Climate change is a story. Tell it properly.

Understanding the environmental crisis requires taking a new approach to science

Jon Deery
17th October 2021
Image credits: Pxfuel, Pixabay
As COP26 looms heavily in the near future, it’s time to make sure we understand what climate change actually is. Writing as someone who studies literature and creative writing, I’m maybe not the first person you’d come to for that explanation - but hear me out, because all that time I’ve spent in seminars dissecting narratives might in fact have put me in the best place to understand the true nature of climate change.

That’s because, in case you weren’t already aware, climate change is a story.

Not only is it a story, it’s one told exclusively by people with agendas: most of the time, when you hear the story of climate change, the person telling it wants to make you vote a certain way, or buy a different brand of burger, or sign their petition to protect peat bogs from wildfires.

The scientists themselves aren’t exempt from this - their research papers are nothing more than stories about the way the world works, derived from their own observations. They’re inevitably swayed by other influences and agendas, too - the IPCC reports, for example, despite being the world’s leading climate information sources, are widely criticised for consistently understating the seriousness of the situation. That’s because the IPCC has to take into account hundreds of governments from around the world, all of whom will be hesitant to sign and agree to a report that says they’re killing the planet.

But I’ve been misleading with my language here, so let me make one thing absolutely clear: by ‘story’ I do not mean ‘lie’. A newspaper report on bees dying out is a ‘story’, but it’s still true. The research paper cited in that newspaper article is a story - data has been collected, over time, of populations of bees, and then scientists have analysed the statistics like plot points, explaining them with a line graph that links them all together on a single journey. Connected events occurring over a span of time: that’s a narrative.

Two storytellers set to speak at COP26 - Boris Johnson and Sir David Attenborough. Image credits: Flickr

But the exact same plot points can be seen by two seperate storytellers, with their own agendas, and produce two entirely different stories. Shakespeare made The Taming of the Shrew, Hollywood made 10 Things I Hate About You.

An oil company, from its own research, proved in the ‘70s that the emissions from its own product were heating the planet to a dangerous extent, and that its business model was not compatible with environmental sustainability.

In 1977, the senior scientist of the company told its management committee that “there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels”. Here was our first storyteller: James Black, senior scientist of an oil company, connects the dots and tells a story of environmental decline. Clearly, he had an agenda. He wanted a company policy change.

But his story met a tough crowd. They were already heavily invested in the story of their bottom line, of the arc of their stock price on its hero’s journey upward, and to accept his tale would mean giving up on their own.

So the company decided instead to change the public narrative - they funded climate-change-denying think tanks, and publicly stated that climate change was not necessarily human-caused.

Oil companies have created a fictional world for us to live in, one where it's possible for them to live in harmony with nature

That story really caught on. The company, ExxonMobil, is now the largest oil company in the world, releasing 120 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2019 alone. It has released 40 billion tonnes into our atmosphere since 1965, the vast majority of which was after learning that this could lead to massive sea level rises and changes in weather patterns.

And they’re still at it, even though the majority of the public now agree that climate change is a real danger. Their fellow oil company BP deliberately popularised the term ‘carbon footprint’ as a way to make people like us view climate change as a story about individuals making the wrong consumer choices.

Oil companies, as well as the politicians that prop them up, and the innumerable other businesses like the meat industry that are destroying our environment, have created a fictional world for us to live in. A nice, simple world, where strategies like ‘carbon offsetting’ mean it’s possible for oil companies to live in harmony with nature. All we’ve got to do as consumers is buy from the right companies, and everything will be just fine.

Living in this fantasy is all well and good, until, as T.S. Eliot phrased it, ‘human voices wake us, and we drown.’

It’s such a slippery world out there; misguided stories can catch you out at every step, and they often seem just as compelling as the right stories. A lot of us are still caught in the notion that ‘human nature’ caused the climate crisis, for example.

If you’re still invested in the ‘selfishly destructive human nature’ story, if you still think there’s some inherent part of us as human beings that makes climate change inevitable, I’ve got a few questions for you to ask yourself:

Isn’t it human nature driving thousands of Indigenous communities around the globe to defend their home environments against the assaults of colonial industrial development? Isn’t it human nature that’s sending young people out onto the streets to protest what’s happening to their future? Isn’t it human nature, the very same concept you claim forced us into a crisis, that invented the renewable energy that could help us escape the worst eventuality?

Living in this fantasy world is all well and good, until, as T.S. Eliot put it, 'human voices wake us, and we drown'.

Human nature is one of the most complex, contradictory concepts ever conceived. It is nothing but the story you tell about it, and crucially, it can change.

So this environmental crisis is not a story of atomised individuals buying the wrong brand of petrol and setting the world alight; nor is it a story of some universalised ‘humanity’ reaching an inevitable stage in its social evolution that naturally wipes everything else out. I’ll tell you a much better story.

100 companies are responsible for 71% of all worldwide emissions. These companies are predominantly based in Western countries, run by white people, and their destructive impacts hit predominantly non-white, ‘third world’, ‘developing’ nations who have done virtually nothing environmentally damaging in comparison.

Two 'free market' storytellers - from left to right, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan. Image credits: Flickr

These companies have been allowed to get away with it, because around the 80s, people like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Regan, Milton Friedman, all decided there was ‘no alternative’ to the free market. Since then, for more than four decades, the global consensus for how to run a country has degraded more and more towards the same opinion: let the companies do what they want, and they’ll sort themselves out fine.

This is incredibly good news, despite being the most frustratingly stupid predicament to have arrived in. Because it means we haven’t got ‘human nature’ to worry about. We haven’t got our own consumer habits to worry about. We know who the enemies are: large businesses destroying our planet for profit. We know how to stop them: get rid of this silly idea that if we just leave them alone they’ll be fine.

The solution to the climate crisis is to start believing a different story than the one those at the top are blinding us with. And then, to tell that story, as compellingly, and as frequently, as we can all possibly manage.

So, watch our representatives at COP26. See them throw around their ‘market-based solutions’, their green capitalism, and know that each phrase they contribute to that story is more hot air in an already sweltering house.

Tell an alternative story; one of collective hope, collective action; one in which not ‘humanity’ as a whole but many outspoken, courageous, dedicated members of the human race come together to hold the minority of planet-wreckers to account, in the process creating a fairer, safer, longer-lasting society.

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