Climate change, or climate changes?

Guest blog by friend to 6Heads Steph Godderidge

What does climate change mean to different people in different places around the world? What is our ‘climate story’? I had a few thoughts after listening to a Grantham Institute seminar.


From the bedtime stories we were read as children, to the movies we see as adults, storytelling is how we make sense of the world. And climate change is possibly the biggest story of our age, whether you believe in man-made global warming or think it’s the biggest hoax ever perpetrated.

Beyond this great divide, different people in different places also have different views on what climate change actually means to them, and that view will shape the story they tell (or believe in), and the action they will take as a result. This is why I was interested in listening to Mike Hulme’s talk at the Grantham Institute.

 © Grantham Institute

It all started with the standard conventional narrative around climate change. This assumed that once scientific evidence became absolutely compelling, action on reducing emissions would necessarily follow. While this is a perfectly logical assumption, in fact, despite the scientific consensus, public opinion is still divided: while 97% of scientists agree that climate change is happening and is man-made, the public believes that only 55% of scientists agree with that statement. So this story is arguably ‘broken’.

By looking at one global climate through one single interpretation system, scientific knowledge comes out as one single voice: theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. By framing global action through one single body, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, all the countries in the world become just one entity. This single view ends up being ‘the view from nowhere’ – and accordingly, cannot but fail to engage the greatest number.

With this come a single goal and a single solution: limiting global warming to 2 degree Celsius. And a single timeline, with a focus on the next climate summit in Paris this December. This single way of framing climate change has naturally attracted its opposite, resulting in a highly-polarised binary dynamic, so that you can only be a believer or a denier (with some varying degree of intensity). This also means that, whichever side you’re on, you have a single enemy to focus on, to add fuel to, and comfort you in your own views.

And people generally chose sides not based so much on scientific evidence, but rather, on the world view they hold, as well as their vested interests; this is particularly evident in anglophone countries, and nowhere more so than in the USA.

However, the world is not a homogenous entity: rather than one novel with a single linear storyline, it is rather a collection of short stories, with a common theme perhaps, but each with its own distinct plot and way of looking at the world. A couple of climate stories do indeed centre around keeping temperatures below a certain threshold, but another might be around climate justice, and yet another around preserving resources, or assuring a consistent percentage GDP growth. And some of these stories will contradict each other too, using climate change as an opportunity to challenge the current world order. But they are all valid stories.

There is no way of capturing the whole tapestry of climate stories using only a one-dimensional axis. And focusing on a single target, a single goal, is actually achieving the reverse of what it set out to do, in that it cuts people off from the reality of climate change by making it appear irrelevant on a local level.

So, beyond the scientific analysis of the future physical impacts of climate change, just as important is the way people interpret what it means to them, through the filter of their culture and belief system, as well as their personal experience. And doing justice to the many perspectives on climate change is what will ultimately make climate action acceptable or not, successful or not.

It all boils down to how you tell the story(ies).

This blog post was originally published on Climate & Us on the 23th June.

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