6. Living on the Frontier: Laypeople’s Perceptions and Communication of Climate Change in the Coastal Region of Bangladesh

Shameem Mahmud

© Shameem Mahmud, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0212.06

Despite an increased number of studies on public perceptions of climate change, little attention has been paid to the development of public understanding of climate change in developing and less-developed countries, which have contributed comparatively few greenhouse gas emissions. This chapter addresses this gap in the literature by exploring how people understand climate-change risks in an area at their forefront—the coastal region of Bangladesh. The study draws on in-depth interviews of local citizens and field observations. The interviews reveal a recurring theme of localizing climate-change risks in the context of local geohazards. Laypeople’s personal exposure to extreme weather events, and experiences of seasonal variances, influence their interpretations of mediated and non-mediated climate change information. The risks of local geohazards are readily available as prior constructs in respondents’ minds, and are intensified by newly acquired knowledge of climate change. The chapter concludes that laypeople’s perceptions of climate-change impacts in Bangladesh are constructed on the basis of their place identity, on the one hand, and the frequency of regional geohazards, on the other.


Research on public perceptions of climate-change risks began in the late 1980s with the assumption that increased public understanding would help people make conscious livelihood decisions (Ockwell, Whitmarsh, and O’Neill 2009). Public perceptions have also been regarded as an important factor in making policy decisions to mitigate the risk of climate change (Leiserowitz 2006). The burgeoning climate change risk perception literature has identified paradoxical divergences between increased awareness and declining concern (Capstick et al. 2015; Poortinga et al. 2011; Whitmarsh 2011); misconceptions about the causes, impacts, and solutions to climate change (Leiserowitz and Smith 2010; Lorenzoni and Pidgeon 2006; Kempton 1997, 1991); scientific complexity and uncertainty (Etkin and Ho 2007; Weber 2006); perceptions of climate change as a spatially distant and temporally future risk (Whitmarsh and Upham 2013; Ockwell, Whitmarsh, and O’Neill 2009); and limited public behavioral responses to mitigate risks (Semenza et al. 2008; Lorenzoni, Nicholson Cole, and Whitmarsh 2007) despite different communication strategies (van der Linden 2014; Neverla and Taddicken 2011).

Despite a considerable increase in the number of studies exploring public understanding of climate change, few have examined the perceptions of people living in developing countries that are more vulnerable to (but less responsible for) climate change (Moser 2016, 2010). Previous studies can explain public understanding of climate change only in the countries largely perceived as responsible for the problem due to their greenhouse gas emissions (Neverla, Lüthje, and Mahmud 2012; Moser 2010). It is particularly interesting to explore public perceptions in countries where people are constantly exposed to regional geohazards such as storms, floods, and salinization that may increase and intensify as a consequence of climate change. This chapter addresses this research gap by investigating how the population of the coastal region of Bangladesh describes, explains, and understands the effects of climate change in the context of constant exposure to regional geohazards. It also investigates major information sources of climate change communication, which may affect laypeople’s perceptions.

This research posits that, although climate change has emerged as a recent concern, the risks of regional geohazards are not new to the people living in this area. The effect of human-induced climate change will be to increase the likelihood or strength of such hazards. It is also reasonable to argue that increased communication about climate change, through journalistic media and other communication channels, may cause people living in these vulnerable areas to redefine their relationship with regional geohazards.

The chapter begins with a brief outline of Bangladesh’s risks of natural hazards and vulnerability to climate change. Based on the extant literature, it then analyzes the role of respondents’ geographic location and personal experience of natural hazards in influencing public perceptions of climate change. This review is followed by a description of the methodological design of the study. The research reveals a common social construct: the localization of climate-change risks within the context of local geohazards. Laypeople reveal that experiences of local hazards as well as personally observed weather and seasonal variances play important roles in their interpretations of mediated climate change information. This leads to the argument that laypeople’s perceptions of climate-change impacts in the coastal region of Bangladesh are constructed on the basis of their place identity, on the one hand, and their experience of regional geohazards, on the other.

Bangladesh’s Vulnerability to Climate Change

Although climate change poses global risks, these risks are not equally distributed around the world. Even different regions of a country may have different levels of vulnerability. Climate scientists have addressed this inequality by examining possible regional variability in the effects of climate change (Von Storch et al. 2011; Rannow et al. 2010; Rummukainen 2010). It has been widely documented that some developing countries may experience more severe impacts of global warming—in the forms of extreme weather, sea level rise, decreasing agricultural outputs, human health costs, and economic hardships—than developed countries (IPCC 2014; Mertz et al. 2009; UNFCCC 2007; Mirza 2003; Rosenzweig and Parry 1994; see also Chapter 7, Attribution Science).

Inequalities in the distribution of climate-change risks are exacerbated by limited hazard management capacities in developing countries (Adger et al. 2013; Nagel, Dietz, and Broadbent 2008; Ali 1999). Bangladesh holds a prominent position in the global imagination as being at the forefront of climate-change risks, given its geographic location, socio-economic characteristics, and natural hazard profile (Khan et al. 2011; Karim and Mimura 2008; Ali 1996). Many of its residents are experiencing the impacts of climate change (Coirolo et al. 2013); millions of people living in the country’s coastal areas have been dubbed “climate victims” in political and civil society discourses (Walsham 2010; Friedman 2009).

Bangladesh is situated between two different, but mutually linked, geomorphological conditions. To the north, the Himalayan glaciers threaten to flood the country; more than 80% of its lands are floodplains (Brammer, Asaduzzaman, and Sultana 1996). To the south, the Bay of Bengal remains the source of notorious storms and storm surges that have made Bangladesh one of the most natural-hazard-prone countries in the world. Global warming is expected to increase the trends and frequencies of tropical storms (Schellnhuber 2007) in addition to raising the sea level, thereby affecting the country’s densely populated coastal areas (Ahmed and Islam 2013). Residents of this area are frequently subjected to natural hazards in the form of tropical cyclones, floods, increased salinity in water and soil, storm surges and coastal erosion. Severe flooding that covers over 60% of the country occurs every four to five years, and a severe tropical cyclone hits, on average, every three years (MoEF 2009). Tropical cyclones in 1970 and 1991 are estimated to have killed 300,000 and 140,000 people, respectively.

Bangladesh is one of the few developing countries that has formulated a national climate change strategy plan (MoEF 2009). Discussions are ongoing to update the 2009 Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP) to accommodate changing circumstances. The BCCSAP identifies the following risks of climate change in Bangladesh: (i) increased frequency of tropical cyclones; (ii) heavier and more erratic rainfall; (iii) lower and more erratic rainfall; (iv) sea level rise leading to the inundation of low-lying coastal areas displacing millions of people and paving the way for saline water intrusion; (v) warmer and more humid weather leading to an increased prevalence of disease; and (vi) increased intensity of drought in the country’s northern and western areas. Vulnerability to these risks is further increased by the country’s high population density. It is the world’s eighth most populous (and one of the most densely populated) countries, with an estimated 162 million people living in an area of 147,570 km2 (UNDP 2016). Around 70% of the population live in rural areas. Based on any development indicator, Bangladesh is a poor country. Its per capita income is US $1,080 per year (UNDP 2014), and more than 63 million people live below the poverty line (UNDP 2016). The overall adult literacy rate is only 58%. The economy is based on agriculture, which contributes about 22% to the country’s GDP and employs 46% of its labour force (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics 2014). Ready-made garment exports account for about 80% of total export earnings (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics 2014).

Climate Change Risk Perception: The Role of “Distances” and “Experiences of Extreme Weather”

Public perceptions of and communication on climate change is a very complex research field. This complexity represents a double-edged sword. On the one hand, climate change communication shares features with other communication fields, most importantly, risk communication, health communication, and science communication. On the other hand, research on public perceptions of climate change is enriched by the contributions of various disciplinary traditions, such as human geography, and social and cognitive psychology (Nerlich, Koteyko, and Brown 2010). A detailed literature review of the field is beyond the scope of this chapter. Since one of the main objectives of the current research is to explore perceptions of the people living near natural hazards, this section focuses on research related to the role of location or distance from the risk (also see Chapter 4, Germany) and personal experience of extreme weather in constructing climate change risk perception.

Location or Distance from the Risk

Risk perception research widely demonstrates a correlation between the spatial proximity of risk and individuals’ risk perceptions. For example, people living on the coastline or in flood-prone areas tend to express more concerns about the potential risks of natural hazards compared to those living in protected areas (Wester-Herber 2004). Similarly, people living close to nuclear power plants perceive the risk of nuclear hazards more seriously than those living further away (Venables et al. 2012), which clearly indicates the role of physical proximity to the origin of the risk. The notion of “proximity” or “distance”, however, may also encompass temporal, social, and hypothetical dimensions. Trope and Liberman (2010), in their “construal-level theory of psychological distance”, outline four key dimensions that might influence one’s understanding and evaluation of risk events and issues: spatial or geographic distance, hypothetical or likelihood distance, temporal distance, and social distance.

The first dimension, spatial or geographic distance, is linked to the physical environment and location: people perceive climate-change risks as either (too) close to them or as something that will occur in more remote locations. Brody et al. (2008) and Kumar and Geneletti’s (2015) studies on coastal inhabitants’ climate change risk perceptions in the United States and India, respectively, found that people’s physical location determines their level of concern about potential risk. There is also evidence that geographic proximity to the coast influences behavioral intentions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions on a personal level (Brody, Grover, and Vedlitz 2012). The role of spatial distance from the risk has been further demonstrated in studies examining the perception of natural hazards (Lorenzoni, Nicholson Cole, and Whitmatsh 2007; Weber 2006; Montz 1982), which have concluded that people living close to the geographic origin of hazards are more likely to take precautionary measures.

The second dimension, likelihood or hypothetical distance, relates to the probability that an event will occur (Liberman and Förster 2011). This can be compared to the “uncertainty” aspect of climate change. Existing research finds widespread public awareness and high levels of perceived concern since climate change emerged as a major policy issue in the late 1980s (Nisbet and Myers 2007; Lorenzoni and Pidgeon 2006). However, this high level of perceived concern was not stable; public concern about climate change has been found to fluctuate over this time. Jasanoff (2010) reported a widening gap between the public and experts in assessments of climate-change risks when laypeople were losing faith in climate science and showing a lower level of concern compared to other socio-economic risks. Other studies also report that while public awareness of (or familiarity with) climate change is increasing, concern about the issue has been fluctuating since the late 2000s, particularly in many developed countries (Capstick et al. 2015; Poortinga et al. 2011; Whitmarsh 2011). Pidgeon (2012) found that misleading media representations and the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 contributed to declining public concern about the issue. Some people also question whether climate change exists, and whether it is caused by human activity. Whitmarsh (2008b), for example, found that although the outright rejection of climate change among residents of the South of England was not widespread, a considerable number of people expressed some degree of uncertainty about its possible effects.

The third dimension that might influence people’s understanding and evaluation of risk is “social” distances, which describe the extent to which people perceive the risks of climate change as applying to others rather than themselves. A number of studies drawing on cases from Europe and the United States have found that people generally perceive climate-change risks to be a global problem (Gifford et al. 2009; Uzzell 2000), which has serious implications for distant locations (Spence et al. 2011; Spence and Pidgeon 2010), where “other people” would be affected (see Chapter 2, Greenland). People in vulnerable regions, however, express more concern about the local impact of climate change (Dunlap, Gallup, and Gallup 1993).

Finally, Trope and Liberman’s (2010) fourth dimension, temporal distance, refers to whether an event is likely to happen now or in the future. Temporal distance may explain whether the public perceives climate change as a current or future risk. According to previous studies, many inhabitants of developed countries do not perceive climate change as a significant personal risk because they think it will affect them far in the future, while it is more immediate for people living in geographically distant countries (Spence, Poortinga, and Pidgeon 2012; Leiserowitz 2006; Lorenzoni and Pidgeon 2006; Whitmarsh 2005; Bord, O’Connor, and Fisher 2000).

Experience of Extreme Weather

Climate change is a gradual and long-term phenomenon that is difficult to experience and observe in daily life. Yet most people describe concerns about climate change using evidence from personal experiences and observations (van der Linden 2014). Changes in weather patterns and extreme weather events are two possible impacts of climate change, which are often discussed in scientific and political arenas. These discourses are transferred to the public through news media and other communication channels. Eventually, laypeople recall their personal experiences of weather variances and natural hazard events when evaluating mediated knowledge of climate-change risks (Kempton 1997). Several studies support the notion that individuals’ direct experiences and exposure to unusual weather events are important determinants of risk perception (see Chapter 2, Greenland; Lawrence, Quade, and Becker 2014; Lujala, Lein, and Rød 2014; Reser, Bradley, and Ellul 2014; Barnett and Breakwell 2001).Social psychologists describe this phenomenon as “the availability heuristic”: personal experience of a recent natural hazard and heavy media coverage of it are likely to influence future risk evaluations (Slovic 1987; Tversky and Kahneman 1974).

Research Design

Study Location

This study was conducted in two adjacent unions1—Gabura and Padmapukur in Shyamnagar Upazila sub-district of the Satkhira district. Satkhira is a southwestern coastal district in Bangladesh located close to the world’s largest mangrove forest—the Sundarbans. Both unions share similar characteristics in terms of the socio-economic conditions of their inhabitants, rural livelihood patterns, occupations, and vulnerability to natural hazards. Like other coastal regions, the villages in these unions are built on low-lying lands and are often protected by mud embankments. The area symbolizes human struggles against nature and the predators of the Sundarbans. Inhabitants of the area struggle with tigers and crocodiles when gathering resources from the mangrove forest, and are regularly exposed to natural hazards such as storms, storm surges, and intrusion of saltwater. The most notorious storms in the area were recorded in 1970, 1985, 1988, 1991, 2007, and 2009. While some affluent community members can afford houses made of brick and corrugated tin, most people in the study locations live in houses made of mud walls, bamboo and thatch, or roofs made of corrugated tin and thatch.

Fig. 6.1 A typical house structure made of local materials (photo by author, March 2012), CC-BY-4.0.

Fig. 6.2 Paddy fields are turned into saltwater shrimp enclosures (photo by author, March 2012), CC-BY-4.0.

For livelihood, people used to depend on rice cultivation, and resources of the Sundarbans and adjacent rivers (e.g., fish, crab, honey, and wood). However, in the last two decades, most of the agricultural lands have been transformed into shrimp enclosures given the higher profit margins. Similar to other rural areas of Bangladesh, nearly half of the population in the study area are unable to read and write. The poverty-struck villages are also characterized by a lack of infrastructure and poor health and education facilities, like many other coastal areas of Bangladesh.

Data Collection

Given the limited research on climate change perceptions in non-Western countries, data for this study were gathered using an inductive approach. The main data source was interviews, which were supplemented by prolonged field observations and notes. Interview participants were recruited following the strategy of theoretical sampling as suggested in Grounded Theory methodology (Charmaz 2006). I approached people for interviews who had comparatively more experiences of the social phenomena under study. A research guide, a local journalist, helped me find respondents and organize the initial interviews.

The first five interviewees included a schoolteacher (male), a local community leader (male), a shopkeeper (male), a non-governmental organization (NGO) field worker (female), and an elderly person (male). Once the initial interviews highlighted a general trajectory (identifying initial theoretical categories), the sampling technique was changed. In the second phase, the theoretical sampling technique was applied to saturate the missing lines of the identified theoretical categories with additional data. A total of thirty-eight people (twenty-six male and twelve female) were interviewed at their place of residence, which facilitated observation of the study location as well as the dynamic social relations of the study participants at the community level. The respondents included schoolteachers, a local community leader, NGO workers, shopkeepers, shrimp farmers, crab farmers, fishermen, and housewives. At least five held graduate degrees, three persons studied up to the twelfth grade, nine respondents studied between the sixth and tenth grades, four up to the fifth grade, and the remaining seventeen respondents were either illiterate or functionally literate.

There were three defined periods of data collection, which spanned from early 2011 to mid-2013. All the interviews were conducted in person in the local language (Bangla) and recorded using a digital audio recorder with the prior permission of the respondents. Then, the initial interviews were transcribed, with coding and analysis initiated with the first interviews, in accordance with Grounded Theory methodology techniques. The interview data were analyzed following the basic tenets of Grounded Theory, starting with open coding to focused coding, and ending in theoretical abstraction (Charmaz 2006) (see Table 6.1). The entire data analysis was conducted using the original Bangla transcriptions to avoid any distortion of the data due to translation. However, selected excerpts of the interviews were translated into English to present in this chapter.

Table 6.1 Perceived impacts of climate change (theoretical abstraction from data)

Concrete → Abstract

Data/open codes

Selective codes

Theoretical categories/ analytical memos

Emerging theoretical abstraction

Core category

“Increased and unprecedented storms”

(I) Climate change as geohazards:

- Linking climate change to local events of geohazards.

- Drawing a catastrophic image largely based on personal experiences and knowledge from secondary sources.

Localizing climate-change risks within the context of local geohazards.

Formally communicated information is evaluated against personal observations and memories.

Embedding cultural interpretations of climate-change impacts mainly derived from local hazard culture.

“Drowning in the sea”

“Increased salinity”

“Abrupt weather and seasonal cycles”

(II) Climate change as weather and seasonal variances:

- Attributing meaning to climate change based on observed variances in local weather.

- Comparing personal experiences of weather variances with mediated information.

“Abrupt rainfall and increased temperature”

Concrete → Abstract


Two major patterns of public perceptions of climate-change impacts emerged from the interviews. First, the regional (geo)hazard pattern explains laypeople’s understanding of climate-change impacts within the context of local geohazards. This research found three distinct social constructs that linked the impacts of climate change to local events of geohazards: “climate change as increased and unprecedented storms”, “climate change as drowning in the sea”, and “climate change means increased salinity”. Second, the weather and seasonal variances pattern of climate-change impacts describes how the respondents attributed personal experiences of changes in local weather and seasons to climate change. These two patterns of perceptions, and examples of social constructs for each, are discussed in turn.

Climate Change as Regional (Geo)Hazards

Increased and Unprecedented Storms

The most common impact of climate change reported by respondents was storms—a frequent geohazard in the study area during the pre- and post-monsoon seasons. Respondents generally believed that storms and tidal floods in the region were caused by climate change, and that similar events would continue to increase in the future. They drew a causal link between storms and climate change, although climate science still struggles to clearly establish a link between a specific storm event and climate change (see Chapter 7, Attribution Science). This scientific uncertainty, however, did not prevent laypeople from making this link: “Climate change means to me storms. I’ve also heard about floods, rains, water and other disasters. But storms are the main” (Jaheda Akhtar, forty, F, illiterate, housewife).

A male shrimp farmer was similarly confident in the certainty of climate change and its impacts on the region: “Of course climate change is real. The reason I am saying this, actually we can see it by ourselves. It is already a reality for us. We are going through more storms and more [tidal] surges” (Avinash Mondol, forty-two, M, third grade, shrimp farmer). Likewise, a female NGO official supported the link between climate change and storms: “It’s the storm that comes to my mind. There are other disasters, but storms are most important. I think other people have the same idea and they know it now that storms are results of climate change” (Shaheena Akhter, thirty-eight, F, MA, NGO worker).

Linking climate change and storms was so obvious that a number of respondents used the terms “climate” and “storms” synonymously while describing the possible impacts of climate change. This illustrates how strongly the natural hazard aspect of climate change is embedded in respondents’ minds, likely due to respondents’ physical proximity to previous storm events. For example: “Climate has been increased in recent years because of temperature rise. You can see it here. We didn’t have such harsh climate in the past, but in recent times it has been increased. I mean the storms” (Gazi Mohhamad Ayub, thirty-two, M, ninth grade, unemployed).

The perceived link between climate change and storms was further demonstrated when some respondents explained that it was only the recent storm events and tidal floods that made it clear to them how “dreadful” the impacts of climate change would be. They described the effects as “immediate” and identified a temporal proximity to the risks of climate change. A female crab farmer said: “Honestly, it was not very clear to me when people talked about climate change. But, after the cyclone Aila now I can understand what it would like to be. Aila actually brought it [climate change] to us” (Maloti Mondol, forty-two, F, illiterate, crab farmer).

When respondents experience extreme weather events, they use their previous knowledge of climate change to attribute the event to this hitherto abstract phenomenon. When they were reminded that the geographic location of the area made it naturally susceptible to storms and tidal floods, most respondents agreed, but pointed to the “unprecedented” nature of recent storms and their “increased frequency”, which compelled them to believe that the recent storms were linked to climate change. One elderly male respondent noted: “Of course you can say that. Storms have always been part of our life. But, nature of storms must have been changed. I have never experienced this kind of storm in my lifetime” (Moksed Ali, sixty-four, M, illiterate, unemployed). Another elderly respondent referred to changing patterns of storms as evidence of climate-change impacts. “Now they [storms] come without any sign. It’s very difficult to predict nowadays” (Abul Hossain Mollah, seventy-nine, M, eighth grade, retired government employee). Another indicator was the perceived increased frequency of storms that many respondents attributed to climate change. “We didn’t experience storms so frequently in the past… … now what we heard about impacts of climate change” (Mohasheikh Sardar, forty-four, M, functional literacy, shrimp and agriculture farmer).

The respondents’ descriptions clearly indicated that while storms had always impacted coastal people long before the debate on anthropogenic climate change, they believed that the rate and intensity of storms had recently started to increase. Persistent storms were one of the main motivations for drawing such perceptual constructs when respondents viewed the impacts of global climate change through the lens of local geohazards.

Drowning in the Sea

After increased storm events, “drowning in the sea” was the second-most widely cited social construct of climate change. Respondents believed that global warming-induced sea level rise would someday inundate large parts of Bangladesh’s low-lying coastal areas. They often equated regular tidal surges with “sea level rise”, and provided a number of personally observed changes that they believed were impacts of climate change. Some respondents gave detailed accounts of how global warming-led melting ice at the poles and mountains was affecting low-lying countries like Bangladesh. A shrimp farmer, for example, attributed the link between global warming and ice melting as follows: “I heard that ice is being melted because of rising temperature. Now, all the water from the melted ice is flowing downstream and flooding us” (SM Yunus Ali, fifty-five, M, illiterate, shrimp farmer).

Respondents obtained knowledge of “increased temperature”, “ice melting”, and “sea level rise” from a number of communication sources, such as media, NGOs, and local opinion leaders. Thereafter, the obtained knowledge was reconstructed through personal observations and experiences at the local level. Throughout the process, we observed a pattern of “localizing climate-change impacts” as a common social construct. As explained by a local community leader: “Let me give you an example. There are chars [river islands] near the Sundarbans. We have seen in the past that these chars didn’t drown even in high tides. But now they totally disappear even in winter when the tides are not very high… what does it mean? Of course, the height of water has increased” (GM Rafiqul Islam, forty-one, M, twelfth grade, local community leader).

The attribution of “heightened water as an impact of climate change”, however, was not prevalent in all respondents’ descriptions. Apart from the impacts of climate change, some respondents cited “unplanned” water management at the local and regional levels as a major cause of flooding in the area. For example, shortly after attributing tidal surges to global warming, an elderly male respondent added: “I think some unplanned dikes and dams are also contributing to the rising water” (Abul Hossain Mollah, seventy, M, eighth grade, retired government employee).

A related prompt asked the respondent to elaborate, and he replied:

This is my personal observation. In the last decades, a number of dikes and barrages have been built both in India and Bangladesh. These dikes have hampered the natural flow of rivers and created chars [river islands] with increased siltation …How can the water flow to the sea when the rivers are filled up? Right? You see there is not enough space in the rivers to accommodate additional water (Abul Hossain Mollah, seventy, M, eighth grade, retired government employee).

The respondent then referred to the natural fight between fresh water and seawater, and how the seawater has been winning lately to intrude further into the country:

In the past, the strength of the current in rivers was stronger than the high tides from the sea. Now, the situation is opposite. The strength of the high tides from the sea is winning against the current of river water because rivers do not have strong currents. As a result, seawater is coming more inside the lands (Abul Hossain Mollah, 70, M, eighth grade, retired government employee).

This respondent’s observation gave an important insight into local causes of rising water in the rivers, an attribution that was shared by many other interviewees. A female NGO worker provided more insights into this “unplanned” water management issue:

There was something like the green revolution in the 1986–87 for creating more croplands and irrigation. A lot of sluice gates were made at that time and a lot of dikes and dams to divert and manage river water for irrigation. They actually halted the natural flow of water. Because of these dikes and sluice gates, sediments cannot flow to the sea. They are being deposited in the riverbeds which ultimately decreases the water and sediment-carrying capacity of rivers Shaheena Akhter, thirty-eight, F, MA, NGO worker).

However, this sort of attribution did not overrule the climate change-induced sea level rise. Rather, respondents believed that the diversion of river water at the local and regional levels was escalating the siltation and tidal flooding for which climate change was equally blamed. A fisherman, for example, asserted: “You can say both—climate change and the unplanned dikes are causing floods” (Gazi Nur Uddin, forty-five, M, functional literacy, fishing and forestry).

The data clearly demonstrate that two different yet mutual social constructs prevail among residents of this area. One was grounded in their newly acquired knowledge of climate-change impacts: they believed the water levels had risen because of ice melting at the poles and in the Himalayan mountains. The second set of perceptions originates from the respondents’ personal observations of the local water management system and sediment deposition in the riverbeds that they believed were detrimental to the natural water flow.

Increased Salinity

Salinity in water and soil is a common geohazard in the study area primarily because of its proximity to seawater. During every high tide, the seawater from the Bay of Bengal enters the coastal estuaries and flows up to one-hundred kilometers into the mainland through rivers and tributaries. In this process, seawater mixes with the fresh water of the downstream rivers of the Himalayas. The strength of tides from the sea and the current of downstream rivers play important roles in determining the level of salinity of water in the coastal region. Tidal surges of the sea tend to be more powerful than river currents. Respondents seemed to understand this natural process of salinization, but most seemed to be redefining their understanding of the salinity problem. They have been exposed to climate-change discourses recently through a number of communication channels (e.g., media, NGOs, and social contacts) in which salinization and sea level rise are often discussed as local impacts of climate change.

An NGO official involved in livelihood development programmes for poor people asserted:

We have had some awareness programmes on coastal livelihood; we gave training to the villagers on how to survive in extreme saline conditions, for example, cultivating saline tolerant crops and vegetables. Climate change appears as a topic in these meetings as this is the main reason for the salinity problem in Gabura and other villages. I talked to many people and they now understand the real cause of salinity—it’s global warming that brings saline water in this region (Khairul Alam, thirty-six, M, BA, NGO worker).

The influence of such awareness programmes was apparent in many respondents’ descriptions. For example, a female respondent in her mid-twenties said: “Saline water is increasing because of climate change, that is what I heard from the organization’s [NGO’s] people” (Sonaban, twenty-five, F, illiterate, housewife).

A male respondent who worked as a crab farmer expressed a similar view when a related question reminded him about the area’s susceptibility to salinity:

I understand salinity is not a new problem, but the problem is being intensified. In the past, we could pump out fresh water from tube wells, but now all these wells are contaminated. Who’s to blame for this? Climate change might be the reason. Particularly the organisation people are telling us that climate change is the main reason for salinity (Nipendranath Mondol, forty-five, M, twelfth grade, crab farmer).

However, many interviewees were not fully convinced that climate change was the only cause of the salinity, and were aware of the complex, inherently multi-causal nature of this problem. For example, a number of respondents identified shrimp aquaculture in former croplands as one of the root causes of increased salinization: “We should not always blame others for the problem. From my personal experience, shrimp enclosures are mainly contributing to the salinity problem” (Golam Mustafa Gazi, fifty-three, M, illiterate, honey hunter).

The shift towards shrimp farming in the early 1980s discussed above involved farmers introducing saline water from nearby rivers into their shrimp enclosures. This trend has had long-term consequences, including increased salinity in surface and groundwater as well as in the soil. An elderly male respondent asserted: “I think people are equally responsible for increased salinization. Owners of the ‘ghers’ [shrimp enclosures] have brought in saline water from the rivers. To me, this is the main reason. Everything is salty now” (Abul Hossain Mollah, seventy, M, eighth grade, retired government employee).

Thus, while the interviewees initially referred to climate change as the main cause of the salinity problem, their detailed descriptions clearly identify geographic proximity and specific local economic and development activities such as shrimp farming as important contributors to the problem.

Climate Change as Weather and Seasonal Variances

Abrupt Seasonal Cycles

Interviewees overwhelmingly reported that the natural seasons in Bangladesh had been more abrupt and unexpected in recent years compared to the past, and they categorically blamed climate change for this shift. For many, climate change and unusual seasonal behavior were synonymous. A male crab farmer, for instance, describes climate change as follows: “To me, climate change means season change. Something that is not normal. It says change and change of something. Right? Something is not like before. I can see seasons are not like they were in the past” (Jeher Ali Mirza, fifty-five, M, illiterate, crab farmer).

Interviewees frequently mentioned that Bangladesh used to have six seasons, but now has only two or three that often overlap because of climate change. According to a male schoolteacher: “We used to have six seasons. But you will find them only in the books. In reality, there are two or three. Others are difficult to distinguish. But, this was not always the case; we were known as the country of six seasons” (Abul Bashar, thirty-six, M, MA, schoolteacher)

Similarly, a male shrimp farmer relied on the “past” or his “childhood” as the point of reference to describe changing seasonal patterns that he believed were a consequence of global climate change. “We hardly get enough rain during the monsoon. Summer is extremely hot and you will see changes in the winter season as well. These things are different than they used to be in the past” (Ashish Kumar Mondol, forty-eight, M, illiterate, shrimp farmer).

Erratic Rainfall and Temperature Anomalies

Erratic rainfall was a salient feature of respondents’ descriptions of climate-change impacts at the local level. They often used terms such as “more erratic” or “more unpredictable” and “too early” or “delayed” to describe temporal variation in rainfall. Some respondents were so confident about the link between erratic rainfall and climate change that they recognized it as one of the most important pieces of evidence of climate change. Importantly, respondents frequently cited observations and experiences of their childhood or in the past to sustain their claims of erratic rainfall. In response to a question about the impacts of climate change, a boatman said:

When it rains it pours endlessly for days incessantly. And when it doesn’t rain, everything is dry. The problem is we don’t get rain when we need, and we get it when actually we don’t need it. I have heard this might be because of climate change. I am not sure though. But it seems to me true (Shomsher Ali, thirty-three, M, illiterate, boatman).

While a female respondent defined climate change as follows: “Well, climate change means […] I think the weather is not the same as it was in the past. There are some visible changes in the weather pattern. To me, the rainy season has changed a lot” (Khadiza Banu, forty-five, F, functional literacy, housewife).

Other respondents take the monsoon or the rainy season as their point of reference in emphasizing links between erratic rainfall and climate change:

We all knew that it would rain during the months of Ashar and Shrabon [Bengali months of the rainy season] and the month of Chaitra [Bengali month of the dry season] should be dry. That was the normal seasonal cycle. But, now all has been changed. Nowadays it is very uncertain (Moksed Ali, sixty-four, M, illiterate, unemployed).

Respondents also frequently attributed rising temperatures to climate change. A male schoolteacher, for example, explained:

We have been witnessing gradual temperature rise. It’s too hot now. For example, my father built this house around 15 years ago. At that time, it was possible to stay inside the house during summer times. But, now, in the month of Chaitra it is too hot to stay inside the house. It feels like a hell. Extremely hot! (M Abul Bashar, thirty-six, M, M.A., schoolteacher).

Communicating Climate Change

Role of Media

Analysis of the interview data reveals two major sources of climate change knowledge: mass media and NGO advocacy programmes. As for mediated climate change knowledge, respondents mainly referred to radio and television. “It was on the television”, “I heard it on radio”, “there was a programme on television” and “mainly from television and radio news” were the sorts of assertions that respondents made while describing sources of climate change knowledge. An elderly respondent noted: “I heard about it [climate change] from the radio. It’s a serious issue, very dangerous. Television also had some programmes on climate, but mainly radio” (Abul Hossain Mollah, seventy, M, eighth grade, retired government employee).

Similarly, a local community leader said: “I probably watched it on television news. You could find it almost every day at that time. Our prime minister was in a meeting [referring to COP 15 in Copenhagen] and it was a very big one on climate” (GM Rafiqul Islam, forty-one, M, twelfth grade, local community leader).

In the interview data, only three respondents, one schoolteacher and two NGO field workers, cited newspaper reports that had enhanced their knowledge of climate change. The internet and web- or mobile-based social networking sites were not mentioned during the interviews because of their complete absence regarding climate change communication in the study location.

Most people referred to television and radio while describing their understanding of and attitudes about climate change. “Rich countries’ responsibility”, “frequent storms”, and “drowning in the sea” were some of the frames they learned about from the media which influenced their perceptions. Consider the following assertion: “A large part of Bangladesh will be drowned in the sea, the coastal area. I saw it on television” (Gazi Mohammad Ayub, thirty-two, M, ninth grade, unemployed).

As the data analysis progressed regarding the media’s role in communicating climate change, habitual media use emerged as an important factor. In most cases, the media appeared to serve as a “passive source” for people, which indicated that climate change was not an interesting topic for them. Consider the following assertion: “It’s not that I am very much interested about climate change and seek out there [in TV or radio]. I mainly listen to news, whatever it is, and find it [climate change] there” (Mohasheikh Sardar, forty-four, M, illiterate, shrimp-framing and agriculture).

Most respondents used the media primarily for entertainment. Only a handful of male respondents reported that they watched television or listened to radio news to stay up to date on contemporary national and global issues. A crab trader, for example, replied: “No, I didn’t watch TV to know more about climate change. It was out there on the news” (Nipendranath Mondol, forty-five, M, twelfth grade, crab trader).

Role of NGOs

NGO advocacy programmes in the form of interpersonal and group communication emerged as the second most important channel of communicating information about climate change. NGOs’ contribution to poverty alleviation, expanding education, women’s empowerment, fighting for human rights and disaster management in Bangladesh is well recognized in the literature (Rahman 2006; Mercer et al. 2004). These organizations have served as important agents of socio-economic development and have focused their activities on the rural poor. More than 250 NGOs and civil society groups were listed in the local government office of the study area. These organizations were involved in a variety of projects including micro-credit to rural livelihood development, emergency support to cyclone victims, climate change adaptation, food security, mass education, forestation, and financing alternative livelihoods. After the cyclones in 2007 and 2009, many NGOs used foreign aid either to integrate a climate change component into their existing projects or to launch a separate programme to raise awareness. For example, a field worker for a local NGO described: “Climate change is now a priority focus of our existing programmes. We are working on mainstreaming climate change issues in providing livelihood supports and disaster management” (Mohsin Alam, M, thirty-one, MA, NGO field worker).

Thus, it is not surprising that NGOs were major sources of climate change knowledge for local residents. A female respondent asserted: “We didn’t know too much about it [climate change] before the organization [NGO] people started to tell us” (Momtaj Begum, thirty, F, illiterate, housewife and fishing).

In addition to raising awareness, NGOs also communicated substantive messages related to the issue. A local shrimp farmer explained: “In the past, we didn’t know reasons of storms and rising water. Now, we know; organization people told us it is because of climate change… Rich countries are liable for this” (Yunus Ali, M, fifty-five, illiterate, shrimp farmer).

Respondents also noted that NGOs used a participatory approach to engage people on different socio-economic issues, which enabled NGOs to deliver services to the target beneficiaries more effectively than government agencies. The focus on women, group formation and identifying opinion leaders in the community have important implications for climate change communication by NGOs. An NGO field worker described the importance of women in communicating their issues to the community:

Our target beneficiaries are women. We give them loans. As part of it, they have to be members of a community group formed by us. We also provide training on health, family planning, disaster management, and alternative livelihood. Climate change has been included in our training programmes recently because it has been badly affecting people’s lives (Mohsin Alam, thirty-one, M, MA, NGO field worker).

In Bangladesh, NGOs usually deliver their services to women after forming women’s groups. These groups meet regularly to discuss issues related to their livelihood challenges. Usually, field workers of the NGOs deliver advocacy messages to the groups, which are then handed down to other members of the community through informal networks. An NGO field worker described her approach: “Normally, we meet at one of the member’s uthan (courtyard) and it rotates to other members’ houses” (Shahida Begum, thirty-five, F, twelfth grade, NGO field worker).


The findings of this research clearly illustrate that the coastal people of Bangladesh widely believe that climate change is the underlying cause of their local geohazards. They also perceive climate change as both temporally (i.e., happening now) and spatially (i.e., happening here) close to them. This spatial and temporal proximity of climate-change risks has led people to personalize and localize the impacts.

Local residents frequently experience regional geohazards, and the media and NGOs often communicate these events as possible impacts of climate change. Thus, social constructs of climate-change impacts in this region appear to be constructed on the basis of place identity on the one hand, and availability heuristics through communication channels, on the other.

The “availability heuristics” concept infers that “a risk issue is likely to become powerful and capture the public’s imagination if the cause, effect and victim are clearly identifiable” (Whitmarsh 2005), experienced or can be readily imagined (Kahneman, Slovic, and Tversky 1982). That is, recent personal experience of an extreme weather event or increased media coverage is likely to make people consider climate change a serious threat because it is readily available in their imagination. The risk perception literature supports this argument, as people living close to natural hazards tended to believe more strongly in the certainty of climate change (Brody et al. 2008). Leiserowitz (2006) also found that people who personally experienced environmental disasters tended to perceive climate change more emotionally compared to people who did not have such experiences (see also Chamila Roshani Perera and Rathnasiri Hewege 2013; Bulkeley 2000). By contrast, Whitmarsh (2005, 2008a) found that personal experiences of floods in the UK had little impact on the level of concern about climate change.

The findings of this research also demonstrate that, like people in many developed countries, the coastal people in Bangladesh fail to distinguish between the concepts of “climate” and “weather” when attributing evidence of climate change. They frequently cite personal observations of “abrupt weather” and “seasonal variances” to support the view that human-induced climate change is already taking place. This is in line with the studies of Read et al. (1994); Goebbert et al. (2012); Capstick and Pidgeon (2014) and Taylor, Bruine de Bruin, and Dessai (2014), which all indicated laypeople’s confusion in conceptually distinguishing between weather and climate (Etkin and Ho 2007; Kempton 1997; Read et al. 1994) when changing weather patterns were attributed to climate change (Capstick and Pidgeon 2014; Hulme 2014).

Radio and television were found to be the primary sources of mediated climate change knowledge for inhabitants of the study area. The media’s role in communicating climate change issues from the domains of science and politics to the public has been well established (Nisbet 2009; Sampei and Aoyagi-Usui 2009; Cabecinhas, Lázaro, and Carvalho 2008; Weingart, Engels, and Pansegrau 2000a). In particular, Sampei and Aoyagi-Usui (2009) find that television and daily newspapers are the main sources of information about environmental and climate change for laypeople in Japan. However, the current research did not find that the print media played an important role in communicating climate change information in the study area. Low literacy rates, economic hardship, and geographic location have reduced public access to newspapers considerably. This implies that climate change communication strategies should take into account the local media environment and levels of access to different types of media.

We find that the study respondents believe climate change has been affecting them badly, but display little interest in seeking information on climate change from the media. Most interviewees reported consuming television and radio content for entertainment; climate change issues were generally perceived as either “too boring” or “too complicated”. In rural Bangladesh, watching television or listening to the radio are largely regarded as leisure time activities. Rural people struggle with a number of hardships, and there are very limited options for entertainment. Media use thus serves as an escape from their daily troubles, as described in media use and gratifications theory (Blumler and Katz 1974; Katz, Blumler and Gurevitch 1974). These viewing patterns highlight the need for “infotainment” programmes on climate change issues.

Identifying the important role of interest groups, most notably NGOs, in communicating climate change information is one of the significant contributions of this research. Respondents’ framing of climate change as linked to local geohazards and the politicization of the issue was informed by the NGOs. NGOs’ role in politicizing the global climate change debate has received scholarly attention in recent years; they are important actors in mediating the issues to the public, policy makers and other stakeholders (e.g., Doyle 2009; Corell and Betsill 2001). However, the scientific literature has thus far overlooked NGOs’ contribution in facilitating grassroots climate-change awareness. This study finds that NGOs are particularly successful at employing a participatory approach to communicate the issue to the public, and at creating community opinion leaders. In particular, they were able to create awareness of climate-change risks among women, who had comparatively limited access to the media.


This research explored public perceptions and the communication of climate-change risks in the coastal regions of Bangladesh, an area besieged by a number of regional geohazards that are worsening due to human-induced climate change. Previous research in this area has mainly been limited to examining cases in developed countries; the perceptions of people living on the “frontline” of climate change effects have been largely unexplored until now. Two main research questions guided this study. First, how do people in this area perceive risks of climate change? Second, how do they communicate these risks?

The study’s findings reveal two important factors in constructing public perceptions: “local hazard culture” and “local communication environment”. Regarding the former, public perceptions of climate-change risks are situated and constructed within the contexts of specific characteristics of local geohazards. Laypeople in the study area cited personal experiences of natural hazards and changes in local weather patterns as evidence of climate change. Accordingly, local events and their characteristics serve as important filters through which to interpret the risks of climate change.

The second factor, the local communication environment, highlighted the important role of respondents’ sources of knowledge, notably the media (e.g., television) and formal (e.g., NGOs) and informal social contacts. The mutual relationship between these two factors means that people obtain climate change information from a number of sources, and this information is understood within a specific cultural framework of natural hazards.

Future research should address two additional areas. First, the study’s methodological approach could be applied to other coastal regions of Bangladesh as well as hazard-prone regions in other countries. Such a cross-cultural comparison could explore the role of a specific hazard culture in the social construction of the concept of climate change. Second, future research should analyze NGOs’ communication strategies, tools and content, as well as their role (and effectiveness) in creating awareness and motivating behavioral changes of laypeople.


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1 A union is the lowest tier of the local government system in Bangladesh, consisting of a number of villages. At present there are 4,480 unions, which are run by directly elected representatives.

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