(OR, WHY CLIMATE COMMUNICATING FAILS)
I wrote The Stone Gate because I learned something. It’s probably the most important thing I’ve ever learned, because it contains the key to preventing climate change.
OK, so here it is … the climate movement has focused too much on presenting “the facts” and not enough on making people care about those facts.
Of course, the facts are important, but people can’t care about things they can’t actually imagine – and people can’t imagine 450ppm of greenhouse gases or 3C of warming. To me, this explains why, although most people now “accept the science”, we are still not seeing emissions fall or electing governments truly committed to real climate action.
Climate change is too abstract, so people push it to the back of their minds.
We need to make it feel more real.
And the key to doing this is imagination.
Through fiction, The Stone Gate “brings climate change to life” for young readers. Helping them imagine climate change makes them more likely to engage with the issue.
Unlike most dystopian fantasies, The Stone Gate is set in a recognisable, near-future Australia. It presents visions of climate change and sustainable living grounded in real climate science and environmental thought.
The best way to see what I mean is to read the book. You can download the ebook for free.
I’d like to work with a climate organisation/project to bring The Stone Gate to more readers. I can make the book available on a no-profit basis. Please email me to discuss .
Here’s the longer discussion of why the climate movement needs to complement fact-based messaging with story-telling that “brings climate change to life” (and why the same thing applies to sustainable living)…
Something’s been puzzling me about climate change.
It’s this: most people now say they accept “the science” on global warming. Yet this doesn’t translate into action (or votes): we continue to act, for the most part, as if the problem didn’t exist. We continue to buy, fly (Covid apart), drive and so on. Emissions continue to rise. We elect governments that spend $270 billion on missiles and submarines but say we can’t afford to invest in renewables.
Logically, it makes no sense. How can people “know” we face an existential crisis, one that could potentially wipe out humanity, then effectively ignore it?
The key word is “logically”.
Logic persuades intellectually but it can’t make us care.
Caring is what moves us from “knowing” to acting.
We “know” about lots of things that need our attention – disease, homelessness, racism, inequality, pollution, our health, what to wear to work, what to eat for dinner, fixing that broken chair, our love life … what makes us focus on any one thing more than all the others?
Caring. That’s what.
We all know that the rational side of our brains are relatively recent in evolutionary terms, and mainly our behaviour is driven by deeper, older emotional responses: fear, anger, joy, hunger, desire, pride, empathy. These all produce powerful chemical reactions in our brains in a way just “knowing” something does not. Just “knowing” we might be condemning future generations to terrible suffering is not enough. We need to trigger those chemical reactions. We need to feel their pain.
Advertisers (whose job is all about persuasion) understand this. Take a typical car advert: the freedom of the open road, beautiful scenery and cool handsome people, rather than any actual facts about the product. It’s all about making an emotional connection with the “brand”.
But climate science is abstract and impersonal: a story told in statistics, graphs and charts, parts per million and degrees of warming. People know they should care, but they just can’t, because facts and figures simply don’t trigger the necessary emotional responses.
So, we can spend the next 40 years just repeating the facts, and failing, or we can work harder to make people care about those facts.
The secret ingredient
Luckily there’s a “secret ingredient” we can use to make people care. It’s called imagination.
People respond emotionally to things they they can imagine.
Imagination is why we spend more time worrying about shark attacks or serial killers than of electrocuting ourselves at home, although statistically the latter is more likely.
The power of one
Which brings us to another thing all good communicators – advertisers, politicians, journalists, filmakers, novelists – know. People respond to stories about individuals. In a paradoxical way, the more people die, the less we care. That’s because we need to imagine ourselves in the story, and we can only be in one person’s head at a time. Ten thousand dead is a statistic we can ignore; the tiny body of one drowned child, in the arms of a would-be rescuer, moves us to tears. We could be that child’s parent. We could be that rescuer. In a disaster, news reporters look for “the human angle”: someone trapped beneath the rubble, a life cut tragically short. Or consider this: statistics on police killing of black Americans are well known, but it is video of a single incident, most recently the death of George Floyd, that ignites protest.
Martin Luther King understood this; rather than recount statistics on racial inequality and segregation, he gave us a powerful human image, of children of all races playing together. Show, don’t tell.
Emotionally, it’s more important that we can imagine something than whether it is real.
So how do we apply this to climate change? Because – and here’s the problem – climate scientists can’t tell stories. They must stick to the dry, complex facts or lose credibility. Climate activists can feel similarly hamstrung, afraid to make a “wrong” prediction for fear of giving the deniers ammunition.
The result is we are presenting the facts of global warming, but not telling the story.
We can tell stories about climate change. Here are some examples:
- The recent bushfires help people see what global warming will mean – that’s why the Australian government is so keen not to link them to climate change.
- A movie like 2040 tells stories about individuals working on sustainable projects.
- A few years ago Arnold Schwarzenegger produced a series, Years of Living Dangerously, that told the stories of individuals impacted by climate change through floods, bushfires and droughts, people made homeless by tropical storms, a doctor who saw people dying from heat stroke during a heatwave – climate change will see more of both.
- Canadian writer Gwynne Dyer’s book Climate Wars imagined plausible scenarios of climate-induced conflict, such as India and Pakistan coming to nuclear blows over dwindling water supplies as Himalayan glaciers melt.
These all helped present climate change in tangible terms.
This is what we need to be doing more often.
A role for fiction
But we have another powerful tool at our disposal: fiction.
Because here’s another fascinating thing: stories don’t have to be real to feel real. We cry when a character dies in a movie although we know it never happened.
Fiction lets us imagine the warmer world that is coming. It allows us to tell the human story of living in a world falling apart, fighting over food and water, a world of riots and refugees, cities abandoned to the sea. Fiction allows us to put people into such a world; people with names, hopes and fears. People like us.
Of course, we must still be careful. Our stories must be plausible, We must make it clear that any vision of the future will inevitably turn out wrong. But readers and audiences understand fiction is not prediction: it involves a degree of speculation. And this is precisely why it is a good way to explore climate change. As fiction writers, we have a licence not available to climate scientists, activists and politicians; a licence to imagine.
For it is only by engaging people imaginatively with climate change; by helping them picture what global warming will actually feel, look and smell like, that we will engage them emotionally.
And, until we do that, most people will continue to “accept” the science – and ignore it. And we don’t have time for that.
And finally… positive visions matter too
All of this applies to sustainable living too. We need to show people what a world based on sustainable ecological principles would be like. What will our houses look like? Will we still have the internet? When our opponents accuse us of “wanting to go back to living in caves”, that simplistic image has power because it is simple, and visual. People can imagine it. The only way to get that “back to the stone age” image out of people’s minds is to overwrite it with our own, positive, visions. (See my Inspirations page for some examples.)
The Stone Gate can be considered part of an emerging fiction genre called “cli-fi” – short for “climate fiction” – a term coined by US journalist Dan Bloom. Here are some links to articles on cli-fi.