The philosopher Stephen Gardiner has called climate change a “perfect moral storm.” Its effects are worldwide and intergenerational, while its causes are highly technical, making it all but impossible to galvanise people to action. Even explaining it is hard. The global climate is extremely complex. International agreements are highly convoluted. The vested interests are like root systems. So our paralysis on climate change is understandable.
I used to think along these lines, and I grappled with how best to frame the problem in order to engage more people. As a science communicator, I admit that my profession has failed to do that. So have climate scientists and, to a large extent, climate change campaigners. But there is one shining success among all the efforts at climate change communication, one messaging strategy that is a model of powerful storytelling and effective persuasion.
Beginning in the 1980s, ExxonMobil crafted a brilliant narrative about the uncertainty of climate science and the motives of environmentalists, which resonated with journalists and politicians. Their narrative was simple, appealed to people’s intuitions and cast clear heroes and villains. And although it was fairly obviously a tissue of lies, concocted by the same professionals who did the propaganda job for the tobacco industry, a lot of influential people swallowed it whole.
We can learn from this in two ways. First, we need a digestible, overarching narrative to unite disparate groups in the struggle to mitigate global warming. Second, the best candidate, I think, actually incorporates the ExxonMobil narrative and its dastardliness.
I study narrative from both a literary and a climate change communication perspective. The two domains aren’t that different. Fictional stories and PR spin—as well as personal narratives and cultural myths—all share common features that propel their success.
It’s about time the goodies in the climate change struggle adopted a narrative that harnesses these features, just like the deliberate campaign of disinformation used by the baddies. And it starts with being as black and white as the previous sentence.
What Are Narratives?
Narrative is a slippery term. It’s not simply a synonym for story, nor is it just anything with a beginning, a middle and an end. That would include me retelling a dream I had, a bare chronology of events from history, even a recipe. Maybe those are narratives if you squint just right. But a definition broad enough to include them isn’t very useful. Boiling down dozens of suggested criteria from narratology (the literary study of narratives), cognitive science, mythology, history and communication studies, we could say this: a representation of a sequence of events is more narrative-like if the early events are framed as causing the later events, thanks to the actions of agents.
This is a somewhat mechanical definition. In recent usage, the word narrative has subtler connotations not captured here. When we talk about changing the narrative around climate change, for instance, we mean something more than merely the representation of events involved in weather and climate, or the media and political discourse that relate to it. We accept that different narratives can frame the same events in different ways, loading them with emotional and ideological associations. In fact, it’s impossible to frame events in a completely neutral way, partly because we cannot control how people receive a given narrative.
That’s all still a bit abstract and academic. The vital question is really: what makes for an effective narrative?
Narratives engage their audiences when the drama is caused by people, rather than unseen or impersonal forces. Aristotle’s advice to playwrights in 330 BCE was to avoid the lazy use of a deus ex machina in favour of action driven by characters’ decisions. That advice still holds up for screenwriters and novelists today. It also holds for the more nebulous narratives involved in politics and PR.
Climate change campaigners should take note: the narrative needs willful characters. And we don’t need to invent them. It’s true that climate events occur in the form of natural disasters—a kind of deus ex machina. But there are actual humans who not only oversee the emission of greenhouse gasses, but who are also stymieing our efforts at mitigation and thereby exacerbating the nonhuman effects of global warming. In other words, the events that make up the climate crisis really are caused by earlier events in the form of actions taken by people. These are the ingredients of a satisfying narrative.
What’s more, the people in question are villains straight out of central casting: the greedy CEOs and board members of fossil fuel companies, their sly lobbyists and the politicians who are either corrupt or clueless enough to be swayed by them (the baddies in our narrative are the purveyors of the ExxonMobil narrative). The goodies, meanwhile, are the hapless climate scientists—thrown into the role of Cassandra—and ordinary people around the world, citizens like you and me, who stand to be cheated out of our futures unless we can unite to save the world.
This sounds reductive, Manichaean and grandiose. Good. Those kinds of narratives sell. And this narrative is not only effective, but—sadly—true. Climate change doesn’t need to be sensationalised: it’s too real and too grave. The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge notes that the more pessimistic forecasts and the possibility of unforeseen knock-on effects make global warming a threat not only to standards of living but to giant swaths of humanity and to the integrity of economic systems.
I’m not even a climate change freak. There are bigger problems. Nuclear war is still my nominee for most urgent global problem. But to mitigate climate change, there are obvious actions that we can take right now, if people are motivated. Unlike the roadmap to nuclear disarmament, which is inscrutable, the way to avoiding climate catastrophe is, though steep, surprisingly well lit: abandon fossil fuels, especially for generating energy; invest in carbon sequestration (reforestation and new technologies); and vote out politicians who oppose this agenda.
Combining the goodies, the baddies and the clear call to action described above, we could call this the resistance narrative.
This narrative emphasises actions that pretty much everyone interested in climate change, regardless of ideology, can get behind. There are other mitigation strategies worth pursuing. They include eating less meat, geoengineering, the use of nuclear power, reducing household consumption and genetically engineering microbes that feed on carbon—but these don’t even need to feature in the main narrative, partly because they’re less proven, but mainly because they’re divisive even among those who agree that global warming is an emergency.
The primary narrative—the basic way to frame climate change to motivate action—should have as wide an appeal as possible. In theory, the resistance narrative should appeal to literally everyone except fossil fuel companies and their shareholders. Climate change is that rare thing: a bipartisan issue. (Although denial is correlated with political conservatism, that may be an effect of framing rather than of the underlying issue.)
The Science Is Uncertain; the Narrative Isn’t
Far from being a perfect moral storm, climate change is the obviously worthy cause we dream of joining. Most hot button issues either revolve around murky moral dilemmas or have reasonable policy arguments on both sides. Raising the minimum wage, for example, has plausible economic arguments for and against it. What should be done? Beats me. Disinterested experts on both sides seem to have good ideas.
Climate change isn’t like that. There’s unanimity of opinion among experts who aren’t funded by fossil fuel companies, an unprecedented amount of evidence from dozens of scientific disciplines and thousands of studies that corroborate the central thesis.
The science of forecasting the precise effects of global warming is admittedly less solid than the fact that it’s happening. But that uncertainty makes the issue more politically straightforward, not less. The planetary systems affected by global warming are so complex that there may well be catastrophic effects we don’t even know about. Hence our vigilance should only increase in light of this uncertainty, rather than decrease, as the PR campaign from ExxonMobil would suggest.
The overall problem of climate change is conducive to a simple narrative that anyone can understand.
Why Narratives Are Good
Belatedly, science communicators have come around to the idea that people aren’t robots who dispassionately weigh climatological datasets. Rather, they respond to narratives that appeal to emotions and to cultural identity.
Even so, there’s disagreement over which types of narrative should be emphasised. Some feel that doom and gloom narratives are too depressing and lead to demoralisation rather than action. Others argue that techno-utopian narratives, in which science or market mechanisms bail us out, are too optimistic and encourage complacency. Still others think capitalism and avarice are to blame, so the narrative worth emphasising is one of comeuppance for the greedy. Mary Annaïse Heglar, a campaigner unusually attuned to the appeal of narrative, argues that narratives emphasising consumer choice let corporations off the hook.
I’m personally agnostic towards all these considerations. I have an opinion as to what should be the main narrative—I’m putting it forward in this article—but the jury is still out on which of these framings is the most effective.
Take the doom and gloom narrative. I can see why we might assume that it leads to disaffection. But does it? The proud history of doomsday cults, religious apocalypticism and whack job dictators talking about the coming millennium show that you can inspire people quite effectively using an Armageddon narrative. But what do I know? I’m an expert on this very topic, and even I concede there’s insufficient evidence.
In the meantime, I’m advocating the story about being hoodwinked by fossil fuel companies and pulling together to defeat them—the resistance narrative—chiefly because of its resemblance to the most popular narratives there are, namely religious myths, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Marvel movies and other incarnations of the hero’s journey. I don’t think it’s an artful narrative. It doesn’t even mesh with my worldview. But people positively lust for a formulaic story about the good guys triumphing against the odds.
The only tweak that makes the resistance narrative different from the most hackneyed hero’s journey is that collective action is needed. The hero in combating global warming has to be not a single dude, but an entire community. The game designer Jeff Gomez offers the idea of the collective journey as an update on the hero’s journey. Gomez claims that the highly distributed nature of global problems, including climate change, necessitates a new form of collective story to match. I strongly endorse the idea. But it also underscores the fact that we’re working in a space with not much empirical evidence as yet.
Reagan in the Sheets, 3.5% on the Streets
The resistance narrative can also be embedded in entertainment. Again, the evidence that this will work is suggestive rather than conclusive, but narratives made for entertainment—fictional or nonfictional—may actually have a larger impact on politics even than what we call narratives in the PR/news cycle—although the magnitude of the impact is hard to measure. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, apparently shifted public opinion on slavery. The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s exposé of Soviet prison camps, seemed to weaken the regime’s prestige in the USSR and abroad.
The most tantalising example, I think, is the 1983 film The Day After, which gives a realistic portrayal of the effects of nuclear war in small town America. It had a special screening in the White House, and Ronald Reagan was reportedly deeply depressed afterwards. Biographers argue (as does Reagan himself in his diary) that this made-for-TV film—more than any security briefings or warnings from experts—contributed to his desire to reduce nuclear arms in his second term.
Maddeningly, the impact of these kinds of narratives has barely been studied.
The novelist Amitav Ghosh has noted that, so far, climate change has been dramatised mainly in the form of cli-fi films like The Day After Tomorrow and Geostorm. But rather than a stirring call to action, cli-fi has been politically toothless and has adopted the tropes of the disaster movie genre, in which the baddie is simply the blameless and impersonal forces of nature: a deus ex machina. A cli-fi film in which a denialist politician is played by Ralph Fiennes—or someone else who can play a recognisably evil character—would be an improvement. Better yet, something like what The Big Short did for the global financial crisis, but about fossil fuel companies, would be welcome. Promisingly, director Adam McKay intends to turn David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth into a Succession-style drama for HBO.
Using entertainment to spark action on climate change might seem like a longshot approach. But, despite the absence of solid evidence on how large numbers of people change their minds, there are tantalising hints to suggest that the impact of entertainment has been massive (compare, for example, the way attitudes towards autism changed after the film Rain Man). I think it’s worth a try, alongside more general messaging in news and social media.
The lack of knowledge as to how to change people’s attitudes and behaviour, is part of a much larger lack in the social sciences. It’s only in the past ten years that anyone has systematically studied a question as basic as what kinds of protests are more effective. Political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Orion A. Lewis looked into the rates of success of different kinds of movements, including violent versus nonviolent protests (nonviolent protests are more effective). They found that any movement which managed to get 3.5% of the population onto the streets, succeeded in its aims. Hence, Extinction Rebellion aimed to engage 3.5% of the population of any given country to achieve serious action on climate change. Alas, subsequent research suggests that the effectiveness of protests—nonviolent or otherwise—is wearing off. And the magic number of 3.5% is simply a historical lower bound for success; it tells us nothing about what caused that success, nor can it predict whether the future will be like the past. Still, this research signals a growing awareness of the importance of learning how change happens.
We live amidst narratives, not scientific facts; global warming needs to be communicated via story, not data. The politics of climate change, unlike technical disputes within climatology, will be played out entirely in the imprecise but crucial realm of narratives about what has happened and what we need to do to face the impending climate disasters.
None of this has to be spun, twisted or fabricated. Global warming is real. The campaign to discredit it is real. The outsize influence of a few denialist politicians is real. The solutions are real. And yet, armed with the facts and the moral high ground, climate scientists and communicators like me have thus far failed. Basically, we’ve been beaten by a bunch of Slytherins. Along with technical and economic solutions, we need a unifying narrative, a story to help transform the status quo from apathy to action. It starts by greatly simplifying it. Global warming is happening; some people are much more to blame than others; let’s nonviolently defeat those people and save what we cherish.
Appendix: A Resistance Narrative In Fewer Than 100 Words
This condensed narrative includes a problem, a motivation, goodies and baddies and a call to action in 100 words. It uses emotive language but is entirely based on facts that are common knowledge.
Burning fossil fuels increases the greenhouse effect, which is already causing extreme weather and a sixth extinction. It will get worse. Most of us understand this, but some powerful leaders deny the danger. Instead of listening to the experts, those leaders have been conned into believing the lies of fossil fuel companies and their lobbyists. We, the people, care about our survival, so we must unite to defeat the fossil fuel companies, who are driven by greed. Vote out biddable politicians, boycott the corporations that are spoiling the world, fund research into carbon sequestration, and switch to renewable energy now.