3. Communication and Knowledge Transfer on Climate Change in the Philippines: The Case of Palawan

Thomas Friedrich

© Thomas Friedrich, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0212.03

Separately from its physical reality, climate change is a travelling idea (Hulme 2009). Through numerous policies, laws and regulations, the global discourse on climate change affects many people, irrespective of how strongly they experience the consequences of a changing climate. The idea travels from global to local via a long chain of communication and translation. Along the way, knowledge becomes detached from meaning (Jasanoff 2010). This chapter considers the Philippine island of Palawan to show how an idea can be re-integrated into a meaningful context during multiple translations from source to destination in local ontologies. It demonstrates that the local reception of climate-change discourse is influenced by pre-existing systems of knowledge and meaning that are reproduced by circular rather than unidirectional, top-down communication. Irrespective of scientific accuracy, climate change thus becomes a coherent, plausible, and tangible concept regarding what people already know, believe and experience. Using empirical data collected in multi-method fieldwork, this chapter shows that sense-making is a multi-layered process, in which various sources of information play a decisive role in how climate change is comprehended and communicated. Using the example of a lay theatre performance, the chapter demonstrates how the reproduction and dissemination of the local notion of climate change unfolds, and offers recommendations for climate communicators.

Introduction: Translating a Travelling Idea

There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is occurring as a result of human activity (Cook et al. 2013). Although the diffusion of public climate-change skepticism remains an issue especially in English-speaking countries, publics around the world largely accept that climate change is a cause of concern (Engels et al. 2013). National surveys (e.g. TNS Opinion & Social 2017) indicate that climate science, and how it is conveyed, strongly influence both what is generally known about climate change and public attitudes towards it. Thus, it may be assumed that scientific knowledge content, insights and main conclusions have been successfully communicated throughout the world. In that sense, it has been stated that climate change is not only a measurable physical phenomenon but has also developed into a travelling idea (Hulme 2009).1 The discourse on climate change has become a prevalent part of information and education campaigns, environmental laws and policy measures. Climate change as an idea is affecting many people, regardless of whether they have personally experienced its effects. This idea has travelled in a top-down direction; it was initially developed by (predominantly natural) scientists from different disciplines and countries, represented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The global climate-change discourse has informed billions of lay people that our planet’s climate is changing due to anthropogenic causes, which will have severe consequences. In regularly published IPCC reports that contain up-to-date scientific knowledge about climate change, the idea has been reproduced and disseminated widely. Subsequently, through a network of media, politics, and other modes of communication, it then engages in a complex process of knowledge transfer and transformation from the global to the local level before it eventually reaches its final recipients—local people with diverse cultural backgrounds and epistemologies who try to make sense of (the idea of) climate change. The research questions underlying this chapter are how this knowledge transfer takes place in a local context, i.e. which are the key players involved, and how the local reception and reproduction of the scientific discourse on climate change can be captured empirically. This chapter outlines this chain of communication and translation of scientific knowledge about climate change from the global to the local level, using the example of the island of Palawan in the southwest of the Philippines.

Of course, this linear model of communication is very simplified. To analyze and fully understand the process of knowledge dissemination, loops and feedbacks must also be taken into consideration (Weingart, Engels, and Pansegrau 2000), especially at the local level. Those who initiated the global discourse (namely climate scientists) are less diverse than the multipliers and recipients of this discourse around the world. The more it trickles down into the manifold realms of politics, society, and culture, the more it interacts with other national discourses, local narratives, and traditional ontologies. Thus, not only knowledge is of utter importance when it comes to climate change communication, but also meaning (Jasanoff 2010). Therefore, the way in which people make sense of climate change relates not only to what they know or do not know about it, but also to how they understand the idea, and what it actually means to them when they are told that the climate is changing, that the sea level is rising, or that extreme weather events are more likely to occur in the future. Do they understand the fundamental causalities of the global discourse in the same way as scientists do, or are there alternative models of explanation? And why do some of these models eventually prevail within a society, while others do not? For Jasanoff, the fact that climate science “cuts against the grain of ordinary human experience” (Jasanoff 2010: 237), and thus produces local discordances, relates to how it separates scientific knowledge from meaning on a global level during the process of scientific assessment: “Scientific assessments such as those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change helped establish climate change as a global phenomenon, but in the process they detached knowledge from meaning. Climate facts arise from impersonal observation whereas meanings emerge from embedded experience” (Jasanoff 2010: 233). In the process of communicating and translating scientific facts about climate change, the climate discourse has encountered various, in part, conflicting local epistemologies and cultures of knowledge, e.g. cultural models of nature that contradict each other (Beck 2007; Bostrom and Lashof 2007; Jasanoff 2010). This raises the question of how exactly (global) scientific knowledge and (local) cultural knowledge intertwine or, in other words, how the “counterintuitive nature of global warming causation” (Rudiak-Gould 2014a: 370) fits into more traditional ethno-ecological beliefs. Indeed, scientific findings are themselves the result of the co-production of knowledge and are thus affected by cultural constraints:

Scientific knowledge, in particular, is not a transcendent mirror of reality. It both embeds and is embedded in social practices, identities, norms, conventions, discourses, instruments and institutions—in short, in all the building blocks of what we term the social. (Jasanoff 2004b: 3, original emphasis)

[S]cientific facts bearing on the global environment never take root in a neutral interpretive field; they are dropped into contexts that have already been conditioned to produce distinctive cultural responses to scientific claims. (Jasanoff 2010: 240)

So, what does this mean for climate change communication? I use the case of Palawan to illustrate that what local people know about climate change cannot be separated from the meaning they attach to the concept. As Jasanoff has pointed out, meaning derives from experiences that are embedded in specific environmental, social, and cultural contexts. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the way people make sense of climate change is inextricably linked to these contexts. As outlined below, what climate change means to the inhabitants of Palawan strongly depends on their cultural model of nature, i.e., on basic assumptions about their natural environment and the weather, as well as past and everyday experiences, national and local discourses, and narratives that frame the idea and constantly reproduce it in its localized meaning. Hence, the complex interconnections of climate change knowledge with associated knowledge domains must be taken into consideration in order to fully understand how the travelling idea is integrated into pre-existing systems of knowledge and meaning. In this regard, the term making sense refers to the process of making foreign knowledge familiar within the context(s) of present beliefs by establishing the best possible coherence and plausibility.

In social representations theory (cf. Smith and Joffe 2013), the process lay people use to make (common) sense of unfamiliar information is described as “anchoring”, i.e., the classification and naming of “foreign and threatening phenomena in terms that resonate with those attempting to understand the phenomena” (Smith and Joffe 2013: 18; see Chapter 2, Greenland). As the Palawan case shows, those resonating terms and categories are a crucial element of understanding how local individuals make sense of climate change. Furthermore, the case demonstrates that anchoring also takes place when the English term climate change is not translated into the local language but is instead retained and given a new specific meaning. According to social representations theory, sense-making of unfamiliar and uncertain information depends on the interplay between personal everyday experiences and media coverage (Smith and Joffe 2013: 28). However, I argue that more dependencies should be considered. Individuals’ images, associations, and representations about climate change are also determined by national or local discourses, which in turn depend in many ways on media coverage and personal experiences (or lack thereof), and also influence them. Together they form the framework that determines how the traveling idea of climate change is eventually received, contextualized, and made familiar locally.

This is especially true for Palawan and many other places in the Global South, where people’s access to information about climate change and media access in general is less comprehensive. Therefore, my extended field research on Palawan not only focused on how people receive the discourse on climate change in terms of how they obtain relevant information, but also on how that discourse is locally reproduced—i.e., how climate change knowledge is distributed and communicated apart from unidirectional media consumption.

Palawan is home to a multitude of sources from which knowledge about (and thus public awareness of) climate change is drawn and disseminated. For example, media sources (radio, TV, internet, and, to a lesser degree, newspapers) are quite accessible on the island, especially in the capital Puerto Princesa City. Furthermore, the people of Palawan learn about climate change in educational institutions (governmental as well as non-governmental), discuss it in community meetings, hear about it in churches, are affected by its political implications and implementations, and talk about it with family, friends, and neighbors. Scientific terms such as climate change, global warming, greenhouse effect, or sea level rise are introduced to society through these various information channels. In order to examine how climate-change discourse is received and locally reproduced, one of my fieldwork goals was to identify relevant “translation regimes” (De Wit 2015), by which I mean all local agents, institutions, communication patterns, discourses, and narratives that help to translate the global discourse into a generally intelligible common sense understanding, and thus significantly shape the perception, conceptualization, and communication about climate change. Translation regimes—which include, but are not limited to, the media—embed the scientific notion of anthropogenic climate change into meaningful local contexts. Together they provide the socio-cultural, discursive, and epistemic basis for how knowledge about climate change is distributed, organized, and structured throughout society. Since local translation regimes are integral parts of local society and culture, they enable us to research processes of anchoring, translating, interpreting, reproducing, and thus sense-making of climate change as dialectical rather than unidirectional. Below I describe one such regime from Palawan—an amateur theatre—to demonstrate how local concepts, narratives, and values pertaining to the relationship between the island’s population and their natural environment are reflected in climate change communication. In the conclusion, I recommend that climate change communicators pay more attention to local peculiarities and corresponding translation regimes in order to understand how people make sense of climate change, and why they do it in a particular way.

Localizing the Study of Climate Communication

Much of the research to date on public perceptions of climate change has been based on large-scale national and international surveys (e.g. TNS Opinion & Social 2017). There have been few qualitative investigations of how people integrate scientific knowledge into existing local knowledge and meaning contexts. Ethnographic fieldwork is particularly suited to this purpose. Qualitative methods not only help to determine what people know and how their knowledge is embedded into broader socio-cultural contexts; they can also elicit tacit forms of knowledge that people rarely articulate explicitly, if at all, e.g., in interviews. This chapter is based on ethnographic fieldwork that used multiple methods of collecting and analyzing empirical data to obtain a more holistic view of how local knowledge about climate change is reproduced, distributed, and applied discursively. As further described in the methods section, these include participant observation, guided interviews, a survey, and experimental methods of cognitive anthropology.

One of my main findings was that local investigations of climate change knowledge, and the discourses and narratives that shape communication about it, should examine local ecological and weather knowledge that strongly influences people’s experiences with their environment, and thus affects how global climate-change discourse is received locally. As Strauss, for example, has shown in her ethnographic description of the Foehn in the Swiss Alps, the people of the small town of Leukerbad experience and feel this warm and dry wind, which has become as much a vital part of their identity as the surrounding mountains. “Wind” Strauss states “is part of the landscape” (Strauss 2007: 179). Common ecological knowledge in general, as well as basic knowledge about the weather, is locally anchored and, to varying degrees, socially shared. It is thus not merely information or factual knowledge. It also includes tacit knowledge, embodied knowledge, basic assumptions, norms and values, as much as it is expressed in feelings, discourses, and social behavior. This kind of local knowledge is generated and reproduced based on everyday experiences of—and interactions with—(changing) environments, e.g., by the regular use of natural resources or weather experiences. Yet, since it is also the subject of constant negotiations, it is a dynamic form of knowledge. Ingold (2010) employs a phenomenological approach to illustrate how knowledge is acquired by physically moving through the “weather-world”. This strongly resembles the idea of a “local epistemology” (Friedrich 2018), but lacks the social dimension of knowledge, i.e., how it is shared and socially construed. On the scale of national states, this is what Jasanoff emphasizes in her concept of “civic epistemology”, by which she means all “institutionalized practices by which members of a given society test and deploy knowledge claims used as a basis for making collective choices” (Jasanoff 2007: 255). This does not mean, however, that recognition of civic or local epistemologies implies a dismissal of scientific standards, or that local knowledge should be romanticized. Rather, that acknowledging different epistemologies, i.e., processes of knowledge co- and reproduction, allows for a deeper understanding of why local translation and integration of global knowledge varies widely (Lutes 1998; Roncoli, Crane, and Orlove 2009).

The difficulty of reconciling (global) scientific and (local) non-scientific systems of knowledge is demonstrated by exploring the intersection of global and local knowledge about climate change. It has been pointed out many times that people do not experience “the climate” as a statistical figure, but the weather, its variations, and environmental changes (West and Vásquez-León 2003; Bostrom and Lashof 2007; Peterson and Broad 2009; Rudiak-Gould 2012, 2013b). Unlike knowledge about natural environments and the weather, natural scientific knowledge about climate change is impersonal, apolitical, intangible, and universal. Global climate change takes place on a huge scale, both spatially and temporally; the physical causes and effects are located far from each other. At the same time, the climate is a slowly changing system. Climate scientists assert that many climatic changes that can be observed today are the result of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from past decades, which means that the benefits of recently implemented measures to reduce carbon emissions will not be realized for decades later, if at all. From a scientific point of view, a direct link between the behavior of one individual and climatic or weather variations cannot be established. However, to make sense of perceived changes in weather and the environment, people do make this link to find plausible explanations based on their ontologies. For example, Roncoli et al. (2003) found that farmers’ interpretations of scientific weather forecasts in Northern Burkina Faso are strongly influenced by personal interests and their concept of rain. The authors conclude that: “[S]cientific and technical knowledge is not a ‘product’ that can be pre-packaged and delivered to ‘users’ without its being altered by its incorporation into a different set of meanings and relations from those that produced such knowledge” (Roncoli et al. 2003: 197). Therefore, from an anthropological point of view, local heuristics or explanatory models are of the utmost importance. Instead of seeing them as simple misinterpretations of scientific concepts that have to be corrected (c.f. Bostrom and Lashof 2007; Chen 2011), they can also be understood as a cultural expression of confirmation bias, i.e., the psychological phenomenon that people accept new information only when it is consistent with their pre-existing knowledge, and reject it when it challenges ingrained concepts (Rayner 2003). This applies to environmental or pollution concerns as much as climate change, where political, moral, and conceptual plausibility has been demonstrated to be more important than physical causality (Douglas and Wildavsky 1982; Douglas 1992; Jasanoff 2010; Rudiak-Gould 2014b). Thus, anthropologists are not interested in whether local people have an “accurate” understanding of the complex notion of scientific climate change. They instead ask how people conceptualize the idea, how they relate it to their environment, how their alternative explanatory models fit with what they already know and believe, which local translation regimes influence the way they conceptualize and talk about climate change, and whether or not their cultural models are challenged by science or other “potentially incongruent sources and knowledge practices” (Hastrup 2015: 142).

Models of Knowledge Transfer

This context relates to associated fields like translation, (risk) communication and public understanding of science (Rudiak-Gould 2012). One of the shortcomings in past research on science communication has been identified as the expert/lay dichotomy that distinguishes between two groups believed to be homogeneous, i.e., “scientists”, as the discourse producers, and “the public”, as the discourse recipients (Thompson and Rayner 1998). The underlying assumption of this dichotomy, “that it is possible to separate what the risks really are from what the public erroneously believe them to be” (Thompson and Rayner 1998: 165), not only simplifies the complex discourse and ignores the heterogeneity of those that constitute it. It has also led to incorrect conclusions in social scientific research, public information campaigns, and policy-making. With reference to the pioneering work of Kempton et al. (1995), who showed among other things how fundamentally US-Americans’ perceptions of climate change are based on different pre-existing cultural models that are widely shared, Thompson and Rayner conclude that “the accuracy of the detailed information that members of the public are receiving from media discussion or public awareness campaigns is largely irrelevant” (Thompson and Rayner 1998,: 148). Thus, they conclude that more precise science communication does not necessarily lead to a more accurate public understanding of the problem. For example, a number of studies have shown a widespread phenomenon, which I also encountered on Palawan (described in more detail below), that lay people usually confuse climate change with ozone depletion (Löfstedt 1991; Kempton 1991; Bostrom et al. 1994; Kempton, Boster, and Hartley 1995; Thompson and Rayner 1998; Smith and Joffe 2013; Friedrich 2017). A popular “solution” for such phenomena would be to correct this misconception by better communicating scientific knowledge, also known as the (information) deficit model. By providing targeted education about the actual causal interconnections, it is assumed that the public will eventually see the world the way scientists do. This unidirectional sender/receiver structure of communication has been criticized as psychologically and sociologically naïve (Stern 1992; Kearney 1994; Wynne 1995; Thompson and Rayner 1998; Blake 1999; Weingart, Engels, and Pansegrau 2000; Jasanoff 2007; Hulme 2009; Jasanoff 2010; Rudiak-Gould 2013b). Indeed, the deficit model ignores the fact that the acquisition of new knowledge is a selective process, and that receiving new information does not necessarily lead to the understanding intended. In order to integrate it into pre-existing systems of knowledge and meaning, there must be a certain amount of coherence and plausibility, since “a series of isolated facts or details do not create meaning” (Kearney 1994: 430). Creating meaning, however, is a creative and thus active process that does not fit into a unidirectional structure of communication. Instead of trying to correct “wrong” concepts with more detailed scientific information, these concepts should be taken into serious consideration. Another limitation of the deficit model is what environmental psychology labels the knowledge-behavior or value-action gap. This refers to the problem that people apparently do not act as desired, for example by changing their consumption patterns, even though they seem to know enough about their individual and collective impact on the environment, and hold high environmental values (Blake 1999).

In comparison, the sociocultural model explains the relationship between knowledge and behavior much better; it is less knowledge-based and considers norms, values and social actors. Because, as Jasanoff has stated, “without human actors […] even scientific claims have no power to move others” (Jasanoff 2004a: 36). Among others, she has pointed out that science alone cannot provide a moral basis for action (Milton 1996, p. 124; Thompson and Rayner 1998; Jasanoff 2007). Instead of a unidirectional transfer of climate change knowledge, the sociocultural model assumes a more dialogical communication along “cultural circuits” (Hulme 2009), like science, politics, media, and the public that represent distinct domains in which “[m]essages about climate change have no starting point and no ending point; they travel around this circuitry, changing frame, form and meaning as they go” (Hulme 2009: 221).

A third model that more strongly emphasizes the meaning of discourses and their role in the selectivity of knowledge acquisition can be called the discourse model. Discourses provide an epistemological and normative structure to determine what particular information is relevant, and what can be ignored or rejected. By considering the national and local translation regimes—i.e., social agents, institutions, communicational patterns, narratives, and discourses that mediate and translate the global discourse on climate change—the manifold local manifestations of this discourse eventually become explainable. Translation regimes show us how, where, and by whom relevant knowledge is actively shared, verbally or non-verbally. Identifying and analyzing such regimes is indispensable to delineate how the scientific discourse is being received and reproduced on a local scale.

Language is another significant factor that permeates all the models described. The anthropologist Rudiak-Gould emphasized that the communication of scientific climate change knowledge is not only an issue in terms of translating ideas, concepts and cultural models; it is also a linguistic problem:

Climate change communication is ultimately an issue of translation: the cultural translation from scholarly communities to citizens; the cultural translation from Western and other elite developers of climate science to indigenous people and other non-Westerners; the linguistic translation from specialized climatological jargon to the colloquial language of citizens; and the linguistic translation from English, and other languages in which the notion of anthropogenic global warming has been formulated and studied, to the languages of those who are called upon to prevent or prepare for it. (Rudiak-Gould 2012: 46)

During his fieldwork on the Marshall Islands, Rudiak-Gould found that the local term that is used to translate climate change into Marshallese language already holds various meanings, and thus influences how climate change as a concept is understood. He assumes that this kind of mistranslation (deficit model) or reinterpretation (sociocultural and discourse model) occurs in many other societies and languages as well. Instead of dismissing those local concepts as a result of failed communication, however, he suggests that they may provide the opportunity for real dialogue (Rudiak-Gould 2012, 2014b). In this context, anthropologists, linguists and other social scientists familiar with local patterns of meaning can make a decisive contribution to improving climate communication.

In the Philippines, the English term climate change is predominately used in public discourse, since English is the country’s second lingua franca. For instance, in national television broadcasts, where “Taglish” is predominately spoken (a common mix of the first lingua franca, Tagalog or Filipino, and English), the term climate change is clearly preferred to its Tagalog translation pagbabago ng klima. However, even if the same term is used as in global scientific discourse, this does not mean that its meaning has not changed or will not change further along the chain of communication. The question of translation does not disappear just because there is no linguistic translation. What remains is cultural translation. The Philippine example therefore demonstrates why a distinction must be made in climate change communication between knowledge and meaning as much as between local and global discourses.

Communicating Climate Change in the Philippines2

As an archipelago, the Philippines is among the countries most vulnerable to climate change. The IPCC defines climate change vulnerability as “the degree to which geophysical, biological and socio-economic systems are susceptible to, and unable to cope with, adverse impacts of climate change” (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007: 21). In international comparisons, the Philippines is always ranked highest because even without climate change, it experiences multiple extreme weather events that regularly cause massive damage and casualties. Each year between May and November, around twenty tropical cyclones enter the Philippine Area of Responsibility, almost half of which make landfall. According to the Global Climate Risk Index (Eckstein, Künzel, and Schäfer 2017), the Philippines is ranked the fifth most affected by weather extremes and subsequent events like floods or mudslides between 1997 and 2016. In 2013, it even led the ranking as a consequence of super typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) that is considered to be the strongest typhoon that has ever made landfall (Kreft et al. 2014). Against this background, it becomes comprehensible that numerous Philippine policies, laws, and regulations have incorporated natural and environmental hazards and their consequences. For example, a natural disaster discourse is virtually ubiquitous in the country. As elaborated below, this discourse plays a pivotal role in the way climate change is commonly understood and adopted in policy-making processes. On Palawan, the dovetail of natural disaster discourse and climate-change discourse is an integral part of local translation regimes that help to translate the scientific discourse on climate change into a more intelligible and tangible understanding, taking actual experiences (or lack thereof) into account. In order to understand climate change communication on Palawan, it is thus worthwhile to first examine official national climate policy and its implications for local contexts.

The Philippines was one of the first countries in the world to make climate change a legal issue. As early as 1991, then-President Corazon Aquino signed Administrative Order No. 220, which provided for the foundation of a national climate change committee. The first IPCC assessment report was published just one year before the Philippines officially accepted the “mounting scientific evidence of an impending global warming” (President of the Philippines 1991). In 1994, it ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and nine years later, the Kyoto Protocol. In 2007, the fourth IPCC assessment report was published, which again had a strong impact on Philippine legislation. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo issued a decree that year which stated, with regard to the IPCC, that “climate change poses serious threats to the lives and welfare of the people, especially the poor households, and sustainable development of the country” (President of the Philippines 2007). The decree also ordered the foundation of a task force on climate change that eventually merged with the former climate change committee in 2009 to form the current Climate Change Commission (Republic of the Philippines 2009). As demonstrated here, the Philippines is understood as a country that is very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. It is located within the so-called Typhoon Belt, “experiencing [an] unusual number of high-intensity typhoons that have wrought devastations and anguished to our people” (President of the Philippines 2007). The commission was tasked with informing and educating the public about the issue of climate change, raising awareness of its adverse effects, and mobilizing appropriate responses. The dissemination of climate change knowledge therefore became official, and eventually resulted in a country-specific discourse that explicitly prioritizes knowledge “from the Philippine perspective”, and adaptation as a preferred strategy to deal with climate change (Climate Change Commission 2011). According to the National Climate Change Action Plan, the communication of climate change knowledge must consider the specific local context:

Having access to relevant information and localizing it from the Philippine perspective: There is a lot of scientific information about climate change in [sic] the global level. […] Climate-change impacts vary from one place to another and so researches [sic] on the local impacts are important. […] Development of […] communication materials should consider who the target is and what type of materials are suitable to them. (Climate Change Commission 2011: 33)

What is locally known about climate change in the Philippines, therefore, is not just the result of an incidental loss of information along a long chain of communicating, translating, and simplifying the complex and comprehensive scientific knowledge from the global to the local level (as in the children’s game “Chinese whispers”). Instead, the Philippine government intentionally pre-selects and stresses particular knowledge content and discards others. Considering the country’s continuous experience of extreme weather events and natural hazards, and its overall educational situation, this policy reflects a very pragmatic approach to the climate change issue, and therefore serves as a good example of how political discourses as part of laws and regulations, initiatives and programmes, but also across the media, continuously constitute access to, dissemination of, and interpretation of knowledge. This also applies to the local scale, where global scientific and national political discourses encounter specific local discourses and narratives that may or may not be compatible with one another. In the following this is shown by the example of the island of Palawan, which is special on many levels compared to the rest of the archipelago.

Palawan is Different!”

Consistent with the Filipino population in general (Social Weather Stations 2013), the vast majority of the people that I encountered during my fieldwork on Palawan were convinced that climate change is real: fifty out of fifty-three respondents (94%) to my survey3 agreed with the statement “Climate change is a calamity which is happening in the Philippines right now”. However, 84% also agreed with the statement “We experience climate change in Palawan. But other parts of the Philippines experience it much stronger than us”. This is just one of many indicators that a notably large percentage of my interlocutors continually made a strong distinction between their island and the rest of the country. This predominately positive demarcation was also expressed in terms of safety issues, general quality of life, environmental matters and even geophysical phenomena. Respondents stated that, unlike in the Philippines in general, there are no earthquakes, volcanoes or very strong typhoons on Palawan. This claim is largely supported by scientific accounts, since the island does have some exceptional features regarding its tectonic structure. Although, like most of the country, it is geologically part of the Sunda Plate, the island is not affected by orogenic movements (i.e., the formation of mountains). As a significant amount of endemic species of flora and fauna, as well as different soil conditions indicate, Palawan is more closely related to Borneo and the continental part of South East Asia as opposed to the remaining archipelago, which is of volcanic origin (Baillie, Evangelista, and Inciong 2000; Esselstyn, Widmann, and Heaney 2004). This also means that Palawan is not part of the Pacific Ring of Fire and is thus considered to be an “aseismic region” (Lagmay et al. 2009). Moreover, it does not lie within the Typhoon Belt, which makes the island less vulnerable to the strong typhoons that usually approach the country from the Eastern Pacific. However, as a deeper look into historical typhoon paths reveals and the typhoon season of 2017 has once again demonstrated, the island is certainly not typhoon-free (Palawan Council for Sustainable Development 2004: 49; WWF Philippines and BPI Foundation 2014).

Another distinctive feature that is always brought up by Palawan’s inhabitants when asked what is so special about their island is its unique, albeit vulnerable, natural environment. The island is known as “the last (ecological) frontier” in the Philippines due to its massive forest cover,4 biodiversity, healthy coral reefs and low population density. Almost 40% of Philippine fauna can be found here, including many endemic and endangered species (Palawan Council for Sustainable Development 2004). Palawan is also home to about one-fourth of the Philippines’ intact mangrove forests (Long and Giri 2011). Despite being the largest province in the Philippines by area, only around 1% of the total population lives there. In 1990, the UNESCO declared the province a Man and Biosphere Reserve and a model region for sustainable development (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization 2011). Two years later, a national law was passed, known as the Strategic Environmental Plan for Palawan Act, which led to the establishment of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) (Republic of the Philippines 1992). For more than twenty-five years, the PCSD has been responsible for extensive programmes to protect, conserve and develop the island’s natural resources, and to educate its population on climate issues. It has also become a regional translation regime that impacts how the discourse on climate change is perceived on the island.

Fig. 3.1 The island of Palawan with its capital region that consists of both urban and rural areas (source: author, 2020).

On a local scale, the same can be said for the city administration of Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa City. My fieldwork and all my data collection took place within its municipal boundaries. In the same year the PCSD was created, 1992, a new mayor took office in Puerto Princesa City, who was praised shortly afterwards by the United Nations Environment Programme in 1997 as “the first Filipino political leader to make environmental protection the centerpiece of his administration” (UNEP 2004: 2011). At this time, and for the third time in a row, the city won the national contest for the “Cleanest and Greenest Component City in the Philippines” due to its very successful “operation cleanliness” (Tagalog: oplan linis). During this mayor’s term of office until 2013 (with a short break between 2001 and 2002), Puerto Princesa City rapidly developed from a former penal colony administration into a best practice example for successful climate change adaptation, and one of South Asia’s prime eco-tourism destinations (Department of Environment and Natural Resources 2012; WWF Philippines and BPI Foundation 2014). As my overall findings indicate, those and other policy implementations have had a huge and sustainable impact on the thinking and behavior of the city’s inhabitants regarding how they value nature and how they understand their individual and collective impacts on natural processes. In a nutshell, environmentalism virtually became common sense.

One of the key components of local environmental rhetoric has been about not only protecting but also improving the island’s vegetation by planting trees to enhance its resilience to weather-related disasters and sea level rise. Palawan hosts two of Southeast Asia’s oldest and most popular tree planting festivals (Friedrich 2017). Bearing in mind the specific historical, political, and environmental context of Palawan and its capital, an intriguing finding of my research thus becomes clear—that the island’s above-mentioned biogeographical exceptionalities strongly correlate with people’s attitudes and behavior towards their natural environment and climate change. As my data shows, there is a strong consensual perception of climate change as just one hazard among others. Furthermore, an overwhelming majority of my sample reported that what they understood as “proper environmental behavior” was also understood as a significant factor in preventing natural disasters on Palawan, including climate change.


Determining how the people of Palawan understand and make sense of climate change entails intricate methodological challenges. While there are many ways to assess what people know about a certain subject, it is much more difficult to determine how they comprehend a concept. You might ask them what they know about climate change and they might tell you a lot about it (irrespective of whether it is scientifically correct), but evaluating understanding requires much more than factual knowledge. Although people might understand climate change somehow, they may not be able to verbalize it explicitly. As social representations theory states, anchoring and comprehending an unfamiliar scientific concept like climate change requires a system of reference that constitutes whether or not new knowledge content makes sense (cf. Smith and Joffe 2013: 18). From a local perspective of understanding, this function is commonly fulfilled by pre-existing systems of knowledge and meaning that include basic, underlying assumptions. In the case of climate change, these assumptions include fundamental beliefs about how nature and the weather generally work, i.e., how natural processes are interrelated or what impacts humans have on these processes and vice versa. This kind of tacit knowledge can be shared widely within a social group. However, possession of such cultural models does not necessarily enable its members to reflect them. Despite this knowledge being taken for granted—or perhaps because of that—people do not talk about it. Therefore, in order to reconstruct local people’s perspectives on climate change, I used a strongly bottom-up, data-driven approach with multiple methods of data collection that also took implicit forms of knowledge into account and allowed for maximum empirical openness by reducing the probability of biasing the results with my own underlying assumptions about the scientific concept of global climate change. Following this methodological approach, which was largely inspired by Grounded Theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967), each method of data collection was built on previous collections and continuously compared. This section briefly presents each of the data collection methods as well as some of their crucial results.5 Subsequently, more emphasis will be put on the participant observation part of my fieldwork, with a more practical example of how climate change knowledge is communicated, transferred, and disseminated on Palawan beyond media consumption.

My fieldwork took place for a total of seven months between 2013 and 2015. The central data collection was carried out between October 2013 and March 2014. During that time, I successively collected various data formats from almost 100 people living in the municipality of Puerto Princesa City, using a multi-method approach that included qualitative as well as quantitative methods. In addition to participant observation, conducting interviews and administering a survey, further methods from cognitive anthropology have been applied, namely freelists and pilesorts, which proved particularly suitable to my research question.6 Each of these data formats, collected in different, partly overlapping groups of informants, represented a certain perspective on the topic; however, they complemented each other and eventually provided a more complete picture. Accordingly, my overall findings are the result of the triangulation of all these methods.

Data analysis was carried out at the same time as data collection and thus also followed the methodological approach of Grounded Theory, leading to the emergence and development of empirically based, local concepts, categories, and ideas, which in turn led to hypotheses that were integrated into the design of the next phase of data collection. For instance, most of the survey statements with which participants were asked to agree or disagree were the result of a cluster analysis of the pilesorts that were mainly based on the results of the freelists. Many of those statements would never have found their way into the survey if I had designed it at the beginning of my fieldwork. “Being there” and collecting data was an essential requirement for eliciting what eventually proved to be culturally relevant statements and interpreting the overall data adequately. By constantly cross-referencing data formats with background information and personal observations, this exploratory mix of methods produced findings that were more valid and plausible within their sociocultural, historical, and political context. Furthermore, participant observation was particularly helpful for comprehending how people’s knowledge about climate change was put into practice in everyday life and on special occasions.


One of the freelist tasks that was administered in both English and Tagalog was to note down personal associations with the term climate change. The results show that more than half of the respondents who performed this task (n = 31) linked climate change to natural disasters and extreme weather events such as those occurring in the Philippines. Almost half of them mentioned predominantly negative effects on society and the general weather. The following interview sequence with Abraham7 provides an example:

Thomas: Personally, have you already experienced the impacts of climate change?

Abraham: I’m sick because of climate change.

Thomas: And why is that?

Abraham: You know, the changing weather. Sometimes I wonder, is it Christmas today? You know? Sometimes we experience this [changes] in November or October, but now even early morning. Not only today but also in the past. (Interview with Abraham, 17 January 2014)

By “Christmas” Abraham refers to the northeast monsoon called amihan that brings cool winds to Palawan between October/November and February/March. The beginning of this dry season more or less coincides with the Christmas season that starts around September in the Philippines. Abraham wondered about the perceived shift in seasons that was expressed by many of my interlocutors, including too much or too little precipitation or somehow “wrong” temperatures in the past few years. Tetina, a woman from one of the Indigenous groups of Palawan, the Tagbanwa, gives another example:

Thomas: How would you describe, in general, the weather here in Puerto Princesa City or Palawan?

Tetina: With regards to weather my observations before was (sic): If it’s summertime, it is summertime—it is the dry season. And if it is the rainy season, it is raining. But now, I think, like three years ago, there are changes based on my personal observations. (Interview with Tetina, 21 January 2014)

Respondents provided a rather diverse set of answers in the freelists. However, when specifically asked about the causes and effects of climate change, about two-thirds named general harm to the environment as a major cause. For almost half of them this included damage caused to trees or the forest in general. For about one-third the wrong use of waste, e.g., burning plastic, was another culprit. In sum, over 80% of the causes mentioned could be classified as human induced, which is also reflected more explicitly in the survey statement “Global warming is man-made”, which 87% of participants (n = 53) agreed with. Climate change skepticism does not appear to be an issue on Palawan. Apart from natural disasters and extreme weather events, climate change effects were strongly associated with adverse effects on the environment, general weather, and society.

The freelists results were subsequently incorporated into a pilesort (n = 34), i.e., a card-sorting task. The most common terms mentioned in all freelists were identified and written on thirty-two cards, combined with further terms, e.g., from the scientific discourse on climate change, and then randomly shuffled and handed over to another set of participants who independently sorted them into piles according to what they believed to be affiliation. At the end of each sorting activity, participants were asked to explain the topic of each of their piles. The answers given to this question were of the utmost importance for understanding the categories or domains of thinking used to cognitively structure those terms within a common knowledge context. A cluster analysis of all the pilesorts revealed a dominant pattern of domains that clearly distinguished between what were perceived to be positive and negative human activities (e.g., tree planting and burning garbage, respectively) and their impacts on nature (see Friedrich 2018 for an analysis).

A consensus analysis of the pilesorts and the survey showed an overwhelming agreement regarding how my interlocutors thought about climate change and their natural environment. Climaxing in several survey statements with an agreement up to 100% of all independently interviewed participants, this consensus was so strong that it would not be unreasonable to suggest that it not only applies to my sample but to the population of Puerto Princesa City, or maybe even Palawan in general. For example, one of the statements with 100% agreement was “It’s not enough to let nature just recover itself. We have to protect, conserve and restore it actively, for instance by planting trees”. Another was “Development means that we have to take good care of our environment. This is the reason why all the tourists come to Palawan”. The manifold levels of meaning of those statements are hard to decipher without the necessary background information that was briefly outlined earlier. The importance of collective tree planting activities or the strongly positive connotation of development (Tagalog: unlad), which expresses itself in tree planting in the sense of environmental development, can only be understood by taking Palawan’s special features into account (i.e., its biogeographical exceptionalities and the strong environmentalism of its inhabitants, especially in the capital). As my data show, people strongly correlate both features and construe a causal relationship between the fact that the island is not affected by earthquakes and rarely hit by strong typhoons, and their environmental behavior. Up to 81% agreed with the statement “Here in Palawan we don’t have earthquakes and very strong typhoons like in other parts of the Philippines, because we take much better care of our environment”. Accordingly, this fundamental and consensual belief that people’s activities have an important impact on natural processes at the local level also frames how climate change is perceived and conceptualized. The term climate change was written on one of the pilesort cards and was predominantly sorted in a way that made it a central component of one the main domains of thinking, comprising all other terms that were understood to be natural disasters (Friedrich 2018). This means that climate change is understood as just another natural force that the Philippines experiences every year. In accordance with people’s perceptions and moral sense, the idea of climate change is cognitively integrated into a pre-existing system of categories, where it is anchored to make sense locally.

In addition to the methods presented thus far, participant observation was a major source of valuable information during my fieldwork. In several practical examples that included expected as well as unexpected events and happenings, I explored how climate change knowledge is communicated, transferred, and disseminated discursively and in social practices, and triangulated it with my other modes of data collection. The remainder of the chapter focuses on the conditions and circumstances that maintain and affirm the way of thinking described above through practices of knowledge transfer.

Local Knowledge Transfer

A practical case example that I would like to use in the following to illustrate a specific form of conveying knowledge about climate change is that of the Palawan Conservation Corps (PCC), a non-governmental organization located in Puerto Princesa City. The PCC educates and trains young people in the field of environmental protection, value formation, and restoration. The PCC’s objective is to improve the future prospects of adolescents from mainly rural areas (what they refer to as “marginalized youth”) by teaching them a combination of practical and social skills and environmentally relevant topics. The six-month full-time training programme takes place in a remote campsite. An essential component of the training is rehearsing the so-called ecological theatre caravan (eco caravan). This project consists of several stage plays that were written and developed by some of the organization’s staff members, dealing with ecology, species protection, biodiversity, sustainability, conservation of terrestrial and maritime environment, as well as global warming and climate change. As one of PCC’s responsible persons told me, the eco caravan is designed to teach “basic ecology” and raise awareness of “the web of life”, according to the organization’s holistic mission statement that “everything on this planet is interrelated—everything is connected to everything else”. Three of the stage plays that explicitly deal with climate change and its consequences are presented in more detail below. At the end of each six-month training course, the PCC trainees performed the plays in primary and secondary schools. Since climate change has not yet been mainstreamed in formal school curricula on Palawan, this represented an introduction to the topic for many of the children in the audience. The dual transfer of information associated with the eco caravan performance made it particularly interesting for my research: PCC staff members teach the adolescent programme participants, who then serve as mediators of this knowledge and transmit it through their performances. In this way, the PCC and its eco caravan serves as an insightful example for a translation regime on Palawan. Since its foundation in 1999 and the implementation of the eco caravan in 2008, the PCC has served as a successful multiplier in the field of ecological and climate change communication, having reached hundreds of individuals.

My first visit to the PCC’s training camp was in November 2013, only a few weeks after super typhoon Yolanda devastated large parts of the Philippines (Friedrich 2018). It was located in a forest outside the city center, where the organization had a long-term lease agreement with the city government that included a teaching building and a simple dormitory. During that time, around twenty trainees and two staff members were spending their last month there. When I arrived with one of my key informants, Jesus, I was very optimistic that I would be able to observe what kind of knowledge is communicated, i.e., how a lesson is structured, what sources are used to inform and educate the attendees, and who exactly passes on which information. My original intention was to investigate how the PCC functions as a translation regime. I was hoping to conduct interviews or collect other forms of data in a subsequent visit to assess what the participants actually know about climate change. However, things soon turned out very differently since Jesus, without my knowledge, had announced our visit in advance. People were not only expecting us when we arrived but suddenly and willingly stopped their daily routines to welcome us. As a result, largely unnoticed observations were no longer an option. Instead of being the invisible observer that I wanted to be, I became the center of attention. And as if that wasn’t bad enough already, Jesus even introduced me as a climate change specialist from Germany who was there to tell them why our earth is warming and what we can do about it. Unfortunately, this introduced a methodological and ethical dilemma since my talking about climate change would bias the audience and jeopardize future data collection. Obviously, providing information in advance alters people’s knowledge—the very knowledge that I was interested in. Contrary to my intention, I was no longer able to uphold the role of an ethnographer, who aims to elicit information from the people under investigation. Instead, I was forced into the role of an educator who was expected to share information. That I was not able to do this and thus establish reciprocity also bothered me from an ethical point of view. Eventually but reluctantly, I accepted my imposed role in this most uncomfortable situation, and delivered a short lecture about the greenhouse effect, melting glaciers, diminishing polar ice shields, rising sea levels, and increasing weather extremes.

The Dilemma of Climate Change Communication

At the end of my talk, to make matters even worse, Jesus opened a question and answer session. Most of the questions related to whether we, in Germany, also have climate change, typhoons like Yolanda, and sea level rise. The most challenging question was the last, from a very interested young man of eighteen years. He wanted to know what the people of Palawan could do to stop climate change. So there I stood, surrounded by potential future environmentalists who are taught how their behavior can positively and negatively impact their natural environment to make their island a cleaner, healthier, and safer place. I realized that my answer would affect the motivation of these young and eager-to-learn people. How could I tell them that whatever they do—no matter how ambitious it may be—will never stop climate change? Why should I take away their hope, make them aware of their powerlessness and thus discourage them by telling them that the Philippine contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is insignificant compared to the emissions of industrialized and emerging countries, yet they are disproportionally facing the negative effects of a constantly warming planet? This unjust distribution of the causes and effects of climate change particularly applies to Palawan, which is considered “carbon negative” due to its large forest cover and its virtually non-existent heavy industry sector, meaning that it absorbs much more CO2 than it emits (Department of Environment and Natural Resources 2012). What climate change mitigation measures could I name that did not devalue those young men and women as responsible agents within a perceived “web of life” in which “everything is connected to everything else”, including themselves? Which mitigation measures make sense anyway, in a place like this? Using a bicycle rather than a car? The people in front of me had neither. Eating less meat? The small portions they were offered one or two days a week were mainly poultry or pork from the region. This situation highlighted the need for climate change communication and action to adapt to the place and people it addresses in order to be effective. On this occasion, I eventually decided to answer that young man’s question with an activity that is already very popular on Palawan—tree planting—and explaining to him how afforestation helps both to mitigate global climate change and, in the case of mangrove planting along the coast, is an effective protective measure against sea level rise.

Fig. 3.2 Giving an unexpected lecture to trainees at PCC’s training camp (photo by author, October 2013), CC BY-4.0.

After the question and answer session I sat down, and Jesus briefly summarized my lecture again in Tagalog, while I was critically reviewing it in my mind. Did I describe the complex relationships of climate change correctly, or did I present its relevant processes too simply? Did I forget something important or was there anything that I should have dropped? My new and imposed role as an educator started to take effect. I was wondering how exactly climate change knowledge should be communicated in such a context. Despite my own self-imposed methodological restrictions regarding what I should or shouldn’t say, there were obviously good didactical reasons not to use the scientific language of the IPCC with this audience. But how is it possible to translate and facilitate scientific knowledge contexts without altering them in ways that cause misconceptions? The experience of being an educator against my will helped me to truly understand the dilemma of climate change communication, i.e., how to make expert knowledge comprehensible for lay people, without reducing its complex causalities to a degree that enables scientifically untenable heuristics. It became obvious to me that translating scientific key terms into easy-to-understand local terms is not enough, especially when those terms already have manifold connotations. If climate change communicators want to avoid attaching non-scientific meaning to concepts, interconnections, and causalities of scientific climate-change discourse, they need to ensure that knowledge and meaning are transferred together. But how is simplified communication about climate change then even possible? Sitting on a plastic chair in a remote forest camp on a Philippine island, I perceived myself to be at a possible end of the imaginary line of communication along the scientific discourse on climate change from its global production to its local reception. Even though I was unable to collect the data that I originally intended, the unexpected role play highlighted the difficulty (or even impossibility) of communicating climate change knowledge that is both scientifically accurate and culturally comprehensible.

The Eco Caravan

Two weeks after my visit to the PCC training camp, I had the opportunity to watch the eco caravan perform at two primary schools in two different rural districts of Puerto Princesa City. The audience at each performance consisted of at least fifty children and teachers. In most of the plays, the actors represented local animal and plant species discussing issues of environmental and social relevance, such as conflicts between local fishermen and environmental authorities. Human characters were portrayed as both destroyers (either intentionally or unintentionally) and protectors of nature. The anthropogenic impacts on natural processes were hardly ever questioned. As discussed above, causal connections were often established between natural disasters and environmental behavior that was considered to be morally wrong. This section presents three stage plays that were primarily about climate change.8 All of them were written and directed by (former) PCC staff members.


The name of the first play presented here is “Climate”. It has four main characters—the Sun, the Ozone, Joel, and Vincent—and starts with a dialogue between Sun and Ozone:

Ozone: Sun, until when will you continue to give off heat?

Sun: I don’t know, Ozone. All I know is that this is the role that was given to me by Bathala.9

Ozone: Ha, poor humans! They are continually experiencing the constant change in the weather.

Sun: It’s their fault, Ozone! They have neglected their duties so much.

Ozone: And what duties are those, Sun?

Sun: What are you thinking, Ozone? You still don’t know what they did to you. That is why we have these fluctuations in the weather, like the warming and sometimes the never-ending rain—because of what they did to you!

Ozone does not seem to understand what the Sun is talking about and asks her to explain it. So, the Sun invites Ozone to follow her in order to show how people are responsible for all those weather variations:

Sun: Come, accompany me to peek into the plains of the world, and we will look for the kind of person which causes the so-called climate change, or frequent weather fluctuations.10

On their lookout through the sky they eventually discover two men on an island who illegally cut mangroves with chainsaws. This activity, which is illegal on Palawan, is a source of income for many poor people, who use the wood for charcoal production. Ozone gets very excited, turns to the audience, and says:

Ozone: Kids, this means that we will find out one of the reasons for the warming of the earth. We should all listen, so that we will understand, okay?

Both Sun and Ozone approach the men and eavesdrop on them. They become witnesses to how Vincent is rushing his friend Joel, arguing that he doesn’t want to get caught by the police and pay a fine. Since it is an unusually hot day, work is getting done slowly. Joel tells Vincent that he is concerned about global warming. He explains to his ignorant friend that cutting mangroves is one of its causes. He notes that it causes droughts to occur, and coral reefs to die. Due to the destruction of the forests there will not be left much to clean “the smoke of the society”. The ozone that is supposed to control the temperature of the earth already has holes due to the human use of chlorofluorocarbons.

Joel: That is why the heat of the sun passes through the ozone. It is no longer controlled by the ozone. Not like before, when it still didn’t have holes. It provides the right warmth and coldness that every living creature needs.

Vincent starts to understand. He agrees with Joel that they should change their destructive behavior and find a better livelihood, “like the right way of fishing and vegetable growing, and farming”. Joel adds that it would also be a good idea to take part in the community tree planting activities. In the closing scene, Ozone also understands its role in the world now. It turns to the audience and requests to always protect the environment and support its community in environmental activities.

What is very paradigmatic in “Climate” is how closely intertwined the cultural model of climate change and ozone depletion are, which confirms many other studies mentioned above. The common ground for both models seems to be their anthropogenic causes, which are cognitively categorized as environmentally destructive behavior, causing interference with the atmosphere and, therefore, the weather. According to this localized heuristic, the only logical conclusion is to act environmentally friendly in order to stabilize unusual weather patterns.

Fig. 3.3 Eco caravan performing “Climate” in a primary school (photo by author, November 2013), CC BY-4.0.

“The Vegetable Patch of Mr Gorio”

The second play, “Ang gulayan ni mang gorio”, is also about climate change and its local impacts. But instead of weather variations, it tells a story about sea level rise, and interestingly this play does not use the English term climate change at all. However, its Tagalog translation (nagbabagong klima) is used once and the English term global warming is used multiple times. The main character, Mr Gorio, owns a small vegetable patch near the sea. He takes care of it as his father and grandfather did before him. One morning, when he leaves his house, he is shocked to find his patch flooded by seawater. He becomes very agitated and calls his wife:

Gorio: Iska! Iska! Come out here in a hurry! What do you think happened to our garden? Why did the water come in? Was it raining last night, Iska?

Gorio’s wife Iska is shocked and starts to cry. All the vegetables seem to be ruined and thus unsaleable in the local market. The family’s traditional and, so far, sound livelihood was suddenly at stake. Together they wonder how this could have happened:

Gorio: How did this happen? Well, it seems this is the first time I’ve witnessed this. When father was still alive […], I think it was 1960 (scratches his head), this didn’t happen! Why only now? It seems so sudden.

While the family is lamenting about their loss, the village’s teacher, Dalisay, comes along. The family immediately beckon her to ask for her professional advice. Dalisay has an answer to what happened to the garden:

Dalisay: That is an effect of global warming or the heating of the earth.

Gorio: What do you mean, glubal warning?

Dalisay: Not glubal warning (says it with emphasis)! Global warming! The earth is continuously heating up, the ice in the colder places, like the North and South Pole, is melting bit by bit. […] Ice in the colder places continues to melt, according to scientists. That’s why, if they totally melt away, the sea level may be raised higher and now engulfs your garden.

Iska seems to be confused, asking what her vegetables have to do with the melting of ice in distant places. Dalisay explains to her how the oceans are all connected and thus a rising of the sea level is experienced everywhere. In this moment, a new character enters the scene. Buboy, an employee of a non-governmental organization that informs and educates about climate change, tells Gorio and his wife what to do now. He recommends the two IPCC strategies for reducing and managing the risks of climate change—adaptation and mitigation:

Buboy: Adaptation is about how we can place ourselves in this situation. Do you see that higher part of your land over there? You can move and continue your garden there. That part has been studied and it’s been found to be suitable for planting. […] [Mitigation is] about how we can help reduce global warming. That higher part of your land can still be planted with trees to help here.

On the question of how planting trees will help to fight global warming, Buboy explains that forests are “carbon sinks” that prevent “the smoke” from reaching the atmosphere, where it causes the warming of our planet. Gorio and his wife appreciate the information and agree that they should move their home:

Gorio: The trees have big roles indeed. I thought they just cradle water and give fresh air, but they also suck smoke. Oh, thanks to you, Buboy and Dalisay.

Iska: Let it be, and in the next days we shall be moving to that higher ground to live there and continue our garden.

In addition to highlighting once again the important role of trees in climate change adaptation and mitigation, this stage play underpins a basic assumption that I encountered in all my data collections (especially in the pilesorts and interviews), namely that the terms global warming and climate change were not used interchangeably. Global warming was more strongly associated with global phenomena, i.e., abstract and distant causes like the melting of the polar ice and sea level rise as its consequence. The notion of climate change, however, was much more local and thus directly perceivable.

“Rainy Season in Summer”

Finally, the third play about climate change, “Tag-ulan sa tag-araw” addresses the topic of apparently shifting seasons mentioned earlier. It rarely uses the terms climate change, global warming, or sea level rise, and starts with a fisherman’s family that wonders about the strong rainfall that now occurs during the usually dry summer months. The story of the play includes three generations. Whereas Lolo (grandpa) Baste as a person of trust contributes his memories of past times, four children represent a rather skeptical position. The main characters are the children Palaw and Lawan (a play on words referring to Palawan), Luntian (which means the color green in Tagalog), and the skeptical Mina. Further, there are Lawan’s parents and his grandfather, who sits in front of his house every morning, looking out to the open sea. One day the kids ask him what he’s doing. He replies:

Lolo Baste: I am waiting for the sun to rise. Because only in this time can I feel the right amount of warmth that it gives us. And look at the bay! Before, the seawater didn’t reach our vegetable plantation. Now, it is slowly coming in.

Luntian: How can you say so, Lolo Baste?

Lolo Baste: Because when I was still young, I never witnessed that. But now, it is very different. My dear children—look! Because of the seawater, our crops are dying.

The skeptical Mina counters that the world has always changed and maybe this is just a normal thing to happen. Just as he, Lolo, is not the same man he was decades ago, the sea might change as well. Lolo Baste agrees but adds that this kind of change is different. Even the seasons were no longer what they used to be. In the rainy season (Tagalog: tag-ulan), he says, they now have periods of droughts, and the dry season (Tagalog: tag-araw) is occasionally affected by heavy rain. Palaw and Lawan note that they have heard about climate change in terms of changing weather patterns in school and on the radio. Mina, however, doesn’t buy it. She thinks that maybe today it is a little warmer than in the past but that’s all. Lolo Baste explains to her how he used to think like her, but eventually changed his mind. In the past, he admits, he cut mangroves without hesitation, because he was not aware of their important role regarding climate change.

Lolo Baste: That was my belief before. But we were wrong, because the mangroves have a big role in the current change of the climate and global warming. And if we do not bring back the mangroves, I assure you, my dear children, that this problem will be even more serious.

Shortly afterwards, Lawan’s father Gusting enters the scene. He came back from his fishing trip much earlier than expected. He looks very sad, so the kids ask him what has happened. Visibly disappointed, he tells them that today’s catch was a very bad one. Lawan asks him whether he has an explanation. He answers that according to his experience the movement of the sea has changed. Lawan and Luntian remember that they have also heard something about that:

Lawan: According to the radio, the fishes that we usually see in shallow water are moving towards deeper water. Because what used to be the right amount of heat their bodies can tolerate has changed, and this is because of the warming of the earth.

Luntian: That is not only the effect of the warming of the earth. Because even their homes, coral reefs, are slowly broken into smaller pieces or degraded because the climate is too hot.

Mina remains skeptical. In the neighboring village, she argues, there is still enough fish to buy. The father explains that those fishermen have larger and motorized boats, and that is why they can catch fish in much deeper waters. Compared to them, fishermen with small boats like him lose out.

Suddenly the sky darkens, and bad weather arrives. While the adults run into the house, the children take shelter next to it. After a short discussion, they conclude that Lolo Baste is right, including Mina. Together they decide to do something about climate change. Right after the rain has stopped, they want to collect mangrove seedlings that the storm has washed away and plant them. They hope that the weather will soon stabilize, and fish come back into the shallow waters of their bay again. In a final remark and with special reference to a sustainable lifestyle, Mina turns to the audience and states:

Mina: That’s why we should change! We should love nature and not hurt it! And I hope that it will only be used properly, so the coming generations can still enjoy it, like us. Right, hopefully?

All three eco caravan plays ended with a positive outlook, offering at least one specific action to fight climate change—namely the very popular and socially widespread practice of planting trees, especially in Puerto Princesa City. Institutions such as the eco caravan contribute to maintaining the popularity of tree planting as a means of environmental and climate protection. By distributing knowledge about global warming and climate change to an audience with limited access to such information, the eco caravan can be considered a relevant local translation regime in Puerto Princesa City. The plays paradigmatically represent how the people of Palawan cognitively structure their knowledge about climate change, how they communicate and thus make sense of it. The way climate change is expressed here as a localized, contextualized concept also perfectly mirrors the results of all my other data collections that have been mentioned above (see also Chapter 2, Greenland). Consensually experienced as unusual weather variations, climate change is perceived as a threat to the vulnerable ecosystem of the “last frontier” Palawan that—up to now—has been spared from catastrophic natural hazards, including very strong tropical typhoons. Protecting its lush forest environment is believed to be a vital measure to keep it that way. Although some of the widely shared heuristics are scientifically inaccurate, the benefits of, for example, the thousands of mangroves that have been collectively planted along the coast of the island can hardly be overstated.

Conclusion: Minding the Gap?

This chapter illuminated how climate change is made sense of on the island of Palawan in the Philippines, and the important role played by local processes in translating and reproducing the global discourse on climate change. Following a constructionist approach such as the sociocultural model (rather than the deficit model) and social representation theory, it was emphasized that sense-making is a multi-layered process that includes cognition and culture. Based on empirical data that was gathered in multi-method fieldwork over several months, it has been demonstrated in this chapter how the people of Palawan make sense of climate change and how they integrate the idea into their local ontologies. By means of various empirical data, it has been shown how climate change is locally perceived and understood: as just another natural disaster that regularly hits the Philippines but hardly ever Palawan, because people there act more environmentally benign. It shows how this sense-making process is inextricably linked to the specific ecological, socio-political, and cultural context of the island; a process that makes climate change a coherent, plausible, and tangible concept that fits into what people already believe, experience and do. The local reception of climate-change discourse therefore depends on pre-existing, shared systems of knowledge and meaning that are reproduced and maintained by circular rather than unidirectional communication. Institutions like the PCSD or the local government administration of Puerto Princesa City are integral components of a complex network of dominant and interwoven discourses and narratives such as the national discourse on natural disasters and Palawan’s very popular environmentalism. They all play a role in how knowledge and meaning about climate change are distributed, organized, and structured on the island. The same is true for interpersonal or even performative ways of communication, as the practical example of the eco caravan shows. As instances of local translation regimes, these forms, agents, and interactions of communications more accurately reflect the biogeographical, historical, and legal uniqueness of the island, and everyday experiences of its inhabitants than supra-regional media coverage can. Irrespective of scientific accuracy, local translation regimes therefore much better serve the purpose of translating and communicating climate change knowledge in a meaningful context. However, the selectivity of knowledge reproduction generated by national, regional, and local translation regimes (discourse model) should of course be critically examined, especially in terms of the unequal access to knowledge and existing power relations.

The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that the travelling idea of climate change has fallen on very fertile ground on Palawan, where it was easily able to adapt to the local conditions in order to thrive and prosper. The local understanding of climate change and its causalities is widely shared. As Rudiak-Gould found on the Marshall Islands, climate change on Palawan also appears to be an idea that “insults their [island, as it threatens the livelihoods of the inhabitants], but flatters their categories” (Rudiak-Gould 2013a: 177). Basic beliefs and assumptions about human-environment and human-weather relationships are affirmed rather than challenged by the global discourse. It strengthens people’s traditionally strong environmentalism and validates their strong rejection of, for example, cutting trees or burning garbage. In accordance with social representations theory (Smith and Joffe 2013), the way people make scientific climate change knowledge familiar and thus comprehensible strongly resonates with pre-existing local terms and cognitive categories. To explore the general question of how climate change is communicated and made sense of in terms of how climate-exposed people understand the scientific concept, the case study of Palawan demonstrates the importance of taking local ecologies and local systems of reference into consideration, i.e., the complex interconnections of climate change knowledge with associated knowledge domains.

In this regard, Palawan is indeed a best practice example of climate change adaptation and mitigation (Department of Environment and Natural Resources 2012). However, this is not the result of a successful communication of scientific climate change knowledge. Rather, the island’s success represents an inversion of what is typically meant by the knowledge-behavior or value-action gap in regard to climate change. Instead of not acting accordingly, the people of Palawan are very committed to preserving and even enhancing their natural environment, and they do it for various reasons. Collectively planting thousands of trees each year is perhaps their most remarkable social practice. While tree planting is framed as a measure to fight climate change, it also fulfils other social functions such as insular identity formation and self-empowerment. In many respects, the people of Palawan do act exceptionally climate friendly. Yet the gap between their apparently climate-friendly behavior and what they know about scientific climate change remains. This shows two implications. First, the deficit model and its assumption of a unidirectional relationship between knowledge and action cannot be maintained. Social behavior is complex, and not only driven by explicit knowledge. Second, it shows that a perfectly accurate public understanding of science is not needed to motivate people to implement climate change adaption and mitigation measures. Not surprisingly, even without scientifically tenable beliefs about the environment, weather, and climate, sustainable thinking and behavior are (and have always been) possible.

On Palawan, the discourse on climate change may have served more as post hoc justification than original motivation for past and present behavior, but current anthropological literature on climate change perception suggests that it may not be an exception in this regard (cf. Rudiak-Gould 2013a; Greschke and Tischler 2015; De Wit, Pascht, and Haug 2018). Irrespective of whether people embrace or reject the idea of anthropogenic climate change, the global discourse apparently has the potential to maintain and reinforce local cultures, i.e., pre-existing beliefs, values, and behavioral patterns. From this point of view, it becomes clear why some societies appear to do the right things for the wrong reasons, whereas others appear to do the wrong things despite knowing better. Thus, perhaps the gap between knowing and acting should not be of great concern to climate change communicators who seek to get people involved in climate protection. Rather, they are well advised to adapt to the place and people they address, and to take local human-environment relationships and connected cultural models of nature and the weather into consideration. Instead of focusing only on knowledge transfer, they should keep in mind that local knowledge is always a complex co-product, and that behavioral motivation is derived from various sources, of which scientific knowledge is not known to be the most powerful in the short or medium term. The climate is a slowly changing system, and to a certain extent this also applies to societies. Whilst there is agreement that the constant provision of relevant information based on unequivocal empirical findings is necessary, especially on urgent matters like climate change, there should be more critical assessment and better understanding of how information is translated beyond the realm of science and national policies, and how meanings change between the global and the local levels. In order to transform communication on climate change into a dialogue rather than a one-sided, top-down approach, it is advisable from an anthropological point of view to put more effort into understanding “them” better, before trying to make “them” understand.


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1 Although Hulme never used the term travelling idea, he has described climate change as “an idea that now travels well beyond its origins in the natural sciences. And as this idea meets new cultures on its travels and encounters the worlds of politics, economics, popular culture, commerce and religion—often through the interposing role of the media—climate change takes on new meanings and serves new purposes” (Hulme 2009: xxvi). For a more comprehensive description of the concept of travelling ideas at the global and organizational levels, see Czarniawska-Joerges and Sevón (1996; 2005).

2 Modified versions of this and the following section can also be found in Friedrich (2018).

3 For a detailed description of how the data were collected and how the sample was constructed, see subsequent section.

4 Its forest cover of 46.5% is considerably higher than the Philippine average of 22.8% (calculation based on Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2010); Forest Management Bureau (2015)).

5 For a detailed description, reflection, and discussion of the overall methodology, see Friedrich (2017).

6 Freelists and pilesorts are techniques used to elicit items, elements or members of a certain cultural domain. They are lists of free associations that help to detect what cognitive anthropologists describe as cultural domains or mental categories, i.e., culturally relevant clusters of items or subdomains (e.g., “edible fishes”). For an overview of how those and other cognitive methods are applied, see Borgatti and Halgin (2013). For a more detailed description of how I conducted and analyzed the freelists and pilesorts, see Friedrich (2018).

7 To maintain anonymity, an alias was created for all informants.

8 I want to thank Cherry de Dios for providing the scripts of the plays, and Jessa Garibay-Yayen for their translation from Tagalog into English.

9 Bathala is a deity and creator of the universe in pre-Hispanic Filipino mythology.

10 The English term climate change is used here as a literal translation of the Tagalog terms for frequent change (pagbabago-bago) and weather (panahon). Panahon, however, also means season or time.

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