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How Storytelling Can Help Turn the Tide on Climate Change

Roxanne Bauer's picture

There is no shortage of discussion on climate change; it seems almost pervasive these days. The media report extreme weather events, animal extinction (think polar bears floating off to sea), health problems, and the political push and pull around the issue.  The problem is also prevalent in popular culture, with magazines running special issues, movies showing the end of our days, and video games that presenting post-apocalyptic scenarios.  Yet, we have very little consensus about how to deal with it.

Robert Redford recently wrote a blog post calling for more storytelling on “complicated, politically charged issues like our environment and the need for swift action to combat climate change.”

Redford is reacting to an April 13, 2014 report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that states global emissions of greenhouse gases accelerated between 2000 and 2010 despite policies to reduce climate change. The report also focuses on the fundamental relationship between the manufacturing sector and climate change.

He relates several stories of successful climate change activism, such as Kimberly Wasserman who went door-to-door to unite local residents of her southwest Chicago neighborhood to shut down a nearby coal plant and save her son from debilitating asthma attacks. Redford believes that telling stories of successful action on climate change will inspire people to act and be a part of the solution.

Why Redford is Right

One reason Redford is right is that stories can convey complex messages through simple narratives.  By combining images, words, and sounds, stories are uniquely able to convey the interconnected causes and problems of an issue without confusing us.

In a recent blog post on Connect4Climate, a communications partnership of the World Bank, the Italian Ministry of the Environment, and the Global Environment Facility, veteran film producer, Donald Ranvaud, wrote that, “cinema plays a fundamental role in raising awareness on social issues and delivering effective calls for action […]I believe that there is a great need to mainstream climate change in the minds of every citizen by widening their perspective and bringing the immediate and long-term harmful impacts of climate change directly to their attention.”   Stories told through film, he believes, can appeal to our emotions and expand our perceptions of climate change.

Rachel Kyte, Vice President for Climate Change at the World Bank agrees. She was quoted in the Guardian’s Sustainable Business blog saying, “The tendency with a lot of social movements is to talk to ourselves, so we develop language that we're comfortable with, that speaks to other environmentalists or other engineers but which means absolutely nothing to the lay public […] There's lots of behavioural psychology that some of these words just land really cold: they don't mean anything and they don't speak to the emotional brain. What does "green" mean? It doesn't evoke very much.”   Stories may be a perfect way to overcome technical language barriers and appeal to the emotional side of the brain.

Why Redford is Only Partially Right

While storytelling may be effective with those who already support action on climate change, it’s not likely to inspire those who do not support action or those who have no opinion.  It is not surprising, considering his political views, that Robert Redford found the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to be straightforward. But would he have reacted the same way if he saw inter­na­tional reg­u­la­tions to be threatening to trade, industry or freedom?

The stories we tell and the way we interpret stories we hear depends largely on the beliefs we have. People who disagree with an opinion are more likely to dig their heels in than to listen to a story that contradicts their core beliefs.  Likewise, new information is not likely to magically generate consensus on an issue so storytelling should not, ironically, attempt to provide more data.

Storytelling on climate change should address the underlying reasons— the political reasons— for which people do not want to take action on the issue.  In the case of climate change, people are afraid of losing jobs, stalling national economies, and sacrificing opportunity.

Selling Sustainability

The reason storytelling works effectively in advertising is because companies sell the benefits of their products. Environmentalists need to do the same. The real key for storytelling on climate change is to amplify those stories where people generated profit in renewable energy, embracing sustainability, or reducing waste.   The benefits of  ‘being green’ need to be sold—industry needs to perceive sustainable products as marketable, politicians need to appreciate environmental protection as a way to support their communities, and the common man needs see income and jobs on the horizon.  This is true in developed and developing countries.  It’s hard to argue with economic growth and new jobs- this is a central reason why fossil fuels continue to be popular and a key area where storytelling on about climate change needs be less academic and get real.

No one sells shoes by saying, “you’ll have dirty feet if you don’t wear them.” Instead, advertisers tell consumers that they will look cool or jump higher if they wear a certain brand.  And they pay Lebron James and Kim Kardashian to say it. 

According to a World Bank working paper documenting the proceedings of the "Be the Movement" workshop held in November 2012 at the University of Warsaw on the sidelines of the UNFCCC COP 19, “Choosing partners (individuals, agencies, politicians, business leaders, community organizers, academics, NGOs, local media) who are influential with the targeted audience can help make the campaign message more trustworthy and effective.”  Partnering with the private sector and politicians may help to overcome some of the ‘biased assimilation’ that occurs when people filter information through their ideological foundations. Hearing from a well-performing, international corporation that climate change will cost business is more likely to be received as true than if the same message is delivered by an NGO dedicated to protecting the environment.

Storytelling, as Redford claims, is the missing ingredient to climate change reform because it can transform facts into relatable stories. He says that alarming statistics and detailed reports on climate change don’t inspire people to act, and he’s right.  We only have 15 years to change our economies and lifestyles before greenhouse gas emissions reach unbearable levels. This means we have less than that to effectively sell the products and choices that will spur a more sustainable future.

Photograph by John Hogg via World Bank Photo Collection, available here

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