Climate change narratives: beyond the facts of science

Extended text of a speech delivered to the Royal Society/British Academy Workshop on Narrative and Science, 2 May 2019, Royal Society, London ?]

Mike Hulme, University of Cambridge

In 2015, the BBC screened a documentary on climate change called Climate Change by Numbers.  Three numbers–0.85, 95, 1 trillion–were explained in the programme which, it was claimed, were “all one needed to know” to understand climate change.  The first number, 0.85°C, referred to the observed global warming since the 19th century; the second to the confidence level (95%) with which scientists could claim they had attributed this warming to human activities; and the third number, 1 trillion tonnes, to the total allowable emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere if warming was not to exceed 2°C later this century.

More recently, here in the UK, the significance of climate change has been told a different way: “We are facing an unprecedented global emergency. Life on Earth is in crisis: scientists agree we have entered a period of abrupt climate breakdown, and we are in the midst of a mass extinction of our own making.”  This story from the social movement Extinction Rebellion has a few key bold elements: our leaders are failing in their duty to act on our behalf; we have run out of the luxury of time to react incrementally; only a peaceful planet-wide mobilisation of the scale of World War II will give us a chance to restore a safe climate.  The end of the story is a plea to “let’s make a better world”.

These are two very different ways of communicating what sort of phenomenon climate change is.  One seeks to communicate climate change through numbers, subscribing to a public understanding of science model; the other offers a dramatic story which seeks to draw public attention to the issue and to mobilise urgent policy action.  One approach seeks to wrap science up in numbers; the other wraps science up inside a narrative.

But Extinction Rebellion’s narrative of climate change is only one among many.  Here are three others that have powerful public significance and resonance:

  • Climate change is a story of scientific progress … this story tells how over 200 years or so scientists, operating alone or increasingly in collectives, in times of scarce or generous funding, have harnessed the tools of scientific exploration and experimentation to reveal the extent of human influence of the Earth’s climate.  And how over the last 30 years through the successive reports of the IPCC this knowledge has become ever more complete and certain.
  • Climate change as a story of moral and spiritual transformation … this story, given particular expression in Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato ‘Si, tells how environmental problems such as climate change have ethical and spiritual roots.  Rather than dealing with merely the symptoms, these roots require that we look for solutions not only in technology, but in a change of humanity and the moral orientation of the human heart—to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing.
  • Climate change as the Green New Deal … this story tells how it is possible to simultaneously fight inequity and tackle climate change, to make the US carbon-neutral – net zero carbon emissions – within 10 years.  If offers a way of ensuring that vulnerable populations – including the poor, people of colour, indigenous populations and communities already facing environmental degradation – all take part in the planning process to benefit from the opportunities offered by a green economy.

There are of course many other stories of climate change in circulation.  These would include the story from some indigenous peoples who see past colonialism as laying the foundations of climate change today, from some conservative libertarians who tell climate change as a story about a left-liberal conspiracy, or the techno-optimist story of climate change as a problem that can be solved through a “silver bullet” technology.

So the point of my intervention in this workshop on narrative and science today is twofold.  First, in social and political worlds, narratives are more powerful than facts … more powerful in the sense of being more engaging, persuasive and offering a greater sense of purpose and human agency.  Yes, each of the climate change stories summarised above recognises climate science and appropriate the scientific facts in a particular way.  But it is their mobilisation of powerful and resonant cultural myths which better explains the power and affect of these narratives.  For example:

  • in the case of Extinction Rebellion, it is the national myth of British war mobilisation and solidarity in the 1940s;
  • in the case of the IPCC, it is the myth of heroic and progressive science, gradually but inexorably filling in the gaps of ignorance;
  • in the case of Laudato ‘Si, it is the Christian myth of fall and redemption;
  • and in the case of the Green New Deal, it is the myth of Roosevelt’s 1930 New Deal and its place in national economic recovery.

My second point is that while science as a social enterprise might aspire to reconcile competing facts through recursive inquiry, experimentation and validation, conflicting stories about climate change cannot be reconciled so easily.  Different narratives gain their potency by being rooted in specific beliefs, values, moral commitments, myths and imaginaries that themselves emerge from different social, cultural and political movements, from different ways of seeing and being in the world.  These stories need listening to, interrogating, deliberating and debating using the various forms of democracy and social interaction that exist within different social formations.  The values these stories draw upon should be make explicit and not hidden behind scientific facts.  We should beware of totalising narratives that demand obedience and which seek to by-pass democratic scrutiny by moves such as declaring ‘an emergency’ or claiming that ‘the science demands’.

Climate scientists, analysts, communicators and advocates have come to realise, at different speeds and in different ways, that climate change is a condition of the modern world which needs powerful and persuasive stories to make sense of ‘the facts’.  We do not “all now agree” as Sir Nicholas Soames claims in The Times.  How climate change is framed and how it is acted upon is inherently and enduringly political.  When the previous chair of the IPCC Rajendra Pachauri proclaimed in November 2014 at the public launch of the IPCC’s Firth Assessment Report that “all we need is the will to change, which we trust will be motivated by … an understanding of the science of climate change” he was profoundly wrong.  The ‘will to change’ always needs more than science.

[1]  Extended text of a speech delivered to the Royal Society/British Academy Workshop on Narrative and Science, 2 May 2019, Royal Society, London