Art and climate change

Opinion: Can storytelling help us change how we feel about climate change?


Photo credit: stockpic pixabay CCo Public Domain

By Chiara Muzzi

Communicating climate change in a way that sees each individual becoming conscious of what it is and what it means for them, is no easy challenge. Even harder is promoting a shift from awareness to change – change of behaviour, change in voting habits, change as consumers – in a way that would provoke a bottom-up revision of strategies in the business world, among policy makers, and through global agreements. Vice versa, finding a way of promoting more global initiatives such as the Paris Agreement on climate change of 2015 that lead to regulatory and voluntary adaptations in business strategies, regional, national and local policies, and back to individual change.

How can we best communicate climate change in a way that reaches beyond its politicisation and bearing in mind the emotional complexities that surround its understanding.

As Dr Paul Hanle, President and CEO of Climate Central, states in the Scientific American, we have reached a juncture in which facts and clarity in scientific explanations are no longer key, they do not seem to lead to a better understanding of a phenomena such as climate change. People, he affirms, ‘rely on their own values and beliefs, knowledge and skills, goals and needs—and on those in their communities and peer groups–more than on expert opinion.’  This has been clear during the Brexit campaign, it was confirmed with the US Presidential elections, and reiterated in the Italian referendum. We can expect that trend to continue.

I would also argue that climate change is not the only environmental issue that suffers from being charged with meanings that do not belong to that of scientific truths but find explanation in Hanle’s observations. Consider for a moment challenges such as fish stocks depletion and deforestation; people may be aware of them being real, yet there is a certain inability or unwillingness to link the dots between effects, causes and solutions. There appears to be a gap of denial between the rational recognition of an issue, and the emotional consciousness of responsibility of being a cause, but also a part in the solution.

If on the one hand the scientific community needs to keep close to its norms and standards while furthering practical research to find ways of facing the current popular disdain with facts, on the other we need to explore other ways of communicating to the public so that their values and beliefs, as well as their  knowledge, needs and goals, are tackled.

One way that some proponents suggest this can be achieved, is through the art of storytelling, be it fiction or nonfiction. Dan Bloom, a journalist and newspaper editor who coined the phrase climate fiction – or ‘cli-fi’ – strongly believes that ‘well-told stories are and will be critical to raise awareness about the implications of climate change’. Fictional characters and the hypothetical context in which they move, can serve to take us on an emotional journey, and through this, to raise viewer’s  awareness and click on all the right emotional buttons.

Similar to this view is that of actor, filmmaker and activist Robert Redford who writes in an article that ‘The art of storytelling is at our core. It’s the lifeblood of how we communicate and how we decide what deserves our attention and what we are content to ignore as a passing fad’. Storytelling, the way Redford sees it, follows the life of real people who achieve change with perseverance through struggles. This is a bottom up approach to change, citizens taking stock of issues and moving to push for actions to resolve them.  

A similar approach to storytelling is advocated by Joel Bach and David Gelber, producers of the Emmy Awards-winning TV show ‘Years of Living Dangerously’. Their show brings together a variety of people – politicians, celebrities, business leaders, individuals – and asks them to dig deeper into a specific topics related to climate change. Episode one of the second series, for instance, considers renewable energy, the lobby power of utility companies that wins the battle against solar panels in the sunshine state of Florida, while US investors pay for solar in India. As spectators we follow the journey of discovery, we learn, we are moved emotionally, we start questioning why things are the way they are where we live when other and better options are available.

The emphasis of storytelling for change falls on the characters of the story. Be it fiction or real people, characters need to grab the audience and hold on to it for the entirety of the journey. The learning process is shared, the emotions are shared. It is important not to shy away from difficult topics and to ensure that local initiatives are highlighted for their successes as well as setbacks and efforts.

The use of storytelling techniques may be a viable alternative to communicating social and environmental challenges and even in explaining science in a way that is more approachable. The emotional engagement is intrinsic within storytelling and its validity as a tool of explanation may prove to be key.  Storytelling for good, storytelling for change. We can but try.  



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