To make climate change real, we need better stories

Carolyn McMaster | April 21, 2015

“So let’s be better storytellers.”

This was the closing sentence of a recent piece by David Roberts, former writer for Grist, now at Vox. He analyzed Jonathan Franzen’s controversial essay in The New Yorker, which takes the somewhat confused view that climate change has co-opted environmentalism as a movement.

Reading Franzen’s piece, along with some of the subsequent criticism, got me thinking about how we can talk about climate change (and sustainability) differently—so that it matters, so that people who don’t think about it will. Facts alone won’t do it. And the nation is conflicted about the facts, as these maps from the Yale Center on Climate Communication show.

Some have advocated using different words, such as “climate disruption.” I agree that’s more accurate, and that climate change and global warming are rather baggy concepts. But changing terms isn’t the answer—it will only create more confusion.

Roberts gets it right in saying that climate change is “too big to grasp all at once.” It’s far away, and it’s hard for individuals to see how they can make a difference. Franzen wrote about his enviro-guilt, which he noted didn’t necessarily make him change his behavior, because his impact on the problem is relatively infinitesimal. Most people I know feel this way, whether they hang-dry their laundry or not.

People need something smaller and more relevant to grab onto that will give climate change “some linkage, some anchor, in our lived experience and values,” Roberts writes. “People … need a story to tell themselves, a way of fitting climate change into their world. Knocking down bad stories will be ineffective unless there are more, better stories available.”

Bad stories keep the issue at arm’s length and distort facts; they fail to humanize the problem or present a viable vision or solution.

Better stories inspire, show the difference individuals and groups are making in the world, and break the issue into digestible, human-size chapters that people can relate to. Telling these stories is an imperative for all organizations—businesses, NGOs and government agencies—that want to drive real progress on any sustainability issue. They can show people that collective actions matter.

As Hunter Lovins says, “This isn’t just about polar bears and disappearing islands. It’s about humanity.”


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