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Climate Communication: Better Stories Needed!

How do you market a problem like the Climate?

I spoke with a marketing expert yesterday. Lesley Beatty, a volunteer at Citizens’ Climate Lobby, is concerned about climate change and its affects on her children. Part of our conversation centered on marketing climate change–getting people to understand and care about it. She says climate global warming may be the greatest marketing challenge of all. As a storyteller, I agree.

Stories matter. They help shape how we perceive the world and our roles in it. In considering our climate change narratives, Michael Segal explains,

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.

Breaking out of the narrative binary

Segal says that with an absence of helpful stories about climate change, the vacuum has gotten filled with a glut of unhelpful ones.

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.

As a performer and climate communicator, I stay away from both utopian and dystopian visions of the future. They do not require that much imagination. It is more challenging is to imagine success and a practical, stable future that still has flawed humans in it with the on-going social issues we face that we carry with us into the future. It is an imperfect world, but a workable one. In part, that is why I created the series of monologues, That Day in Climate History.

Who is telling good climate stories?

One of the challenges that interferes with good climate storytelling is the vast scope of the problem. It is global and takes place over hundreds of years. Aaron Their, in his novel Mr. Eternity, has embraced the immenseness of the issue by setting his story over 1,000 years with five narrators and some characters who never die. They live as witnesses. I interviewed Aaron on my Citizens’ Climate Radio show where he also reads excerpts from his book.

In his article about climate narratives, Michael Segal raises lots of questions. He expertly points out how we are getting it wrong in the media and in the scientific community. He makes some suggestions but ultimately ends with more questions that need to be considered.

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.

Read To Fix Climate, Tell Better Stories: The Missing Climate Change Narrative by Michael Segal writing for Nautilus.

(Art by Ernesto Neto : Cuddle on the Tightrope installation at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, NYC)

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Peterson Toscano

Author: Peterson Toscano

Peterson Toscano is a quirky queer Quaker concerned about Climate Change. His website is www.petersontoscano.com

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