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To Fix the Climate, Tell Better Stories

The missing climate change narrative.

Here are two sets of statements from far-distant opposites in the climate change debate. The first is from Naomi Klein, who in her…By Michael Segal

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).

hollywood does dystopia: Of the ready-made narratives we have available to understand the climate, utopia and dystopia are two of the strongest.Disney / Pixar

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.

There’s no doubt that climate change presents a real and severe danger.

That separation has contributed to a narrative vacuum—and, like nature itself, people abhor a vacuum. We fill it with the narratives we have at hand, even if they are powerfully at odds with each other. This goes some way to understanding the vitriol of the climate debate. “The ideological freightage we load onto interpretations of climate and our interactions with it,” writes Hulme, “are an essential part of making sense of what is happening around us today in our climate change discourses.” Stories about the virtues and evils of capitalism, the role of divine control, nationalist values, and so on, are not so much maliciously inserted into what could be a sober conversation but are an inevitable response to a story that is incomplete without them.

Faced with an absence, we revert to old narratives, and there are few older than utopia and dystopia. The skeptic storyline of the rise of a dictatorial world government usurping American values must be considered not as a unique reply to climate change but as the latest instance of a well-established dystopic trope, stoked by the climate narrative vacuum. Something similar can be said for attacks on the capitalist enterprise from the left. The public, for its part, is served visions of an apocalyptic future, whether it’s from politicians or from Hollywood—and, simultaneously, the utopianism of far-distant science fiction, which as a category is consumed in greater quantity than science journalism and which reflects and encourages what sociologists call “optimism bias” or “technosalvation.” These utopian instincts are strengthened by a historical data point obvious to all: Our species has survived every obstacle we’ve encountered, and we are still here.

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Utopia and dystopia can reach even the highest levels. From the White House are echoes of dystopian claims that climate change is a hoax orchestrated by foreign powers. And Mattias Hjerpe and Björn-Ola Linnér, from the Centre for Climate Science and the Department of Water and Environmental Studies at Linköping University, in Sweden, point out that utopian elements can regularly be found in planning documents of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations body. The IPCC’s special reports on emissions scenarios, for example, “all envision a radical narrowing of global income gaps between rich and poor countries. This vision is outright utopian thought.”2 Not only has the per capita income gap between rich and poor countries grown over most of the past three decades, but the economic development required for a significant narrowing of the gap seems at odds with the IPCC’s own sustainability goals. That, say Hjerpe and Linnér, “is utopian in the sense that it is not a projection based on current trends, but rather an extrapolation of current policy goals.”

Both dystopian and utopian narratives have their own rationales and evidentiary support, and there’s no doubt that climate change presents a real and severe danger. But in the public realm, these types of narratives also have a tendency to be useless. They leave the public spectating a stalled debate between extremes and generate ample motivation to check out.


This is not to say that the climate conversation is irreparably broken. It’s true we can’t take away those unhelpful narratives that have already been attached to it. But we can add new ones, and some narratives are more powerful than others. Scientific narratives, if they’re done right, are some of the most powerful of all. They teach us more than facts, mechanisms, and procedures. They convey a worldview of skeptical empiricism and indefinite revision, show us how to negotiate the boundary between our rational and emotional selves, teach us to suspend judgment and consider all the possibilities, and remind us that a belief in objective truth is a deep kind of optimism with massive dividends. Perhaps most important of all, they situate us in the world.

The successful assimilation of broad narratives from astronomy and genetics reminds us how powerful science narrative can be. We think of ourselves today as genetic machines, carrying around an adaptive program, which we inherit and pass on, doing so on this one habitable planet among countless others in a universe with a finite age. These facts have become intuitions and a part of our identity. The goal of climate change coverage should be a similar creation of intuition from fact. Intuition that our planet is a dynamic thing, that its environment is highly interconnected, that it has been remade many times by things living and dead.

Are we getting that done? The media has communicated the basic facts behind climate change well enough: the famous line graph of rising carbon dioxide levels, the 300 parts per million line in the sand, the northward migration of adapting species, and the endangerment of those left behind. But the narrative around these facts is more obscure. In the words of social scientists Susanne Moser and Lisa Dilling, science communicators “often assume that a lack of information and understanding explains the lack of public concern and engagement, and that therefore more information and explanation is needed to move people to action.”3 Many of these facts are, by now, either uncontested or unsurprising. It is the narratives around them that are missing.

not so fast: National narratives can obscure climate debate, as when Richard Branson incorrectly suggested that climate change skepticism is less prevalent in the U.K. than in the U.S.Wikimedia Commons

Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, puts it this way: “If you look at how the media treats scientific discoveries, they’ll go to the wonder. ... [They’ll say] ‘here’s this thing that’s been discovered,’ not the process of how we figured it out. And I think that understanding of how we know what we know is so critical ... If you don’t help people understand what those processes are, [if] you just say ‘here’s the answer,’ now they can go onto the web and dial up an alternate answer. I think we’re seeing an erosion of credibility of science to the public because of this huge flood of technology and information.”

This erosion is essential to understanding the modern climate debate. In the words of the philosopher Richard Rorty, “We understand knowledge when we understand the social justification of belief, and thus have no need to view it as accuracy of representation.”4 In the absence of social justification, the public ends up being called on to be the judge of accuracy of representation—in other words, of scientific content. Sure enough, quasi-scientific arguments based on misinterpreted data fragments abound in the skeptic community.5 Why did temperatures stay flat during World War II, despite an emissions increase? Was there an 18-year hiatus in temperature rise? The only reasonable answers to these questions lie with the scientific community, but they will be ignored if that community hasn’t earned an authoritative public voice. That is especially true when the answer is, “We’re not sure yet.”

Faced with an absence, we revert to old narratives, and there are few older than utopia and dystopia.

The question of authority is complicated further by the multidisciplinary nature of climate change. Authority within the sciences revolves tightly around narrow silos of expertise. As the academics Simon Shackley and Brian Wynne put it, “A common response by scientists to challenges to their authority is to demarcate the realm within which their expertise is autonomous.”6 In other words, there is a retreat to the silo. But at the policy level, climate change involves atmospheric chemistry, plant and ocean biology, solar physics, geochemistry, soil science, and glaciology, among other disciplines. Building authority in climate science is therefore not well served by the tendency of the scientist to retreat to home turf. Here, too, narratives can help.

Even scientists need to lure each other with narratives. The philosopher Rom Harré offers up that pillar of modern professional science, the scientific paper, as exhibit A. He argues that the three-part structure of the typical paper (hypothesis, results, and inductive support) is a post facto interpretation: “Anyone who has ever done any actual scientific research knows that this is a tale, a piece of fiction. The real-life unfolding of a piece of scientific research bears little resemblance to this bit of theatre.”7 Speaking as both a former scientist and a former academic editor, I can attest to the truth of this statement. From the lab to the publisher’s desk, narrative is constantly helping to organize, sell, and drive science. As Harré puts it, “Science must present a smiling face both to itself and to the world.” If narrative is necessary for one scientist to convince another of his or her result, it’s certainly necessary to engage and convince the public.

The narrative questions around climate change are broad. What does it mean for there to be a scientific consensus? How is the scientific method properly applied to a system that resists experimentation? What does a complex system look like? What is the nature of risk and probability? Each has a direct bearing on the climate change conversation without necessarily being about climate change. They, and others like them, constitute a suprascientific narrative that is necessary for science to become culture. In a way, every good science story is a story about all of science and helps us understand every other science story.

So let’s tell more of them.


Michael Segal is the editor in chief of Nautilus.

This article is adapted from one originally published in the January 2017 issue of The South Atlantic Quarterly.


References

1. Sir Richard Branson on climate change. www.cnn.com. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2015/12/13/climate-change-branson-harlow-nrcnn-intv.cnn

2. Hjerpe, M. & Linnér, B. Utopian and dystopian thought in climate change science and policy. Futures 41, 234–45 (2009).

3. Moser, S.C. & Dilling, L. Communicating climate change: Closing the science-action gap. In Dryzek, J.S., Norgaard, R.B., & Schlosberg (Eds) The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society Oxford University Press, New York, NY(2011).

4. Rorty, R. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ (1980).

5. Meredith, C. 100 reasons why climate change is natural. www.express.co.uk (2012).

6. Shackley, S. & Wynne, B. Representing uncertainty in global climate change science and policy: Boundary-Ordering devices and authority. Science Technology and Human Values 21, 275-302 (1996).

7. Harré, R. Some narrative conventions of scientific discourse. In Nash, C. (Ed.) Narrative in Culture: The Uses of Storytelling in the Sciences, Philosophy, and Literature New York: Routledge, New York, NY (1990).