Climate Change as a Story

Climate Change as a Story

In his piece Climate Change and the Power of Story, astrophysicist Adam Frank argues that the way we can address climate change is to move away from the data and the science, and towards stories – especially Big Stories. That’s something religion is really, really good at –  but our creation stories are also problematic at times. So what is the story we should be telling about our changing climate – and who is our audience? The Sinai and Synapses Fellows discussed this topic over Slack as part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum “God’s Creation and Our Creation“.

This Slack chat has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachael Jackson: Science *is* a story. The numbers are just that–numbers. They have no meaning unless we tell the story around them. I am very fond of the statement “there is not such thing as bad data”. I used it a lot as a chemist. The data just is, it tells the story of what was and what we hope to be.

For example, we can take something factual–the human body temperature is 98.6º F and +/-2º F is reasonable, but not great. Beyond that in either direction and we’re in trouble. When we read about someone with a fever though, we don’t read numbers, we read something to the effect of “she was burning hot, sweating through sheets, incapable of keeping consciousness. we were worried that it would take her, especially since her delirium kept her from drinking. We hope the fever will break soon.”

In my job as an analytical chemist, I was required to tell the synthetic chemists what they did right and what they did wrong in their products. You make a lot of enemies if you tell someone “your stuff is 50% bad”. So I told a story, I figured out what the impurities were and how they got there and how to get rid of them.

As a rabbi now, I need to communicate some very introspective and philosophical material. I do in my own words. And I do with stories. Stories stick with us. To address specifically the question [this story I literally just thought of and quickly jotted down; as proof of concept]:

A long time ago, well before your grandmother or great-grandmother was born, a new way of exploring our world was created. We found rocks and liquid that would burn amazingly and let us travel to places would could never have dreamed. That’s how we know about bison and wild horses. That’s where we understand about steep mountains and endless prairies. But then, years and years later, we realized that our air wasn’t as nice to breathe. And our water wasn’t as nice to drink. Sadly, we didn’t know what was going on. Then one day, we knew! It was a marvelous day, a day of rejoicing, a day of awe. A day reclaiming our connection to nature and our responsibility to care for it. Then the skies grew dim once more. The seas swirled and stormed. Water rose all over the world. Sea animals were stranded on broken-off ice sheets. Land rushed into the water and houses went with it. Those were dark days. And then you came along. And you saw the light. You could see what none of us could. You could find a way out of the darkness and destruction. You will lead us to a time of connection with and responsibility to nature. And no matter how you help, it will matter to us all.

Our audience is everyone. Regarding climate change, it’s global. It does not care about politics or nationality. [it can be argued that women, those in poverty and underprivileged peoples will be disproportionately affected]. Our story has to touch everyone. I don’t believe that science doesn’t tell a story; I believe that in modernity, we have come to intellectually value stories less. But that is precisely why they are important.

Of course, there is also the parable of the babies in the river (if you don’t know it, here’s a quick link). I was reminded of this story this morning when I heard on the radio (NPR maybe) that Florida is looking at increasing the building code standards after Hurricane Michael. All I could think was, what are we doing? Why are we worrying about building codes when that is just a fix for a symptom, not the actual issue. It’s easier to change the immediate situation than the long term one. But eventually it will all just catch up to us.

Zack Jackson: Rachael, that’s a great point about the temperature. Both the empirical reading and the narrative telling are true. They both have their place. Unfortunately, the first method is never going to work to push public opinion. People need to see a real, personal cost to make a change of lifestyle as dramatic as we are asking. I tried to do that in my sermon a few days ago. I simplified the science by telling the story of our local rocks and how the different rocks that they can find show us about what carbon dioxide does in the atmosphere. I then tried to connect it specifically to our children, using the “generational sin” verse from Exodus 34. I hoped to appeal to their parental instincts because images of sad polar bears and bleached reefs are not all that compelling! The audio and the manuscript are here if you’re interested…

“Many of you in this room will never feel the effects of our carbon-rich atmosphere. Sure the summers are hotter and the winters are weirder, but that’s not so bad. I, however, I will probably live through the consequences of my, my parents’, grandparents’, and great grandparents’ generations’ abuse of fossil fuels. My kids will definitely be harmed by it, living in a world with extreme storms, water shortages, food shortages, terrifying new diseases, and the global wars that will inevitably come from it. I don’t even want to think about what my grandchildren will inherit. We can argue about the extent of the damage or the best solutions to fix it, but every day that we do nothing, the problem gets worse for my children and their children. I’ll save the “God wants us to care for all creation” speech for another day, because my children are too important.”

Brian Gallagher: We had a piece in Nautilus on this very issue: the stories we tell to understand climate change, and how they needlessly polarize us. Here’s a snippet that resonates with my own view:

“The successful assimilation of broad narratives from astronomy and genetics reminds us how powerful science narrative can be. We think of ourselves today as genetic machines, carrying around an adaptive program, which we inherit and pass on, doing so on this one habitable planet among countless others in a universe with a finite age. These facts have become intuitions and a part of our identity. The goal of climate change coverage should be a similar creation of intuition from fact. Intuition that our planet is a dynamic thing, that its environment is highly interconnected, that it has been remade many times by things living and dead.”

Ruth Shaver: When I was in Pennsylvania, crop farmers would tell me about the changes they had to make year over year to their planning. I would tell their stories back to them and ask them what they thought was happening. “Just a streak of bad weather years,” they (to a man!) would say. “Climate change is a hoax.” Not by the Chinese, mind. By the big agro companies that patent seeds and require multi-year contracts! Animal farmers, however, were far more likely to acknowledge climate change and the human impact thereon. I’m not sure to this day why the difference; it wasn’t political or education level.

Zack Jackson: Ruth, that’s fascinating! I wonder if it’s because livestock farmers don’t have to battle big-agro and their evil ways! If I had to deal with Monsanto on a regular basis, I might start to believe in conspiracies too.

Ruth Shaver: You all might be interested in this from my home UCC conference newsletter: “1,000 sermons: Clergy Invoke Kids’ Case from the Pulpit.”

Tim Maness: I think Rachael made an excellent point (she made a number of excellent points, really, but I’m going to focus on this one) when she said that, in modernity, we place less intellectual value on stories. Adam Frank is also, right, though, when he says that the power of mythic stories to shape our thought is just as strong as it’s ever been. The result of that combination is that, a lot of the time, people aren’t honest with themselves about the power that narrative has over them. I can think that the story that convinces me works purely because of its superior rationality, and not because of its rhetorical power. Conversely, I can deride those who disagree with me as having been taken in by a story that just appeals to their emotions. So, I get to dismiss my opponents as being committed to “feelings over facts.” I agree that crafting more powerful narratives is essential when trying to spur the public to action over climate change, and I think it will help if we can be explicit about the ways that the power of narrative is active even when we’ve trained ourselves not to see it.

I wonder sometimes about framing climate change in terms of sin. Certainly even failing to act to protect the environment, let alone actively despoiling it, harms others in order to benefit oneself, which fits the definition. However, at least in the culturally-Protestant U.S., the language of sin inevitably gets applied as though it were solely about individual merit or blame*. That’s not entirely wrong: a society as a whole only behaves in a certain way to the degree that its constituent members behave in that way. However, it can shift the framing away from the need to enact changes at the social or legal level and toward battles over who is or isn’t a “good environmentalist” as an individual. As with so many of the collective action problems that face us, I’m not sure what the best solution is.

*(At least, that’s the best explanation I can come up with for the gibes about Al Gore’s private plane that get passed around in climate-denier circles: the idea would be that “greenness” is ultimately a set of rules for individual virtuous action, that Gore transgresses against those rules, and thus that he is not virtuous, and so can be ignored as a source of moral guidance.)

Ruth Shaver: This profile of Bruno Latour speaks to some of our need to tell stories rather than just throw data and facts at people.

“The idea that we can stand back and behold nature at a distance, as something discrete from our actions, is an illusion, Latour says. This was the message that the melting ice sheets were sending him … In our current environmental crisis, he continued, a new image of the earth is needed — one that recognizes that there is no such thing as a view from nowhere and that we are always implicated in the creation of our view.”

Arwin Gouw: I would like to propose differentiating two levels of narratives. First, scientists need to interpret data using a scientific paradigm that is currently acceptable or a novel one that they are working on. It’s true that this is inevitable in the scientific enterprise, simply because epistemology rests on narrative interpretation. The second level of narrative is when scientists try to communicate their findings to the general public who cannot interpret the data for themselves. Inadvertently scientists, science communicators, and/or the media have to fit their first-order narrative to a larger narrative in the context of public life.

Adam Pryor: I think one of the major keys to Frank’s argument about narrative and climate change is that it “reintegrates us back into the biosphere.” Whatever story we tell, if we are to be moved to consider climate change (and other environmental crises) in a significant way, the stories we tell need to make an emotional, not just rational, appeal.

In a course I’m currently teaching, we are working with students to tell their own stories about their ultimate concern and have been using the work of Marshall Ganz to help them think about how they tell such a story (this worksheet was really helpful). Ganz encourages us to think about storytelling for activism in three parts: the story of self, the story of “us,” and the story of now. The story of self is a public story of calling that relies on the moments that are critical and hopeful in discerning what it means to be “me.” The story of “us” is meant to root our own story in the many sorts of wider communities of which we are a part. It is also the story of the communities we hope to call into being that will share in the story of ourselves. Finally, the story of now is what gives urgency to the public story we want to tell. This story helps us identify the real costs, risks, and action we need to take to address the problems identified.

I mention Ganz because I wonder if what we really need, perhaps contra Frank, is not a new myth that helps us motivate others to act in the face of climate change – but a whole series of smaller narratives that link the story of self and the story of us to the pressing questions of climate that form part of the story of our now. If people need to be moved through story and have empathy for various Earth others, they need to understand how these features intersect their own stories. I think I would want to argue that we don’t need more myths, we need to give people more chances and equip them to integrate their own story into the stories of climate change.

Arvin Gouw: Thus there are at least three kinds of conflicts. First, there’s conflict between various scientific paradigms/narratives at the first layer. Second, there’s conflict between the various social/ practical narratives outside of the scientific community at the second level. Third, there are problems in translating the scientific narrative of the first level to the second level. Each of these issues are inevitable, and unfortunately both the scientific communities and the public refuse to tease apart these complicated relationships, which makes a congruent communication of something as interdisciplinary complex as climate change nearly impossible.

Kendra Moore: I’d like to add the conversation Rachael, Zack, Tim, and others have built on the power of narrative. One of the things I think you’re all hitting on implicitly is that part of what makes narratives really powerful is their ability to incorporate our values into a story. When we see our values reflected in narratives, and more particularly when we see our values rewarded in narratives, it’s easier to buy in to what that narrative requests of you as a participant in the story. We feel more responsible when our values are at stake.

I also think the example Tim offers of using sin as a frame for climate change is interesting, but another possible reaction to that frame of sin is apathy. For example, some Christian evangelicals will be unmoved by the idea that sin contributes to the earth’s destruction because the earth’s destruction is thought to be inevitable, even appropriate as a consequence of sin. Additionally, the earth’s destruction is okay because the saved will leave for heaven anyway. I suppose the other layer here is that sin is externalized to “those sinners.” Sin might be acknowledged, but it’s often pinned on someone perceived as more sinful than your own group. I think that’s one way this frame of sin is manifested, anyway.

Ruth Shaver: Kendra, I think you’re right about the “sin” element. My experience with far more conservative Christians and the issue of climate change is that this is all God’s will leading to the apocalypse, so any destruction that’s happening a) can’t be human-caused and b) isn’t sinful because if God wills it, it can’t be sin. That is tremendously frustrating to me personally as well as theologically; I can’t find a narrative that will move them from that structural belief, which means it’s almost impossible to enlist them in the work to reverse course. I don’t know if that’s apathy or abnegation or passive resistance.


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