Alarm bells have been ringing for decades; reams of scientific evidence presented; stunning projections, statistical analysis, and countless pages of reports. Information about the climate crisis is almost non-existent, so what?
One element is the way information about the climate crisis is framed. We are dealing with information overload that lacks context, making it difficult to evoke action. Repeated instruction to listen to science ensures that information is presented clearly and objectively, but it can feel distant and sometimes we lack a relatable narrative.
The most conventional way to provide context for information is through stories – this is how we tie society together, exactly what is needed for a collective response to the climate crisis. This is the approach that Eva O’Connor and Hildegard Ryan take in their play Afloat, the centerpiece of the upcoming Limerick Festival of the Future. In this lighthearted look at climate Armageddon, two friends find themselves bickering over Liberty Hall while the rest of Dublin is submerged in disturbing tides.
“We forget that the climate crisis is a human problem,” said O’Connor, pointing to the need to “put hearts and souls back into the debate.” [that] can force people. For O’Connor, placing the crisis in a setting that is familiar to Irish audiences gives meaning. “Scientific articles are very important,” he said, “but we must also make people feel as strong for this situation as for any social crisis.”
‘Scramble for position’
Today the climate crisis is contextualized by a handful of boring narratives, explains Dr David Robbins, director of Dublin City University’s climate and community center. “Mostly in the Irish context it is framed as a contest between different political actors… a struggle for position in the political arena,” he explained. “The next most common is disaster framing, emphasizing the impacts and findings of climate science, and portraying climate change as a kind of looming apocalypse.”
Political narratives and disasters can be problematic because they set up barriers of conflict and shock that are difficult to process into a coherent understanding. “Polarized conflict can be very engaging with audiences,” he adds, “but disaster narratives can be so unattractive to people because they feel like it’s over.”
There is direct debate in behavioral science today about whether small actions trumps big actions
While not as prominent, there is another context to the climate story. The economic frame, as well as public health and intergenerational justice frames. The latter has been brought to prominence by Greta Thunberg – as she stated to the UN, “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood”. Stories from the southern hemisphere are also gaining ground, showing the direct consequences of coastal flooding, famine, and migration. This is the reality of the world on which O’Connor and Ryan’s play is based. While grossly real and human, even they can be too far away geographically to elicit a reaction.
The climate change narrative must be strong, because it counters the resistance movement voiced by hard characters. Here too, various stories develop. ” [The] the climate denial movement has turned into a climate delay movement,” Robbins said, summarizing that “the time is not right and the moment is never the right time to take action”. Returning to stories that delay responses to climate change is a good strategy when outright denial loses credibility.
The climate-skeptic narrative is known to be largely driven by multinational corporations. Not only that, but in many cases they have found their way into the mainstream. “It is indisputable that the fossil fuel industry… has really succeeded in bringing the argument about climate change to an individual or personal level,” notes Prof Pete Lunn, head of the Institute for Economic and Social Research’s behavioral research unit.
Lunn points out that the concept of a carbon footprint is the brainchild of Ogilvy and Mather, a public relations firm working for British Petroleum that aims to draw responsibility away from the oil giants and onto individuals. The company released a “carbon footprint calculator” in 2004 that allows people to assess how their normal, everyday lives are responsible for warming the world, integrating terms into our everyday lexicon.
Small individual actions
Thus unfolds another challenging narrative about the climate crisis – small individual action is what is needed to confront global devastation. “There’s a direct debate in behavioral science today about whether small actions trumps big actions,” Lunn said. “So if you ask people to turn off the lights and recycle diligently… do these small environmental actions enhance or override the larger actions needed to make a difference?”
Maybe it’s better to show people more local stories about what the post-carbon future will look like…
Small individual steps can be empowering, and Lunn admits that they help form the basis for broader social action, which he describes as being more “strategically important.” He also points out that large-scale systemic change is scary, and better communication is needed for people to understand what is coming. “People will make sacrifices, will bear the costs, as long as they think that what they are being asked to do is fair,” he said. In essence, individual responses will follow the example presented at a higher level. This changes the story roles of ordinary citizens and those in power.
Scientists have been directing messages based on objective facts for decades. Their basic principles need not be changed. It’s strong, but the narrative weaved around them will have to grow if it’s to keep up with the increasing challenges. “People are more seduced by stories than by abstract theory and statistics,” Lunn adds.
“A lot of our reasons, a lot of the decisions and judgments we form, our politics, are very much driven by the emotions we feel,” he added. If today’s climate story is too focused on physical problems, as science shows, then a shift to people-led solutions may spark even more public morale.
“Maybe it’s better to show people more local stories about what the post-carbon future will look like… so you kind of hold a vision of what this society would look like if we took climate change seriously, than what our communities would do. be like or maybe like if we weren’t,” suggested Robbins. If the climate change narrator is a local community taking positive action, then the wider community can relate and reflect on their story. Neither fossil fuel companies nor ignorant politicians can achieve such a resonance. If people can feel inspired by others, they have an empowering foundation to work on.
“One of the big problems here is people don’t know what to do… and we can already see that people are motivated,” Lunn said. If people are really turning to action and need guidance, then who better to learn from each other?
Community groups such as Green Skibbereen and Love Leitrim are working to take collective action against climate change. The Lurrig community solar scheme in Co Cork is another project that may be a blueprint for others.
Projects of this kind are not just about climate, but also participation, responsibility, and community – things that have meaning and provide relatable context. It is imperative that climate stories are weaved into the broader human narrative, not simply presented as dry standalone works. After all, the whole chronicle of climate change from cause to effect centers around humanity.
A stronger future
The goal of O’Connor and Ryan’s game is not only to portray a harrowing view over Liberty Hall, but to look into a more powerful future. “A utopia, not a dystopia,” said O’Connor. It is important for communicators in the climate crisis to point out “what it means to live and what it means to be human, and all these tough questions”, he underlined.
Stories are the fabric of society, and our reality is torn apart. If we’re going to do anything about climate change, then we need to make sure we share the best stories, and tell them well.