Doomsday narratives about climate change don’t work. But here’s what does

Doomsday narratives about climate change don’t work. But here’s what does
Feeling hopeless about a situation is cognitively associated with inaction. Instead of being defeatist, look to climate change heroes who are leading the way
By Victoria Herrmann
Jul 12 2017

The title of David Wallance-Wells’ recent essay in New York Magazine is catchy, if not uncomfortable. “The Uninhabitable Earth: Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreck – sooner than you think.”

The article asks us to peer beyond scientific reticence into a doomsday future. The accounts of mass heat deaths in cities and praying for cornfields in the tundra is disturbing, but they’re familiar. It’s the same frame for how we talk about a much more immediate climate change disaster – American communities at risk to sea level rise today. 

We’ve labeled Shishmaref, Alaska, a community that voted to relocate because of climate change impacts last August, a “tragedy of a village built on ice.” We’ve marketed Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, the first US town to receive federal funding to relocate, as climate change refugees watching their town slip into the sea. And we ask “Should the United States Save Tangier Island From Oblivion?” on the Chesapeake Bay island’s future. 

Each of these follows a recognizable storyline: a vanishing island, a culture slipping away, and an ensemble of characters unsure of what their future holds. Each piece tells a cookie cutter version of a vulnerable village in fear of rising tides and residents as victims on the front lines of climate change. 

Shishmaref could stand in for Isle de Jean Charles, that could stand in for Tangier Island. In none of these stories does the community hold agency over their future, empowerment, or resiliency.

These doomsday narratives are wrong, and they are dangerous.

Telling and sharing stories, from the scientific to the personal, is one the most important tools we have to survive climate change.

Stories help us to share facts, knowledge, and experiences about the causes and effects of a warming world. But more than just educational tools, stories are how we make sense of the world we live in. The story you read in the newspaper or the documentary you watch on Netflix holds the immense ability to shape what we see and don’t see. Those visibilities and invisibilities shift our perspectives. And it’s those perceptions upon which we base our actions.

I’m going to repeat that, because it’s really important. The narratives we read, hear, and see informs how we understand climate change, and that understanding dictates whether we act or don’t.

When we constantly see stories about communities in crisis as sea levels rise and extreme storms become more frequent, we come away with preconceived notions that all communities living on the front lines of climate change are victims in need of saving. On America’s eroding edges, there is no hope – the future is presented as an ominously uncertain but seemingly inevitable defeat.



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