The Power of the Climate Change Narrative
Everyone of us needs to be part of the story
I want to take a step back from the cliffs of data, policy, and climate tech insanity to focus more on one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves, “How’s that working out for you?”
While the technical is critical and the startup scene as a hotbed for innovation is important, we still have powerful opposition to climate change decision making. There are still climate deniers, slow progress on standardizing financial sector climate change reporting, and many parts of “first world” countries that cannot provide electricity or clean drinking water to their population.
There is something else that needs to be part of the climate change narrative. Foundational to all the other reforms and discoveries is creating a united front to tackle current problems and future risks as they arise. There needs to be a story that each and every one of us is a part of. It's our world. It's our story.
Storytelling is the oldest form of communication and thriving today
From the Ancient Greeks, and no doubt before them, to the micro-stories shared on Twitter today, we are a story hungry species. Sharing information in creative ways is one of the few things that lead humans to adapt and thrive on this planet. Stories shape our perceptions, shine light on our hopes and fears, and provide foundations for governments, religions, and communities. Stories hold great power.
The power of stories can also lead to conflict and obstruction of the truth. Countless times in our modern world we witnessed governments ignore facts on climate change, racial inequity, income disparities, and gender discrimination to name a few. There are stories on both sides that provide a foundation for groups to debate, accuse, and hate.
Equally as powerful as story is our ability to understand, learn, and reason. These are essential if we are to reach out to those clinging to their story and offer a bridge to connect them to ours. Mutual understanding and respect for each other and the planet we share must come from connecting our stories so they reflect the simple truth: we are all connected.
Current narratives of doom and gloom turn some groups off
When we report the impending doom of the planet every day it's akin to setting an alarm to wake up at 5 AM but always hitting the snooze button, it no longer has an impact. And for those already unsure about climate change or downright antagonistic, it will just become background noise, or worse, fodder for late night tweets.
University of Michigan sustainability professor Andy Hoffman states “To be effective, climate communicators must use the language of the cultural community they are engaging.”
Meeting people where they are at is a key component of getting people to engage and participate in the climate conversation.
Language is critical and the current climate narratives are a mix of scare tactics that seemingly take a page out of the 1980s and 1990s anti-drug programs like D.A.R.E., and a pile of jargon that will switch the average reader's attention off. How does one connect to diverse communities and engage in climate translation?
The ability to adapt to a changing climate requires a mental shift
I could easily point the finger at those who are lapping up the misinformation around climate change and think they should be more informed. However, I would rather focus on what I can control:
“You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” - Marcus Aurelius
I can make a mental shift and realize that the information available to many is either a challenge to understand because it is too technical or it is written in a way that does not connect with their experience, or both. As someone who spends most of my time thinking about these climate issues, it is within my control to communicate better. I think it is within your control too.
A shared problem requires shared participation in the solution
Our connected, largely democratic world is a double edged sword. We get to make decisions together, but we also have to make decisions together. One group can rarely get away with unilateral decision making, and when done, does not last very long.
Look at the U.S. Affordable Care Act (ACA) that promised to reduce healthcare costs for everyone. It was almost unilaterally pushed through by the Democrats in power and after the historic victory, the ACA had parts gutted and many of its promises unfulfilled as opposing forces sought to dismantle it bit by bit.
Look at the Trump administration's assault on public lands. Unilaterally pushed forward by Republicans and their fossil fuel extraction funders, it is now being flipped on its head as Democrats regained power in Washington.
There needs to be a shared vision and solution to climate that does not vilify every corporation, endorse every group’s challenge to a project, or accept large amounts of money from lobbyists narrowly focused on protecting their industry.
We need people to share common values and understanding before we get into discussion over carbon taxes, markets, and jobs.
Rethinking the climate change narrative
The story can NOT be about us vs. them, or fear. The narrative must be embraced and the old must be gently put out to pasture. We have to rethink the narrative in a way that connects people to the problem and provides space for a diversity of solutions. This is achievable if, at a minimum, the following is incorporated into the new climate narrative:
Reduce the scare tactics.
In the last 20 years I have experienced a major attack on U.S. soil, multiple devastating economic recessions, the absurd increased costs of housing, healthcare, and education, and a global pandemic that has claimed more American lives than World War II. This place is scary enough, we don’t need more scare tactics around climate change.
What we need is hope, innovation, and movements in our collective consciousness towards solution building. We need a Super Bowl for climate action and the Academy Awards for scientific breakthroughs. Inspiration followed by hard work is all we have to get us through the next 20 years. Let’s embrace that. Lean into optimism.
Relate the studies and scientific papers to people’s everyday experiences.
There are a multitude of resources on the internet discussing the risks associated with our changing climate. World Wildlife Fund and the World Resources Institute each have water risk mapping tools that give you a regional look at what’s at stake. But how does that impact the commute to work, the cost of food at the local grocery store, the cost of gasoline, or the electric bill. For many, those are the only things that matter.
We have to do a better job at connecting life as it is today to the risks and innovations of tomorrow. This can be interviews, infographics, maps, forums, private networks, or getting academics out of the ivory tower and into the grit of real life. Real data is dirty, the earth is mud and rock and bugs, humanity is complex, flawed, rational and irrational all at once.
It's not a neat box or one algorithm that will save us. It is each and every one of us that will save all of us.
Create shareable information.
Finally, to create a new climate narrative we have to embrace the information distribution channels. Bit-size thoughts string together by hashtags, links, likes, followers, impressions, and influencers are how the new climate narrative scales. Much like a virus for good, the new climate narrative must infect the siloed networks that people build around them, make copies of the new narrative, and spread.
Exchange of ideas has always been about networks. In the modern world, networks span globes, class structures, political affiliations, age, gender, ethnicity, and the list goes on. We are as multi-dimensional as these networks and each one of us can work to simplify a part of the greater narrative and share that within our varied networks.
Climate change is a complex system of issues, but the new climate narrative breaks down that complexity into its more simple components and shares just enough of that component, with a context the relates to the recipient, and a trail of breadcrumbs for them to connect the dots and make sense of it all on their own journey.
We are all the solution and it is only our collective work that will deliver that solution in time.