Post-COVID 19 Collective Action on Climate Change in India: How Do We Get There?
Updated: Jul 3
What a difference half a year makes. In December last year, The Global Alliance for Health and Population (GAHP) found air pollution to be the largest cause of premature death worldwide. India is leading the group of most affected countries with 2.3 million deaths. Articles, reports, images, campaigns, and videos at this time exposed air pollution for the threat that it is.
Fast forward to the coronavirus lockdown and the narrative about air pollution is very different. It starts with relief, joy and hope, highlighting blue skies, reduced levels of pm 2.5, the ability to breathe, and wildlife sightings that have not occurred in years!
But how realistic is this change in India? Are policymakers and civil society actors diverting their attention to more pressing needs? Will we go back to “business as usual” as economies open up? How do climate activists use this opportune moment to incite collective action on air pollution?
Quilt.AI looked at existing efforts that aim to keep the pressure on clean air demands, particularly those that are citizen-led and target policy change.
The iamgurgaon citizen’s initiative has worked on environmental issues, with a spotlight on the harmful effects of air pollution on Delhi and the Gurgaon area. During the recent lockdown period, this group started the Gurugram rise campaign to help frontline health workers with obtaining personal protective equipment kits.
EPIC India is focusing on innovative ideas to address air pollution through crowdsourcing of ideas. The Shakti Foundation and the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) are releasing academic research reports and policy briefs on recent track II air pollution dialogues and policy recommendations for air pollution progress in India post-COVID 19. Finally, the Environment Support Group (ESG) is extending relief and support to migrant workers in South Bangalore through its campaign Kareng-Do It!.
And of course, there are community-level efforts such as Greenpeace India’s circles of solidarity that address a broader climate agenda on sustainable farming.
However, when the world opens up, there is a high probability that our gains on air quality will fade away.
A recent study by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air shows that since China lifted its lockdown measures on May 8th, levels of nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and fine particulate matter have regained the same levels as last year. In the UK as restrictions are lifted and individuals are discouraged to take public transport, traffic congestion levels in London have already reached 78% of what they usually are. Environmentalists, policymakers and everyday citizens are worried that air pollution levels will return to what they were pre-lockdown. The same concerns and rising air pollution levels, ocean pollution, and littering are surfacing in Spain, France and the US.
How do we use the present to incite collective action?
Collective action often starts with effective campaigns and collaborative initiatives. Quilt.AI, in partnership with the Clean Air Fund, analyzed 30 air pollution and public health campaigns and 65 organizations that work on these issues in the Indian context. We studied 21 million searches and more than 10,000 posts and tweets on air pollution. We ran these through our machine learning models on linguistic analysis, object detection and culture analysis, and produced insights and learning on what makes an air pollution campaign in India effective.
Campaign style and profile is important. We found five campaign profiles: the Candid Scientist, the Bridge Builder, the Local Crusader, the Global Activist, and the Fear Monger. For each profile, machines conducted image, text and emotion detection at scale.
The most effective campaign profiles are the Bridge Builder, the Local Crusader and the Fear Monger.
The Bridge Builder highlights the connections between their issue and popular, mainstream ones in order to bring the spotlight to their own focus area. Flexible in their communication style, they use a spectrum of messaging, aiming to appeal to everyone. Their quest for genuine collaboration comes across in their wide variety of narrative, a balanced mixture of messaging types (e.g. logos and posters, formal events, and community activities) and retweeting powerful content on hot button issues that bring attention to their own cause. To them, air pollution can be solved by having a more informed society that has a strong sense of community.
Organizations and campaigns that are Bridge Builders include the Vasudha Foundation, Shakti Foundation, #EarForYou Movement by Mpowermind, Live after you leave by Fortis health, CSE, Indian Youth Climate Network, #BreatheFree by Volvo and Climate Reality.
The Local Crusader uses simple but emotive messages in local languages with unfiltered pictures of successful community projects to invoke feelings of success and community. They use a combination of symbolism and moving images of community action to stir nationalistic sentiment and urge individuals to act together. We see this reflected in the 2nd top AI-detected emotions: Emotional (12,588 data points). Terms like “rich soil”, “abundant water”, “lungs”, “mother Cauvery”, “beating heart” and “dream” dominate the list of commonly used phrases. To them, air pollution can be solved by galvanizing individuals into communal action.
Examples of Local Crusader campaigns and organizations include Rally for River, 350.org South Asia, Bhamla Foundation, Clean Air India Movement (CLAIM) by Blue Air and Project Greenhands.
The Fear Monger, to date, is used for political campaign strategies. What works is its two-phased approach: first, the population is divided with hate and fear-filled rhetoric. Second, the supporters of the campaign are pushed towards collective action on key issues. A continuous feeling of inclusion is presented as a reward for group loyalty. Presence on every digital platform is heavy and multiple online and offline behavior change strategies are used. Some of these include taking over real estate timelines on public platforms and redirection of online search behavior.
To them, air pollution can be solved by waging a war against the “polluters.” This entails shaming and using negative rhetoric, followed by creating collective action on air pollution prevention among the group loyalists.
The Candid Scientist campaign profile is less effective because of its narrow audience.
Their target audience is not the everyday citizen, but rather fellow researchers and policymakers, focusing on building a scientific evidence base during research symposiums and workshops. They use statistics and development sector jargon to precisely frame the issues, providing a glimpse into formal knowledge-sharing events. Our machines detected high levels of collective bonding (4% higher than other campaign profiles) and different people working together in formalized settings (21.4% higher than other campaign profiles). To them, air pollution can be solved by establishing collective mechanisms informed by fact.
Examples of Candid Scientist campaigns and organizations include the Centre for Environment, Energy Development, Public Health Foundation of India, and TERI India.
Understanding opposition narratives prepares organizations for backlash and how to address it. In our research, we found two types of opposition narratives - blame games and diversions. At the time of our data collection, two blame games that emerged were: the increase in air pollution is because of China and Pakistan OR farmers burning stubble is causing the rise in air pollution. Two diversions that occur every year include: air pollution rising only during Diwali time and being linked to the increased use of firecrackers OR solution misinformation, ranging from indoor plants to lung exercises and eating more carrots impacting the air that you breathe.
The social media reach and engagement also makes a campaign more effective. Looking at the Facebook pages or organizations who drive these campaigns, including a calculation of their followers and number of likes for climate content and campaigns, and their tweets and retweets to understand how much original content these organizations create gave us insight into their social media reach and level of online engagement.
Search behavior demonstrates that the timing of campaigns are crucial, as are the air pollution-related terms people are searching for. We found that both the search volume and rate of change for the following air pollution-related words rise significantly between the months of October and January each year (based on a trend analysis from 2015-2019): “air pollution,” “causes of air pollution,” “air purifier,” “effects of pollution,” “pm 2.5,” “Diwali pollution,” and “anti-pollution mask.” Using these specific words in your campaigns can help broaden the audience.
Further, the majority of campaigns we analyzed, launch in May, however, based on search behavior, it is more strategic to launch in October and finish by February of the following year.
Other ways to take action
Besides effective campaigns, other suggestions to retain the positive impact lockdowns have on air pollution levels, include: the expansion of cycle lanes in London, Brussels and Milan, nudging people to choose bikes over cars for personal transport; implementing short lockdown measures for air pollution levels in India that are hazardous to our health; implementing rotational work-from-home measures to reduce road transport; and changing office attire to reduce carbon emissions and the usage of air conditioners.
What is clear is that we cannot lose momentum as more and more lockdown restrictions are lifted globally - rather we need to incite collective action to have serious online and offline discourse on adopting more sustainable lifestyle measures that can help curb air pollution. Today.