Information dissemination and climate change

Speech Published 25 Feb 2009 Last modified 13 Apr 2011
Presentation by Prof. Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director, European Environment Agency, at EU Network conference, Vejle, Denmark, 29th January 2009.

2O years ago, when the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change was first set up, climate change was the realm of scientists and statisticians, and still at the periphery of the public consciousness.

Today, it is recognised as the most pressing environmental question the world has so far faced; and we are only now beginning to appreciate the enormity of the challenge ahead.

President Obama has signalled a change in US policy towards climate change, which is to be strongly welcomed. Yet we cannot forget that the cornerstone in our ability to respond to this challenge is you and the people you inform.

It becomes clearer as each new country starts to tackle greenhouse gas emissions that we can only manage and reverse these trends through public involvement and access to environmental information.

In order to bring about these changes, the public needs to be properly informed and empowered to participate in political debates at all levels, as well being empowered to change their own way of living.

The European Environment Agency - has a key role in ensuring the EU and its citizens can make the changes our environment needs.

We are required to support sustainable development and help achieve significant and measurable improvement in Europe's environment, through the provision of timely, targeted, relevant and reliable information.

Key climate change trends

Last Autumn, we released two reports on climate change in Europe; an indicator report on climate change impacts and a report on Kyoto emission projections.

Indicator report

The first report, based on 40 indicators and produced in conjunction with the Commission’s Joint Research Centre and the World Health Organisation Europe, gives us further evidence on climate change trends in Europe. The trends, which complement those of the IPCC in 2007, are unequivocal; climate change is a reality which we need to address urgently:

  • We have observed increases in the number of hot and cold extremes, and the intensity and variability of precipitation extremes.
  • We have rapid melting of European glaciers and sea ice.
  • A significant change in the fluvial system and distribution across North and South Europe. But flooding and drought will both increase! And,
  • Sea level rise.

EEA country report – in line for Kyoto, but only just!

The report, "Greenhouse gas emission trends and projections in Europe 2008" evaluates historic emissions from 1990–2006. It also looks at projections of future emissions during the Kyoto Protocol commitment period, compared to the joint commitment by the 15 old EU member states to a reduction of 8% by 2008-2012 from 1990 levels.

The EU-15 as a whole should meet its joint Kyoto commitment, and the newer EU member states should meet their individual commitments.

Overall emissions are projected to continue decreasing. The 20 % reduction target for 2020, endorsed by European leaders in 2008, is realistic, but we don’t have time to waste!

Climate change challenges – what can we do?

Our reports have added further evidence that climate change is happening and we can’t completely avoid the effects.

Adapting to the changes climate change is bringing is essential and there is a pressing need for new data and for improvement of currently available data. In particular we need to harness data at a more local and regional level to build an accurate picture of future impacts.

We can only find and use this data if we involve citizens directly with the information process. In short this means we need to be better at communicating both ways.

New ways of working

Too often information is made available as lists of figures or spreadsheets that only experts can interpret. Imagine if all the data that underpins our evening weather forecasts, or how Google and Microsoft work were presented in this way… you think they would continue to be as popular?

To encourage and benefit from participation we need to present our information in a way everyone can understand.

Of course the EU can’t do this at the appropriate spatial level alone, neither can national or local authorities - as environments are different from field to field and stream to stream. This is why I am convinced that the approach taken by the EEA, to bring together all levels of spatial information; local to global, is the right approach.

The European Union – with the full engagement of the European Environment Agency - is developing several new systems to take these ideas forward: I will highlight a few.

1.  Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) and the Shared Environmental Information System (SEIS)

GMES will use satellites and other sensors: on the ground, floating in the water or flying through the air, to monitor our natural environment.

The information provided through the GMES initiative will help us understand better how, and in what ways, our planet may be changing, why this is happening, and how this might influence our daily lives.

The Shared Environmental Information System (SEIS) is a collaborative initiative of the EU and the EEA with the aim of moving away from paper-based reporting, to a system where information is managed as close as possible to its source and is made easily available to users in an open and transparent way.

This approach will integrate all existing information flows related to EU environmental policies and legislation as well as voluntary reporting.

Based on technologies such as the internet and satellite systems it will make environmental information more readily available and easier to understand for policy makers and the public.

Overall, the aim of SEIS and GMES is to improve environmental information in response to new pressures, such as responding to climate change, meeting increasing expectations from citizens and the growing interdependence of social, economic and environmental factors.

2.  A global citizens observatory for environmental change

Even when we can increase the co-ordination and timeliness of complex data, it highlights the need for even better ‘real time’ information which is simplified and accessible to all.

To tackle this issue the EEA recently launched an online portal, with the working title of the Global citizens Observatory for Environmental Change, which will enable European environmental information to be gathered and presented in a single location.

The Observatory will provide an easily accessible and understandable resource for governments, policymakers and citizens to access data in real time. It will provide this information on all environmental media – from the global perspective to the view from the street – at levels of detail previously unseen in environmental information.

Water Watch, which provides information on bathing water quality, is one illustration of this process. It was launched by the EEA in conjunction with Microsoft and with almost 265,000 visits in the first three weeks of August, it illustrates that the public want user friendly environmental information.

Crucially, the Observatory allows every one of us a role in the information process through prioritising two way communication. Often the best information comes from those who are closest to it, and it is important we harness this local knowledge if we are to tackle climate change adequately. In this instance people are encouraged to give their own opinion on the quality of the beach and water, to supplement the official information.

Concluding remarks

The Poznan conference on climate change last December continued a process towards a future global agreement on the climate change.

I’m sure we all hope this will be successfully completed in Copenhagen at the end of this year.

An agreement will not only bring governments closer together on what needs to be done in the future, but also create a clear link to actions that need to be taken by citizens around the world.

I believe that if we are to tackle climate change we need to move beyond conventional systems of data collection and management. It is no longer sufficient to develop passive lists or reports to ‘inform’ citizens. We need to engage with the woman on the street, in the field, in the river or on the mountain and ask how they can ‘inform’ us.

At the global level we need to share our understanding to the benefit of policy-makers and citizens; we will work to promote the free exchange of the information necessary for this.

The EUs Aarhus Directive led the way in establishing the public as an essential user of environmental information.

We know our environment is influenced by massive global and national factors, it is also affected by the daily actions, no matter how small, of each and every European citizen.

In your EU networking capacity all of you here today are significant actors in achieving this process and perfectly placed to help us change our actions

If we are to bring about real improvement and reverse the climate change trends, we need to keep informing and involving citizens and empower them in something that is critical to our shared future.




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