Climate Change | Communication | Storytelling
Telling the stories of climate change with Neelima Vallangi
Neelima Vallangi, co-director/producer of 'The Weight of Water', shares her experience as a storyteller with a mission
FRESH OUT OF COLLEGE, Neelima began working as a software engineer but her sense of adventure was left unsatisfied in the corporate world. “I got bored with the corporate world very quickly” she recounts, “so, since I finally had the financial freedom I always wanted, and was living in a city—I chose to travel. Once I travelled a little bit, I got quite obsessed with it.”
The next seven years were spent in a whirlwind of work and travel, often to the Himalayas where she first began imagining a life outside of her office job. “I was looking for a way to leave my corporate job and get to a place where I had time and could use my creative muscle more than in the work I was doing.” And in a manner typical to Neelima, she transformed her reflections into action, quit her job and began working as a travel writer and photographer for the next five years.
Her honest photographs and intelligent stories amassed a significant following of over 50k on Instagram, and in the role of journalist/social media “influencer” Neelima found success, and joy in her travels and tales. So, naturally for her—it was time for reflection.
“At this point, I had been adventuring and exploring for at least 12-13 years. I felt like I had done enough of following my own desires and happiness. So, I was naturally at the end of another phase. Travel was kind of losing its charm at this point.”
Fortune, or fate (Neelima would say “just life”) took her to Limi Valley in Humla, for work with ICIMOD for a project unrelated to climate issues. But upon seeing a climate change incident occur first hand, curiosity struck once again.
In 2019, ICIMOD had just published a major new report, related specifically to climate change in the Himalayas. “I read this report and that became my entry point into all of this.”
And thus began the next phase, Neelima as a climate change communicator. “I went into this whole rabbit hole of reading about climate change, worrying about climate change and thinking—what can I do about it?
Neelima launched her weekly newsletter Climate Matters with the express purpose of ‘demystifying climate change’ to help all kinds of audiences ‘make sense of this planetary crisis, covering the science, the social and all other aspects of climate change in between.’
It was also in 2019 that Neelima got a message from a film-maker Deej Phillips, who had read an article that she wrote after her trip with ICIMOD that sent Neelima into her rabbit hole. He was writing to propose a collaboration on a few clips to reveal the human cost of climate change in the Himalayan region (or as some reports call it ‘climate change ground zero’). And so, Neelima assumed another role, filmmaker.
“This film was just meant to assuage our own anxiety, and something on a very small scale. But one thing led to another, and now I’m working on climate change full time!”
My next question was about the emotional transition from being a travel journalist with a growing concern about climate change, to fully focusing on climate change coverage. With concepts like “climate anxiety” and “climate grief” gaining so much traction, what has been your experience grappling with these emotions?
With frequent changes in career and direction, “depressing phases in life” were not foreign to Neelima. “I am constantly reevaluating if what I’m doing is what I want to do. But I always look at these moments as gateways to evolve and get more in touch with my purpose.”
Neelima explains, revealing her headstrong, matter of fact nature, “If I hate corporate, all I have to do is follow my passions and find ways to change my personal situation. If it’s financial independence I’m looking for, I just need to find avenues where I could make money in alternate ways. Which is difficult of course, but not unknown, like people have done and always will do it. I knew it was possible I just had to figure out how.”
But the climate crisis she realised was a different beast. “But with this, it's like—what to do? It’s not just about me, there is nothing I can do as an individual to, you know, stop climate change. It just feels helpless, especially when you see the scale of the crisis and you can’t see the role you can play very clearly.”
She describes the initial days as “isolating and scary”, “depressing” and “daunting” expressing confusion at the lack of urgency (“This seems like a very big problem, why aren’t we focusing on it enough”) and disbelief in national and international climate action deadlines of 2030, and 2050 (“How do you change the way whole world works in like 8 years!?”).
Despite being a person that appreciates challenges, and is willing to learn more and do more, this challenge felt almost too large. “Insurmountable?” I suggested and Neelima agreed. “It was a helpless situation, where I couldn’t see my way out.”
But, Neelima adds a caveat. “I think this kind of grief and anxiety is felt by a certain section of the community, or the world. Those that are privileged and sheltered in some sense. This part of the community is still the majority at this point, who are aware of the impacts and are worrying about the future.”
She emphasises, “There are people who are already facing climate impacts, they don’t have the time to sit and ponder because their present is already disrupted by climate impacts.”
Deeply perceptive of the inherent privileges and perspectives intertwined in the reality of climate change, Neelima can’t help but add dryly, “I don’t know if you can go to them and ask, are you feeling climate anxiety? They would most likely reply by saying, I don’t know—I'm facing an everyday struggle. I don’t know if you want to call it climate anxiety.”
When asked about how she got through this “worrying phase”, she replied with an answer I should have guessed. “It took a lot of reflection and thinking and I figured out my place in the climate movement.”
Naturally, my next question centred on Neelima’s place in the climate movement. You write long discursive captions on social media, take photographs, run your own newsletter, you are a journalist and contribute to platforms like Al jazeera and BBC and you’ve just directed and produced a film. What has been different in your work throughout all these platforms?
Neelima interrupted me as I was listing mediums and roles. “No—storyteller”, she asserted.
“I don’t see any difference, I see all of it as an extension of my main skill which is storytelling. Effective story telling I would say. If I’m telling a story anywhere irrespective if it is on Twitter or Instagram or journalism or photostories, or even in films—I am always impact-oriented, I am very bothered about how the audience will receive it.”
With a mission of effectively communicating the dimensions of climate change, Neelima approaches all of her work with one question in mind—what good will come out of this?
“I am not the kind of artist that doesn’t want an audience—I do want an audience because of my goal. So, taking all the trade-offs that come from different platforms and mediums and all my skills into account, I change the way I communicate my ideas on different platforms.”
She continues candidly, “I know what works on Instagram and I also know what the things are I can do to reach a wider audience. I could always do reels or something but it has to feel natural to me,” she laughs. “I’m not doing this for my own creative satisfaction, I'm doing this with a purpose—I want people to read and see my work.”
As she was reflecting a few years ago, she admits to asking herself why she is engaging in so many diverse ways. “Somewhere it hit me. I heard from a friend a really long time ago that I tell good stories. Slowly I connected the dots. I must be good at telling stories because people listen across mediums.” She deduced that her skill is not in the mediums but in the art of finding or telling stories.
“It's also easier to explain that way as well!” she laughs.
So let us in, how do you find a good story?
Modestly, Neelima credits her curiosity for her ability to find good stories. “I don’t stop at something until I get a good answer. And if I get intrigued by something, I don't mind going into a rabbit hole.”
Clearly concerned of the way her stories are received and understood, I went on to ask Neelima how she gauges the impact of her work. "What are ways you strive to keep the momentum going after the story is out there? How has that been different with the new film?"
“I’ve always enjoyed the feedback and learning from each other. I also see myself as someone who is good at deconstructing complex things, as a part of that I need to get the feedback. If I'm thinking I’m demystifying climate change, then I need to see results. Otherwise, how do I know if I'm actually demystifying it? Perhaps I am just oversimplifying it, or it's incorrect.”
Since her goal is to promote and increase social engagement surrounding climate change, it is very important for Neelima that her work is being engaged with. “Using my work to advance a certain ideology is definitely important. That is where social media helps, you have this instant feedback loop. I have answers to the questions — Who are the kind of people that are engaging with it? Are industry people engaging, what are their thoughts? How is the general audience engaging with it? Or if it's a travel story—are people finding it interesting? Are local people finding some fault?”
But with her film, “The Weight of Water” Neelima’s experience of tracing the impact has been more hands-on. “I thought my role was finished when DW agreed to licence it for international broadcasting” but since the filmmakers were both in town, Neelima and Deej decided to screen the film.
After the first screening brought together a diverse crowd, within and beyond climate circles, Neelima was fascinated to see how different people had very different take-aways from the film.
“When you are telling a story about people on the frontlines on an issue like climate change, a number of social issues like poverty, gender, caste etc. come to the surface because people's lives are complex and interconnected.”
Observing the interactions between diverse climate circles from “policy makers to scientists, entrepreneurs to activists” engaging with the film was an honest representation of the multifaceted nature of the climate crisis.
“That way I'm very happy with what this film has managed to do.”
So, what in your opinion is an example of effective climate change communication?
“I really liked ‘Don’t Look Up’. It’s not the best movie, or even the best analogy but people couldn’t stop talking about it and that was really amazing!”
She isn’t a stickler or purist when it comes to creative expression. “What is the right messaging anyway, whatever gets people talking is the right messaging.”
While the film will most likely not be winning any Oscars, the fact that it had such a wide reaching effect, sparking conversations and discourse throughout the Twittersphere globally was a feat that Neelima appreciated.
“It just showed me that maybe people are interested in things like this.”
Neelima connected this film to an ongoing discourse in the climate change community, spearheaded by Indian author Amitav Ghosh about climate fiction in his 2016 essay, Where is fiction about climate change? “When it comes to climate change media, most of what exists is in the form of documentaries and non-fiction.”
And it’s true, when you think about famous climate change books, works of non-fiction, like Uninhabitable Earth, The Sixth Extinction and the Inconvenient Truth. Neelima asks, “What about books like 1984, or Lord of the Flies, or Atlas Shrugged?”
Literature and mass media are undoubtedly how ideas propagate. But when society lacks imagination, it is difficult to popularise societal themes in the masses. “There is no imagination right now. So people aren’t able to imagine climate futures, neither the dystopia nor the utopia.
Irrespective of whether it’s a good idea or not, it solidifies an idea. A person can write whatever they want, irrespective of whether it is good or not but that's how ideas spread. We look back at Ayn Rand's novels and disagree. But it did manage to reach an influential position, it shaped public opinion— but what can you say about climate change like that?”
Neelima Vallangi’s four tips for effective climate change communication:
1. Connect the dots: What does it mean for us if a far away glacier is melting? So what if the sea levels are rising? Why should anyone be bothered by a miniscule one degree rise in global temperature? These questions need to be answered—always.
2. Establish attribution: We can answer with some certainty in whether or not climate change has played a part in aggravating a particular disaster. For example, it's not enough to just say “Cyclone Amphan is the most severe storm in the 21st century in the Bay of Bengal.” It is imperative to mention that rapid warming in the Indian Ocean has caused a significant increase in both intensity and frequency in cyclonic activity.
3. Explain how climate change is a threat multiplier: Environmental impacts of climate change don’t act in a silo. They will exacerbate poverty, inequality, cause migration, spread diseases, economic failure and create more conflict undoing decades of progress.
4. Discuss culpability and responsibility: It is not enough to just say there is a problem and a clear consensus on who or what created the problem, since when and how. We must also discuss who is responsible for fixing it today and how. Lack of transparent discussion on this has unfortunately led to widespread acceptance of modifying individual behaviour as an adequate solution to climate change. When in fact, what we really need are systemic reforms.
Most importantly, all of this should be made accessible.
You can find her weekly newsletter, Climate Matters here.
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