Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | April 3, 2015

The Climate Change Stories We Need

But people need more than a team to join. They need a story to tell themselves, a way of fitting climate change into their world. Knocking down bad stories will be ineffective unless there are more, better stories available. So let’s be better storytellers.
David Roberts ( “Jonathan Franzen is confused about climate change, but then, lots of people are” April 3, 2015

This passage captures the conundrum that environmentalists, climate scientists, and climate policy scholars face—we are bereft of the right stories to motivate the right kinds of climate action. I say the right stories because we are awash in stories, but they tend to be the wrong kind. We have catastrophe horror tales that conjure fear. We have myths about macro solutions that come from abstract economic models reaching 50 years into the future and about reliance on the UN negotiations to put in place a singular global response to the problem. We have innumerable and often contradictory self-help narratives about what you can do to save the planet in seven easy steps that will also save you money and make you more attractive.

So, what’s wrong with these stories? That they haven’t worked so far in moving populations and governments in North America toward progressive climate policy is a big downside (though obviously blame for poor climate policies and a slow global response to the issue cannot be laid only on the failure of narratives). A bigger problem is that they fail to make plausible linkages between the dual realities of climate change. Climate is a problem that is “too big to grasp” as Roberts puts it. It is a global problem like no other with causes found in virtually all human activity (industrial, transportation, energy-generation, agriculture, land use, urban planning, to name just a few). As Mike Hulme argues in Why We Disagree about Climate Change (Cambridge University Press 2009), climate change isn’t exactly a problem to be solved; it is wrapped up in the modern condition. Changing the trajectory of the modern condition is almost unfathomable. Yet that is only one reality of climate change. The other, equally valid, nature of the problem is that climate change is intensely local and wrapped up in the everyday and even mundane choices and policies made by individuals, families, cities, states, and countries.

The stories we need to develop are about how these realities are linked and how the linkages can be used to alter the trajectories that communities (from villages to the global community) are on. Discrete actions—whether we are talking about actions taken by individual people, cities, states, or even countries—will not stop climate change. The problem is too large for that. However, discrete actions are linked to larger political, cultural, technological, and economic dynamics that can move the world towards non-catastrophic pathways. Similarly, global treaties and abstract economic solutions are not panaceas but striving for global agreements and thinking about the long-term vision of what a decarbonized society will look like provide a big picture context for the myriad activities that will need to take place at multiple levels to realize an effective global response to climate change.

There are multiple academic initiatives at work trying to understand and conceptualize the linkages between the dual realities of climate change (we have one at the University of Toronto on Policy Pathways to Decarbonization and we are only one of many). These studies seek to provide the foundation for just the kind of stories that we need; stories that acknowledge that climate change is virtually unfathomable, but that it is also close at hand and that those two realities are linked in crucial ways. Perhaps people and governments will gravitate towards narratives that show and celebrate how the specific actions that they and their communities take have the potential for broader impact and how global actions and big economic decisions can open up the possibilities for accelerating the momentum from below. This is a key area where social science research on climate policy and governance can have a transformative effect and where we need more work done, conceptualizing and reconciling actions aimed at the simultaneously local and global nature of climate change. Perhaps this will lead toward the development of the necessary stories that find the sweet spot between crippling despair and unwarranted optimism.


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