[COLUMN] Finding solutions: Using ICTs to face the climate emergency

Daily reports keep coming out about the myriad ways in which our planet is changing. We are rapidly approaching the cap of 1.5 degrees Celsius agreed as the upper acceptable limit of global warming at the Paris talks in 2015. And the talks in Marrakesh that ended in November 2016 show that these trends are likely to worsen, even if all pledges are met.

However, with the governments of the world absconding on what is a climate emergency, many people are looking at how small scale changes can not only decrease carbon footprints, meet the climate changes that are already impacting some of world’s most vulnerable populations, and increase resilience but also help to build a better, richer and more equitable life. In this article, we’ll look at some of these initiatives – once again, those at the intersection of gender, ICTs and climate change.

We are rapidly approaching the cap of 1.5 degrees Celsius agreed as the upper acceptable limit of global warming at the Paris talks in 2015.

But first, it is important to reiterate why women are often leading the charge against anthropogenic (caused by people) climate change. First, women are more likely to be the victims of natural disasters. They are 14 times more likely to die. Their needs are the least likely to be met – as decision-makers neglect gendered needs such as menstrual pads and female underwear, which can severely restrict a woman’s movement. Sexual harassment continues to be a problem in temporary shelters and camps; and gender-based violence often increases in the aftermath of a disaster. Second, because women are less likely to have wealth or access to resources in the first place, they are less likely to have the resources to weather storms (literal and metaphoric) that they encounter. If you have money in the bank, your house being washed away is going to hit you less hard than if you don’t. And you’re more likely to have insurance to cover the costs.

Then, as noted previously, women are often more likely to be impacted by climate effects, whether it is as those in poor communities who have to source water, or who are responsible for farming – or just because when families run short women are the ones most likely to eat less.

Women are more likely to be the victims of natural disasters. They are 14 times more likely to die. Their needs are the least likely to be met.

Which is why it’s unsurprising that women are at the forefront of grass roots efforts to find resilience, raise awareness and protest climate change. And ICTs are an integral part of many of these efforts. In the rest of this article, I will showcase just a few of these efforts, to help give a general picture, then end with why these women need a policy and regulatory framework that is responsive to human rights.

In Morocco, a local response to water shortages is premised on the importance of local women’s knowledge of how to respond to drought situations. Tapping into the positive power of social media networks, a team from the Canadian University of Moncton working with Moroccan scientists and rural Moroccan women helped the women master the skills necessary to share information using the internet. The aim is not to provide solutions to the problems of soil erosion and flooding in a top-down manner, by bringing in outside ‘experts’, rather to help women tell others in the region in real-time what is happening, the problems they face and seek peer solutions. However, using the tools, women did not only come up with solutions for the floods, but started discussion on ways of preventing the floods and soil erosion in the first place – addressing the root cause. One of the key problems is that trees on hillslopes provide firewood that is used to heat water for baths. By encouraging the use of public baths, the amount of firewood needed could be reduced, and thus the number of trees cut down minimised.

In Morocco, women did not only come up with solutions for the floods, but started discussion on ways of preventing the floods and soil erosion in the first place – addressing the root cause.

Similar programmes, harnessing the power of feminised knowledge through ICTs to battle climate change and its impacts can be found in Uganda, in Bangladesh, in Ecuador.

ICTs are not only important in these efforts, to make them more effective and to multiply the effects across local communities, but as each of the above websites shows, they also help to raise funds for these efforts and increase awareness locally, nationally, regionally and internationally.

However, in terms of direct impact, the communication technology that seems to be having a disproportionate impact is community radio. Research that has been done in Ghana indicates that community radio is underused, but that when used in an appropriate (bottom-up) fashion, it has a disproportionate ability to reach marginalised and affected communities, and fills a gap not met by other forms of communication. As the research shows, this is partly because community radio is an ‘effective local-level forum’ and because its nature is such that it is primarily a bottom-up medium, where policy-makers and those ‘in the know’ can bring their expertise to communities on their terms, making change effective in the long-term.

Community radio is underused, but that when used in an appropriate (bottom-up) fashion, it has a disproportionate ability to reach marginalised and affected communities, and fills a gap not met by other forms of communication.

But given the comparative lack of resources available to community radio, this raises important policy questions on the internet and technology governance – are there structural reasons why community radio is better at addressing climate change than most other media, including ‘new’ technologies?

First, studies have shown that women are more likely to listen to community radio, in particular (but also radio in general), more than men, while the reverse is true of other communications technologies. This is, in part, due to control of resources, due to literacy and due to gendered domains of knowledge. However, the effectiveness of community radio is not only because of the people who listen to the radio, it is also due to what community radio is, and how it is organised and made – and the community control of radio stations here is key.

While internet governance is among the most open of international governance processes, the control of the internet remains far removed from the average community – even communities based in wealthy urban centres. The level of technical know-how required may be low, but in many communities it is still prohibitive. And while access may be increasing exponentially, particularly through mobile phones, many are still excluded. Community radio has none of these problems. It is cheap, it requires few skills, with traditional story-telling a decided advantage, and it, most important from a governance point of view, it is governed at a local level, usually with deep roots in the community. These could all be part of the reason why, on the frontiers of climate change, community radio is taking up the challenges ignored or downplayed by other media, and through other mediums. And if local ownership is one of the key factors, as I am suggesting, then current trends on the international level are worrying.

How community radio is organised and made – and the community control of radio stations here is key. While internet governance is among the most open of international governance processes, the control of the internet remains far removed from the average community – even communities based in wealthy urban centres.

Negotiations, for example on the move from ICANN to the IANA, have raised concern about the increasing power of large corporations. But looking at the lessons from the community radio movement, it is not enough to attempt to engage an elite community in governance negotiations, as happens at the Internet Governance Forums. Rather communities need to have concrete ownership over infrastructure, if ICTs are to meet the challenges posed by climate change in a gender-responsive manner. Local control of the infrastructure is still a long way from becoming a reality. But perhaps to fully realise the potential of ICTs in tackling climate change, we need to be looking at bold solutions not only in limiting emissions or engaging in carbon drawdown, but also in structuring the communications infrastructure to respond effectively to the climate emergency.

Local control of the infrastructure is still a long way from becoming a reality. But perhaps to fully realise the potential of ICTs in tackling climate change, we need to be looking at bold solutions not only in limiting emissions or engaging in carbon drawdown, but also in structuring the communications infrastructure to respond effectively to the climate emergency.