Stories about the climate crisis

Fighting the climate crisis is one of the top priorities for the next decades. It took the world nearly thirty years to turn ‘climate change’ from a term used only by experts to a well-established one, used widely by different audiences. But while there is no doubt that it refers to something unpleasant, its true meaning is still not understood in full.

Unlike other major crises of our times, like the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis is rather vague and somewhat distant. Some people believe that it is nothing more than a mental construct of the elites, mainly dictated by economic interests. Others believe that it represents a distant danger that may affect future generations but has little to do with us and our own lives. Unfortunately, only a relatively small percentage of people realize that the earth is in danger and the risks of its rapid deterioration affect us directly and personally.

The lack of understanding for and interest in the climate crisis is not necessarily due to lack of information. On the contrary, there is bountiful information,  disseminated in various forms by the media – yetbut the level of actual knowledge on the issue is low, as are the public’s reactions to what is happening.

What accounts for this? First of all, climate change is a process that seems slow rather than urgent, and this reduces the willingness to tackle it with urgency. We feel that we have time to fight it and we might as well leave it for a later time, when our other problems will subside. Additionally, the way we talk about the climate crisis, using figures, statistics, and predictions about the future, does not suffice, as such references do not evoke the emotions. Although we humans praise ourselves for being rational beings, information and rational thinking are not enough to make us care and change. To attract the public, we need emotion – and emotion cannot be found in data and statistics. It is found in stories with heroes and heroines, with plots, twists and turns. It is stories that can turn complex issues into something accessible, understandable and solvable.

Yet, not all stories are fit to talk about the climate crisis. Most of the stories we’re exposed to, through books, films or TV series, focus on the grim consequences that the crisis will have on the environment, society and the economy. They are dystopic scenarios highlighting global warming, the extinction of vegetation and the end of the world as we know it. Such descriptions, although not necessarily far from what may happen in the future, are not suitable. Often, instead of cultivating a sense of urgency that can lead to active problem solving, they immobilize the audience, as they leave no room for perspective.

Research in the field of human behavior increasingly shows that fear does not promote behavioral change but, on the contrary, acts as an obstacle. It leads to anxiety and depression which, in turn, cause us to avoid such issues and deny them, or leave us with a sense of futility that impedes action.

Recent research on the communication of climate change at the University of Southampton confirms this hypothesis. Divided into two groups, participants read stories about the climate change. One group read negative stories, featuring heroes who were victims of the crisis, while the other read positive stories that highlighted solutions, even small ones, coming from everyday life. Participants in both groups were then asked how they felt and how they were expected to behave.

Those exposed to the negative stories, felt angry and frustrated. They considered themselves too small to tackle such a big problem. By contrast, those who read positive stories did not feel powerless, but were willing to act, starting out with small activities like a beach cleanup or the planting of a tree.

This experiment, along with the experience of those of us who are active in the environmental field, show that stories that only present the grim aspects of environmental degradation do not improve things. Instead of inspiring and motivating, they frighten and immobilize us. On the contrary, those that indicate  perspective and describe or, even, hint at possible solutions, prepare us for what is to come.

To understand the climate crisis and its urgency, we need good stories. Not fake ones, not happy ones, but stories that will help a general audience to understand and act, while encouraging those already aware of the problem to take action. We need stories that focus on positive solutions and suggestions, rather than exhausting themselves in gloom. Stories with heroes and heroines that take the environmental challenges personally and do something about them, such as young people protesting against the environmental degradation, local communities struggling to stop the further exploitation of their land, scientists outraged by the results of their research or firefighters despairing at the speed of forest destruction.

The transition to sustainability requires profound changes. The link between knowledge and action is not linear. It passes through emotion. In order to live in the world we wish, we must first imagine it. We also have to imagine the heroes and heroines who will accompany us, pointing out at solutions. By identifying useful stories, we can shape the environmental agenda, rather than leave it in the hands of politicians who hide behind impersonal data and statistics, as if such problems happened to someone else. We can save what can still be saved by getting more people interested and involved, leaving our fear behind.

March 8, 2023

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