What We Talk About When We Talk About Climate—and Why It Needs Some Oomph

The stories that really reach people are the ones with stirring scenes, suspense, and relatable characters.

September 27, 2019
A man wades through floodwaters caused by Tropical Depression Imelda in Patton Village, Texas.

Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via Associated Press

Once upon a time, children were 71 percent more likely to make unescorted trips through temperate forest ecosystems to visit their aging, homebound relatives than they are today. Nearly two-thirds of these deciduous landscapes were home to populations of anthropomorphized wolves whose interfaces with humans resulted in injury and/or death at rates 50 times the national average. This rate shot up fourfold if the juveniles happened to be wearing bright red hoods, which scientists of the era identified as a powerful attractant for Canis lupus. In one published report, researchers at the University of East Gothenburg’s Center for Lupine Studies found that wolves were more than three times as likely to confront a red-hooded child as a child wearing a hood of a different color, or no hood at all.

Feeling drowsy yet?

I hope we can all agree that this is no way to tell a story. Nevertheless, this is the way far too many scientists, advocates, and journalists have tended to relay the tale of the climate crisis. To capture someone’s attention, it’s said that details are everything—and the biggest and most compelling saga of our time certainly has no shortage of them: differences in average global temperature, increases in atmospheric CO2, inches of sea-level rise, acres affected, wildlife jeopardized, dollars spent. You couldn’t ask for a more detail-rich story, in fact.

But what if we’ve been using the wrong kind of details for holding people’s attention? What if we’ve been telling ourselves a soporific bedtime story when what we really need to hear is something that will wake us up, stir our blood, and get us moving?

This question was at the core of a panel discussion I recently attended featuring writers and artists dedicated to communicating the urgency of the climate crisis in a way that will stick with audiences—by getting them to feel as well as think. Cosponsored by onEarth’s publisher, NRDC, and the literary journal Guernica, “Now or Never: Storytellers Tackling Climate Change” took place at the Brooklyn Book Festival last Thursday. Just one day later, millions of young climate activists would take to the streets of New York and other cities around the globe, demanding the attention of world leaders with signs, strikes, and stories of their own.

On this evening, flooding and sea level rise were very much on people’s minds. As the panelists and audience members drifted in and took their seats, several of them were checking their phones for the latest updates from southeastern Texas, which had just been struck by historic flooding that would ultimately dump more than 40 inches of rain on the Houston area over the course of 72 hours.

The Brooklyn Book Festival's panel discussion titled “Now or Never: Storytellers Tackling Climate Change,” featured speakers (left to right) Amy Brady, Carolyn Kormann, Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Rob Moore, and Eve Mosher.

Mary Wang

One panelist, the visual artist and climate activist Eve Mosher, anxiously revealed to the audience that before taking the stage she had been unable to reach her mother in Houston. This drove home the discussion’s main theme: that climate change must now be treated not as something that will happen, but rather as something that is happening—and that the language we use to describe its impacts must move accordingly from a future tense based on predictions to a present tense focused on real human struggles.

Mosher first gained attention in 2007 for her large-scale art project HighWaterLine, in which she chalk-marked 70 miles of waterfront property in Brooklyn and Manhattan that scientists believed would be most severely impacted in the event of a major flood. Five years later, Superstorm Sandy inundated those same neighborhoods—and suddenly Mosher’s artwork seemed like an act of dark prophesy. At the time of the project’s inception, Mosher said, “I wanted to use my creativity to help people understand what the future could hold. It was rooted in potential scenarios. That was 12 years ago. Now we’re in a moment where much of the science I was basing the project on is, in fact, locked in.”

Panelist Carolyn Kormann, who writes about energy and the environment for The New Yorker, noted that the mission of environmental journalists has fundamentally changed from sharing scientific projections to “covering the impacts as they unfold.” She made the case for using deliberately jarring images as powerful symbols of just how much we’ve altered—and continue to alter—the planet’s natural systems. One of her recent articles, about the agriculture-driven deforestation at the heart of the Amazon’s destruction, opened with the image of a lone “abattoir-bound cow [with] nearly three acres to himself. Nice for the cow, perhaps, but senseless and dangerous in every other way.” Kormann also extolled the virtues of irony in crafting stories that resonate. One of the evening’s few light moments came when she shared that the owners of a Kentucky theme park centered on a replica of Noah’s Ark were recently compelled to sue their insurance carrier over unpaid claims regarding heavy rains that damaged their park’s raison d’être.

I don’t know whether the owners of the Ark park—a popular attraction for creationists, who subscribe to a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis—share the climate skepticism that runs rampant in the creationist cohort. But as NRDC’s Rob Moore put it during the evening’s discussion, extreme weather events are making it harder and harder to ignore what’s happening all around us. “It’s easier to deny climate change than it is to deny that a flood just happened,” he said. “You can’t stand in water up to your knees and say: ‘This flood is not happening; I don’t believe in this flood.’ Because that won’t go over very well.”

Moore, a senior policy analyst for NRDC and an expert on flooding and sea-level rise, lives in a world of data. But as he told the audience, he recognizes the limitations of data when it comes to influencing the opinions of most people—and Moore has discovered a far better way to convey his messages:

I can show up to a congressional office or a mayoral office with all kinds of fancy charts and graphs that show all kinds of scary stuff. And they’re going to be, like, “That’s an interesting graph you’ve got there. You’ve got some good colors going on, some interesting mathematical relationships. I’m gonna have to think about that for a little bit.” But if you show up and say, “Here’s a story about somebody who lives here, who’s actually lived through this; here’s what climate change is doing to them,” they can relate to that. They know that person. Even if the person you’re describing isn’t in their district, they know someone just like that person.

While the science behind climate change is rooted in facts, the genre of climate fiction, or cli-fi, has some more storytelling leeway. Author Pitchaya Sudbanthad, whose debut novel, Bangkok Wakes to Rain, depicts a near future in which Thailand’s capital is semi-submerged, distilled many of the discussion’s themes in his eloquent defense of the counterfactual as an epistemological tool. “Sometimes things that are made up can help make people feel like something is more real,” he told the audience. The best fiction, he said, “is honest. If something is made up but it’s honest, it has conceptual strength—and, in a way, empirical strength.”

All of the panelists agreed on one thing: The only way we’ll ever effectively address climate change is by addressing it together, and the only way we’ll ever come together is by telling our stories. Stories are meant to be shared, and re-shared. Told well, they can be understood by anyone from climatologists to kindergartners. As Moore put it: “At the end of the day, people care about people. If you can personify an issue, you’re that much closer to having a connection, so that you can talk about what the solutions are.” And then, just maybe, we can finally get that age-old happy ending that we all want to hear.

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onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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