if you’re looking at your buildings being sites of energy storage, and if you’re looking at your cities as being kind of places where air pollution is a big consideration—all of these different parts of government have to work together in much more seamless ways than they have in the past. So one of the things we need is coordination structures within government that break the silos.

We also need governments that work well at different levels. A lot of the action is happening at the city level that’s shaped by state-level policies and by federal-level policies. A lot of the things that will matter in terms of climate impacts, agriculture, water, these are state subjects. So is every state going to reinvent the wheel? Or is the Centre going to try and help provide the information for each state to adapt better? So there’s much more emphasis on this kind of joining up?

Also, if you’re making choices now that will shape the next decade, but also the decades subsequently? Do we have the analytical capacity to think through this? Right now, climate change has been devolved to the Ministry of Environment—Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change, to give it its full name. But really a lot of the climate change part of the responsibility sits in other ministries.

How does a relatively thinly funded ministry…how is that the tail that wags the dog of the rest of the Government of India, right? So we need to have high-level strategic bodies making this happen.

The third thing we need to think about…so coordination is one, strategic ability is another, and the third thing is you’re creating a lot of losers and a lot of potential winners in climate change. The auto industry is going to have to shift to being an electric vehicle industry. The coal industry will have to give way to the renewable energy industry. How do you make sure that those who will lose from this transition don’t get left behind? What happens to coal workers? What happens to whole states and regions like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and the coal-mining belt? Are we willing to redistribute wealth to help them develop new sources of livelihood? These are big challenges of governance, and we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface of these problems.


Rachita: You know, I’m so grateful to have been a part of today’s conversation. Because this is the first time that I’ve seen such a clear articulation of where we are when it comes to the climate change narrative in India. Like both Sahana and Navroz mentioned, we need nuanced reporting, we need to fight misinformation, and we need to make climate change science more accessible to the regional and vernacular media, and to citizens. We also need to move beyond the gloom-and-doom, apocalyptic kind of story to one that communicates the links between climate change and our everyday lives. And while there is a lot that needs to happen from a policy standpoint as we look ahead to the next couple of decades, there is a role for individuals to play, as citizens and as consumers. As long as we’re ready to change, and to act now. Like Navroz said, there is no map for how to get there. And that’s why all of us—policymakers, industry, civil society, you and me, the media—we all need to play our part. 

Read more

  1. Parliamentary discussions related to climate change are largely missing in India
  2. India is working hard to fight climate change—but is it working right?
  3. Climate communication: Why it is so important in today’s world
  4. Lack of information is holding back the fight against climate change in India
  5. A little less climate science, a lot more climate communication
  6. Communicating climate action effectively
  7. Shared language for climate action
  8. Essential climate change terms, explained
We want IDR to be as much yours as it is ours. Tell us what you want to read.