Shifting the climate change narrative

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.

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