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Think local, act global: Sharjah schoolgirl spreads environmental message through culture

2015-08-15 04:55:11

A 16-year-old girl from Sharjah is motivating citizens to become more environmentally-aware through her tailored audience approach. Environmental communications experts say this may be the best strategy we have.

UAE community action for Earth Hour 2013, at the Burj Plaza, Dubai, but too many people think of climate change as a distant problem, say environmental communications experts.
Arushi Madan, 16, is a trailblazer among the new ‘green’ generation in her attitude to campaigning. 

When it comes to convincing the public of the need to save the planet, the environmental campaigner Arushi Madan instinctively understands one of advocacy’s most important techniques.

For every audience the 16-year-old schoolgirl from Sharjah encounters, she always makes sure that she tailors her message. “I’ve spoken to five and 10-year-olds about global warming and I’ve conveyed the same message to women who were aged 20 to 45,” she says.

“With the children I spoke about the importance of saving energy and of turning off lights, but with the women I was able to speak in a very different manner.”

For the teenage activist however, reaching out to different audiences is more than just a matter of making sustainability fun or deploying the right facts and figures. Instead, Ms Madan strives to make her campaigns socially and culturally relevant.

Last October on the eve of Karwa Chauth, an Indian festival in which married Hindu women observe a fast to ensure the health, prosperity and longevity of their husbands, she hosted a workshop with housewives in Sharjah to discuss environmental activism in the home.

“I told them that we need to pay the same amount of attention and love to the Earth as they do to their husbands, and we discussed the efforts that they can make as women,” Ms Madan explains.

“If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate generations.”

Ms Madan’s energy and enthusiasm for environmental campaigning has brought its own rewards. The Delhi Private School student has won a host of honours for her campaigning work, including an International Diana Award, presented in memory of the late UK royal, Diana, Princess of Wales, and in February of last year, she served as the UAE’s representative for the Global Youth Eco-Leadership Summit in Seoul, South Korea.

What Ms Madan is not aware of however, is that even though she operates at a grass-roots level, her approach –to talk about climate change in terms that are tailored, personal and local – is a strategy that is needed to transform the way climate change is communicated and negotiated at the very highest levels. “I think we will see an attempt at a complete paradigm shift in the way the world approaches climate change,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, as he looks forward to this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.

“Most people are intensely local and we dedicate relatively little shelf-space in our brains to international affairs or global issues, and climate change is an issue that has been overwhelmingly framed as global,” says Mr Leiserowitz.

“Even if they accept climate change is real and happening, they think of it as distant in time – that the impacts won’t be felt for a generation or more – and distant in space.

“This is an issue about the planet, polar bears and penguins, about the ice in the Arctic Ocean or maybe some small island nations in the Pacific. It’s out there but it doesn’t connect to people’s daily life and values and it’s just not a high priority.”

Mr Leiserowitz’s views have been confirmed by the publication of his latest research paper, Predictors of Public Climate Change Awareness and Risk Perception Around the World, which was published in the journal Nature Climate Change on July 27.

Using data from a 2007-2008 Gallup World Poll, which was conducted in 119 countries, Mr Leiserowitz led an international team of researchers to identify the factors that most influence climate change awareness and the perception of risk for 90 per cent of the world’s population.