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Bridging science and practice: Engaging youth in participatory games for learning about climate risks

25 Oct 2012
Carina Bachofen, Maarten van Aalst and Pablo Suarez, Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre,
Climate change is increasing the risk of extreme events and disasters (1). The changes hit first and hardest the world's poorest and most vulnerable - especially children. Many of these hazards occur cyclically and are to a certain extent predictable. The hazards will continue to occur, yet communities, and the institutions and organizations supporting them, can greatly reduce their impacts by making use of available climate information across different timescales - from long-term changes in risk to short-term early warnings (2). We know from experience that building the capacity of communities and vulnerable groups - including children - to use such information pays off. For instance, in Cuba, children conveyed early warning messages before hurricanes to help spread the word of impending storms. In Brazil, Save the Children taught children to measure rainfall to give early warning of floods or landslides (3). Yet all too often the tools and resources developed by climate scientists to help predict disasters do not reach those most vulnerable and those in greatest need of this information. Higher-income countries possess a greater ability to produce and disseminate more complete climate information, while poorer countries with fewer resources to invest in weather and climate information sorely lack access to the relevant science. But even if the information does exist, it often does not get to the right people - those who could use it to make better decisions (4). So what can be done to meaningfully engage stakeholders to bridge the disconnect between complex climate science and practical action on the ground?

An innovative and scalable approach for meaningfully bridging science and practice at the local level is the use of participatory games. Such games can provide a compelling, memorable and fun way of learning about climate science and other topics related to climate risk management, whereby players can move from 'Huh?' moments of confusion to 'A-ha!' moments of discovery and understanding. Games have the ability to reflect complex systems with a range of plausible futures, and during game play, players discover the likely trade-offs, feedbacks, delays and thresholds involving the myriad effects of disaster events. This type of experiential learning can drive meaningful dialogue on what appropriate planning in climate change and DRR programs may look like and how accessing and understanding expert information has a role in this planning process. Importantly, participatory games create a fruitful atmosphere of collaboration and mutual understanding amongst a range of stakeholders who may speak different languages, have different perspectives, and pursue different priorities.

The Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre has been designing, testing and using games for learning and dialogue processes to address diverse topics including forecast- based decision-making, dengue prevention strategies, gender inequity and diversifying smallholder cropping systems. The 'scaleability' of games as learning tools for climate risk management has led to more than eighty game events in four continents with stakeholders ranging from Red Cross youth learning about the links between climate risks and health to national finance ministry staff involved in an Africa-wide regional insurance pool, to subsistence farmers developing village-level flood contingency plans. Each of these groups has been able to explore and discuss a variety of practical and policy options through the use of games.

The groundbreaking use of games for learning continues to gain momentum: in December 2012, youth will be joining the Climate Centre at the UNFCCC COP in Doha to play games on climate risk management including "Humans versus Mosquitoes". This game was developed by a team of graduate students and faculty at Yale University and Parsons The New School for Design with the deliberate intention of creating a game that could be played by school children in vulnerable communities (5). The game raises awareness about an under-estimated risk factor possibly aggravated by climate change: dengue fever - due to increasingly favorable environments for the mosquito vector. Because there is no treatment or cure, to reduce dengue risk it is important to motivate people to take preventive action and clean up mosquito breeding sites. To make the game accessible to youth, a simple game mechanism, similar to the 'rock, paper, scissors' game was adapted. Game sessions in over 10 countries have raised dengue awareness by motivating students, Red Cross youth, and other stakeholders to learn more and address this rising risk (6).

"Before the Storm" is another participatory game designed to promote meaningful dialogue among diverse stakeholders about the need to collaborate on turning science-based predictions into concrete decisions (7). This game mimics the information divide in reality, where potential users of forecasts often cannot understand the language and meaning of experts' statements about likely future conditions, and scientists cannot understand why their forecasts are not used. These stakeholders may not be accustomed to jointly examining whether action is or is not advisable based on a given forecast expressed in terms of probabilities. Lively gameplay engages producers, communicators and users of forecast information with very different backgrounds and skills in discussing how to select among multiple plausible forecast-based actions, and considering their merits and risks - including what can go wrong either in terms of "acting in vain" or "failing to act". Differences of opinion lead to rich conversations about the links between what science can say and what people are willing and able to do given vulnerabilities, capacities, cultural norms and other factors affecting whether early warnings trigger early action (8).

As a result of such games, humanitarian workers and community members learn about the potential and limits of science-based forecasts. Scientists confront the irrefutable reality that their technical language is not universal and requires translation into thresholds for action. They also learn that when presented with scientific information, many people will choose to always act on received forecasts, regardless of probabilities. Generating locally appropriate options for forecast-based disaster preparedness at the community level is part of this exercise (9).

The impacts of climate change on the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable are real. Yet we vastly underutilize the tools and resources developed by climate scientists to help predict disaster. Games are one approach to help spur innovation and development of new policies and practices that incorporate use of seemingly incomprehensible science. Anticipatory, inclusive, and participatory approaches can help to transform traditional thinking across all scales. Ensuring that the most vulnerable, including children, can access, understand and act on climate information across timescales will increase their resilience in an increasingly uncertain climate.

____________________________ References

(1) IPCC (2012) Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation, IPCC, Geneva. Available online at www.ipcc-wg2.gov/srex
(2) Van Aalst, M.K. (2009) Chapter 3: Bridging Timescales, in: World Disasters Report 2009, IFRC, Geneva, Switzerland.
(3) Save the Children. Reducing Risks, Saving Lives: Save the Children's Approach to Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation.
(4) E.g. World Climate Conference 3.
(5) See http://humansvsmosquitoes.com for complete rules and other materials.
(6) Mendler de Suarez, J., Suarez, P., Bachofen. C., Fortugno, N., Goentzel, J., Gonçalves, P., Grist, N., Macklin, C., Pfeifer, K., Schweizer, K., Van Aalst, M. and Virji, H. (2012). Games for a New Climate: Inhabiting the Complexity of Future Risks. Frederick S. Pardee Center Task Force Report. Boston: The Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, Boston University.
(7) See a 4-minute video of "Before the Storm" gameplay in Senegal with humanitarian workers, forecast producers and vulnerable farmers and fishermen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mpj_EbKdwEo. Before the Storm was designed by by the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre in partnership with the Parsons New School of Design.
(8) Suarez, P. and Tall, A. (2010). Towards forecast-based humanitarian decisions: Climate science to get from early warning to early action. Humanitarian Futures Programme. London, Kings College.
(9) Mendler de Suarez, J., Suarez, P., Bachofen. C., Fortugno, N., Goentzel, J., Gonçalves, P., Grist, N., Macklin, C., Pfeifer, K., Schweizer, K., Van Aalst, M. and Virji, H. (2012). Games for a New Climate: Inhabiting the Complexity of Future Risks. Frederick S. Pardee Center Task Force Report. Boston: The Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, Boston University.