To Fix the Climate, Tell Better Stories

To Fix the Climate, Tell Better Stories
The missing climate change narrative.
Apr 13 2017

Here are two sets of statements from far-distant opposites in the climate change debate.

The first is from Naomi Klein, who in her book This Changes Everything paints a bleak picture of a global socioeconomic system gone wrong: “There is a direct and compelling relationship between the dominance of the values that are intimately tied to triumphant capitalism and the presence of anti-environment views and behaviors.”

The second is from Larry Bell, professor of architecture and climate skeptic, whom Klein quotes in her book. He argues that climate change “has little to do with the state of the environment and much to do with shackling capitalism and transforming the American way of life …”.

Let us put aside whether we agree or disagree with these statements or are offended by them. What concerns us is their scope: Both attach a breadth of narrative to climate change that far exceeds what is, at base, a relatively well-understood set of climate mechanics (human-produced carbon emissions are changing the composition of our atmosphere and warming the planet) and a well-developed set of solutions (renewable and possibly nuclear energy, efficiency improvements, consumer education, and the appropriate pricing of carbon).

Each side of the climate debate accuses the other of exaggeration and suffers from its own. Skeptics ignore basic climate facts and perils, while those who point their  finger at capitalism itself discard one of the best tools at their disposal. It is in part market forces, after all, that have produced a thousand-fold reduction in the cost of solar power over the past three decades (guided by policy).

There is a swirl of other, orthogonal narratives, too. American conservatives worry about global agencies interfering in domestic affairs. Some Europeans mistakenly dismiss climate change denial as uniquely American: In December of 2015, Richard Branson told CNN that skepticism is not something he has to deal with in Europe, despite the fact that the percentage of people who believe climate change is caused by human emissions is higher in the United States than in the United Kingdom.1

The climate conversation can sometimes feel like a shouting match in a roomful of children wearing earplugs. Each narrative doesn’t just oppose the next but is deeply incompatible with it. Partly this is a natural result of what is at stake. But it is also because something is missing. We have allowed our political, national, economic, and cultural narratives free play in the modern climate change debate. But where, in this shouting match, are the narratives from science itself? Where is the science teacher?

Peter Sheridan Dodds has a nickname for us humans: Homo narrativus. Dodds, a professor at the University of Vermont, uses mathematics to study social networks. He has argued that people see the stories of heroes and villains, where there are really just networks and graphs. It’s our desire for narrative, he says, that makes us believe that something like fame is the result of merit or destiny and not a network model quirk.

That we love heroes is something we can all intuitively understand. Less obvious is that climate, too, has a considerable narrative weight and is something we understand through storytelling. “Climate cannot be experienced directly through our senses,” writes Mike Hulme in his book Why We Disagree about Climate Change. “Unlike the wind which we feel on our face or a raindrop that wets our hair, climate is a constructed idea that takes these sensory encounters and builds them into something more abstract.” That abstraction has a moral and a historical quality: from the portrayal of flood myths as part of our relationship with the divine, to the birth of fictional monsters like Frankenstein in the wake of climate events, to our association of storms and earthquakes with emotional states—climate has always been more than a mathematical average of weather. In fact, Hulme says, it is only recently, and primarily in the West, that the cultural and physical meanings of climate have become so separated.



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