Climate change, communities, and storytelling

How to tackle climate change remains a puzzle. While an overwhelming majority of scientists agree on the role humans play, and solutions for dramatically reducing carbon emissions are available, Americans remain divided over the urgency of acting — and some don’t believe we should act at all. We face a gap between actions necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change and the current, limited worldwide efforts. We also know that carbon-fueled economic expansion cannot continue indefinitely, and that addressing climate change offers enormous opportunities, like cooperation around a common goal, job creation in clean industries, and health benefits. Many of the clients I work with want to make the most of these opportunities. So how can they communicate with their communities to inspire action?

Earlier this year I attended a multidisciplinary seminar on engaging communities about climate change and the environment — a key concern for me as an urban designer. At the seminar, an amazing group of attendees and speakers shared insights, including the assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, social media experts, journalists, and academics. Here are my top takeaways from the experience.

Uncover deeply held values

Without community support, actions to address climate change threats cannot be effective. However, opinions about what should be done aren’t based on objective risk assessments. When people oppose acting to address climate change, they’re expressing deeply held cultural values. People will only turn their attention to climate change when the need for action resonates with their deeply held values. Clearly, a change in attitudes toward climate change is better delivered by effective communication about hazards and opportunities than as a result of a natural disaster.

Lead with a story

At the seminar, we discussed what types of communication work to engage people, and what types don’t. Advocates can put people off by over-employing alarmist language. They often rely on technical and abstract language — parts per million or a 2°C increase in temperature — that’s hard for non-specialists to relate to. What people can relate to is memorable storytelling that motivates action by appealing to their values.

An effective story can inspire, empower, enable, and coordinate a community toward a result. We live surrounded by stories, see everything that happens to us through them, and even maintain our individual identities as narratives. Stories and the values they contain are mental shortcuts we use to understand our complex world. In communicating about climate change, raw facts should take a back seat to stories and value-driven narratives. After all, Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, not a five-point plan. Compelling and memorable stories lead with values and build credibility with facts.

An effective tool to address complex issues

Values-based storytelling has proved an effective way to address environmental issues. In Montana, where community members may interpret requests to change their behavior as an affront to personal liberty, advocates framed clean energy as “energy freedom.” In urban design, we’ve found that discussing healthy cities can be more effective than a low-carbon cities narrative. The Moms for Clean Air movement frames climate change in terms of its impacts on children and their health. During World War II, the Victory Gardens movement provided a tangible way for Americans to support the war effort — persuading citizens to make small changes for the common good as a part of daily life on the home front.

Climate change is a problem unlike any we’ve ever faced, and storytelling is an important tool for engaging audiences and motivating action to realize the benefits of mitigation and adaptation. If you’re feeling “stuck” in communicating the urgency of addressing climate change threats, consider creating a narrative that speaks to your listeners’ values. I’m looking forward to applying these lessons to my work in urban planning and investigating the evolution of storytelling in the digital age.

Do you have an example of how effective storytelling helped to inform a community, large or small, about the importance of climate change? I’d love to hear it.

First published 2020-04-16, added here 2023-06-15