We need to hear stories that inspire us to take action
Recent climate news has been overwhelmingly pessimistic. Climate scientists and policy experts declared recently that we only have three more years before we need to drastically reduce carbon emissions. A widely-circulated article in New York Magazine detailed the most catastrophic consequences of climate change for this century if business continues as usual.
The article was attacked by critics who claimed that messages of doom and gloom are counterproductive and disempowering.
Are they? Is there a more effective way to inform people of the urgency to act on climate change? My colleagues and I have gained some insights into these questions by creating a mini-series of videos about climate change.
Communication: Art and science
Negative messaging has a purpose. It forces us to think of ourselves as those who have allowed for a future that we do not want. Jerry Brown, the Governor of California, has done a great job of highlighting climate change as a threat to our existence. His real genius was in linking his dystopian vision with what needed to be done to stop it from becoming a reality. This is what I call “the California Way: sunny, with a possibility of apocalypse.”
Cover art for a widely circulated article focusing on the worst effects of climate change. New York Magazine
Today, dystopian visions come with scientific probabilities. It is difficult to make a convincing connection between how we can all act individually and collectively to prevent the worst effects of climate change when our lives are so dependent on fossil fuels.
We recently experimented to learn more about the challenge of climate communication. “Climate Lab” is a series of popular, short videos produced by the University of California in collaboration with Vox.
News that can be used: A story about how to reduce food waste can inspire people to act on climate change.
The series has been viewed more than 5 million times and created a lively online discussion. It was based on a peer-reviewed report by 50 UC scientists entitled “Bending the Curve: 10 Scalable Solutions for Climate Stability and Carbon Neutrality. I was the lead editor, and we worked to make the executive summaries a tool to communicate what needed to be done in order to reach carbon neutrality by the mid-century. We wanted the executive summary to be used at the Paris Climate Summit by UC President Janet Napolitano, who has committed that the UC System will be carbon-neutral by 2025. Governor Brown, The Vatican, and other key players were also invited. It was.
We knew that we needed to try something new to reach a larger audience. In one chapter of our report, we reviewed the research that has been done on climate communication. Over the last two decades, this research has shown us what does not work. While we don’t have as much information about what works, we are beginning to draw some guidelines from the research. We created a series based on what we already know to see what else we can learn.
What can we learn from literature?
The facts are not sufficient. It does not mean that facts do not matter. It’s true. You can pump as many points into the minds of people as you like, but it won’t change their opinion or motivate them to take action.
It is important to consider frames, narratives, and values. Frames, descriptions, and values are all important. People can easily integrate new facts into their existing structures and reports. Or, they can ignore the facts that don’t fit.