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Dr JT Thaker

Growing up in India, Jagadish (JT) Thaker witnessed the effects of climate change first hand. Now he is a senior lecturer at Massey University who is passionate about raising public awareness and understanding on the climate crisis.

Q: What got you started into your research?

A: My earliest childhood memories growing up in India were waking up early in the morning, around 4am, to line up to collect drinking water. Even today, drinking water is accessible for only a couple of hours, once in two days. Although we were lucky that one of our family members had a piped connection to drinking water - and hence our wait wasn't as long - I saw many poorer households in the neighborhood wait for 2-3 hours just to fill one bucket of drinking water on which they survived for 48 hours.

You will still see these serpentine lines on any given 'water day', in India. About 20% of urban Indian households travel more than 3 kms to fetch water, spending around 30 minutes more or less, according to a national sample survey.

In 2007, when I first read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports on impacts of climate change on water scarcity, it shook my soul. Water scarcity was already a top issue for many Indians, and climate change appeared to make every drop more inaccessible. It was then I decided, helping resolve climate change should be my life's goal. 

I have been working in several odd jobs from my childhood - newspaper boy, a printing press helper, door-to-door salesman, courier boy, among others. I switched to working in a call center after my MA in English to earn enough money to apply for PhD at the Centre for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University in 2009.

Q: Why do you do what you do?

A: In spite of over 30 years of scientists' warning about climate change, there is a lack of public and policy engagement, at least incommensurate with the challenge. My goal is to improve public knowledge and engagement to drive policy change to secure a sustainable future for all of us. I am particularly focussed on helping vulnerable communities understand and adapt to the impacts of climate change. 

My research is primarily focussed on identifying how the public understands climate change so that we can better communicate with them and inspire public action. I study media coverage of scientific issues to see how the public gets the information and how that shapes their understanding and engagement.

Finally, I seek to understand how climate policy evolves so that we know the factors that drive policy action on climate change. My research has examined strategic communication campaigns in health and climate change. 

Q: What do you teach at Massey?

A: I teach Public Relations related courses and a new Risk and Crisis communication course, at the undergraduate and the graduate level. For my second-year undergraduate course Public Relations Practice, students develop communication campaigns for local organisations. The student materials have been used by these organisations in their public relation campaigns, such as movie theatre ads, posters, brochures and website videos.

Q: How do students respond to this topic?

A: Students are quite engaged as they get to do real campaigns for a 'client,' apart from writing more theory-based assignments. This mix of creativity and research appeals to them, I think. They use the materials they developed during the course as portfolio when they graduate and are looking for work. 

Q: What else are you working on?

A: We recently conducted a national sample survey of New Zealanders public responses to COVID-19. I am analyzing the data, for example public attitudes towards climate change and COVID-19 and audience segmentation on COVID-19 vaccination attitudes. 

I am also analyzing media coverage of scientific studies on COVID-19, particularly the difference in coverage between pre-print and published research. The amount of research on COVID-19 produced is astonishing. Some of the poorly designed studies, unfortunately, make for good headlines and do more damage to public knowledge than helping public understand the scientific process and ways to keep themselves safe from COVID-19. 

Additionally, I am also looking at how and how much, if at all, did the media focus on the underlying causes of the rise in infectious diseases such as the coronavirus, namely human impact on the environment and climate change. 

I have a couple of collaborations going on with colleagues at Yale Project on Climate Change Communication too, which I am very excited about. 

Q: How is New Zealand, or more broadly the Pacific, particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change?

A: We are particularly vulnerable due to rising sea levels, extreme weather events such as droughts and floods, and financial instability resulting from these. 

We call climate change as a threat multiplier and it disproportionately impacts on people who are least responsible for it, such as the poor in Pacific islands and the poor in other poor and developing countries. The Pacific is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise, increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, threats to livelihoods, among others. 

Q: Why does strong communication matter?

A: I am in the field of communication, so I am deeply aware of its importance. I try to help scientists and public health experts better communicate and engage the public. We often assume that if we increase the volume and scare people, we get public attention but that is not how we develop public trust. 

Q: What outcomes do you think your work will have?

A: In some instances, I have seen government and public health agencies, and advocacy groups use my research to better understand and reach their key publics. Communicating climate change in ways that resonate with people's values is likely to have a powerful impact on public engagement with the issue. When a substantial mass of public opinion is formed on climate change, nothing can stop it from changing the world to a better place. Our ideal has shifted from an informed public to an engaged and participatory public, and this is important in any democracy—public support for policy change. 

Q: What is important to you?

A: An equitable world, where individuals are free to pursue their choices, without fear and with support. That human potential for innovation is unencumbered by social and political divisions. A sustainable planet that ensures we not only leave it safe for future generations but also act as custodians to the wildlife that we have become masters of. 

Q: Why is research important?

A: I joke to my students that we 're-search' because something is always lost or is in the process of losing! In communication, what we want to say could be lost in our choice of words or the message is mangled in tone. 

Research is important because without evidence, your opinion is as good as mine and we would not know the best approach to take to solve our common problems. Research helps identify robust parameters, analyse our observations, test our ideas, and develop an evidence-based approach that is more likely to succeed than intuition. 

In social science research, particularly, we often are unaware of our motives or ideas but research helps us uncover what is covered. 

Q: Did you always know you’d get into research?

A: No! My father's dream career for me was a government job in railways in India after my high school (what you can call intermediate school here). If not for support from my teachers and mentors, I would have been in some remote railway station in India, waving green and red flags to passing trains! 

I still find the academic spaces quite alien. It is filled with sort of "mafia gangs", with its internal codes and rituals, and an impenetrable in-groupism. I try to make the divide between 'the town and the gown' a little less. 

For me, creating new knowledge is important, but ultimately research has to serve a social good.