Knowing, believing and (story-)telling.

Moeka Tsuzuki & Inés Oort Alonso

I want you to act as if your house is on fire because it is”. Powerful metaphor, huh? Greta Thunberg’s speeches are full of them. It is part of the reason why her discourses are so powerful; she doesn’t just use the language of science, she uses the language of humans: stories. 

This summer, I (Inés) read We are The Weather. In this book, Jonathan Safran Foer makes a clear distinction between knowing the science and threat of the climate crisis on the one hand, and believing the science and the threat of on the other. The latter is much harder, and most of us are not there yet, which is, along with systemic and technical reasons, why we are not acting like our house is on fire. 

So, what does it take to believe in the existential threat that climate change poses for much of humanity? According to psychology and linguistics research, the answer to the question is stories. For those of us who are in the position to make or demand radical changes, it is usually not the vast amount of evidence that is the tipping point for our devotion to climate justice, but a story that somehow affects what we deeply care about.   

Stories can be narratives that we have in our head without even realising. Even someone that does not put too much thought into climate action or environmental degradation has a story on what they have come to believe is the cause and the possible solution(s) to the crisis. 

Problem
“Humans need to grow and innovate. We need resources from the Earth. The earth was not expecting such a powerful species like us so it doesn’t know how to respond.” 
“European colonialism set the tone for a resource-based economy that exploits and undervalues natural resources. Neocolonialism and, as a consequence, the spread of our economic system, has made this the global norm.” 
“There is an injustice of power and wealth that leads to overconsumption.” 
“We are only capable of acting on imminent threats. If a problem is 30 years ahead, it is impossible to mobilize society for it.” 
“Population growth has gotten out of hand. We are a plague on Earth.”
“Fossil fuels were never meant to exit the ground! Why did we not harness the power of sun and wind from the beginning!”  
“The polar bears are losing their homes”
“E = σ T4
Solution(s)
“We here at X commit to being carbon neutral by 2050” 
“We ought to rewild our land”
“Natural Climate Solutions + Decarbonize our economy” 
“We need to reduce our carbon emissions” 
“They need to reduce their carbon emissions”
“Renewables, renewables, renewables”
“Reduce, reuse, recycle” 
“This will be hard, there will be a lot of struggle, but we are the types of people that will solve this”.
“We need to rethink democracy, give the power back to the people! Citizens Assembly.”
“It is too late, we should start investing in R&D for adaptation strategies and simply get used to the idea that our world will change.” 
“We have to change our language and stories!” 
Table 1: Very non exhaustive (and somewhat droll) list of possible internalized narratives that we have come across with relating to the origin and solutions of the climate crisis. 

Of course, narratives do not have to be true to be believed and they do not usually stand alone. Despite David Attenborough claiming that “we are a plague on Earth” (The Independent, 2013), I doubt that that is his single story on the causes of global weirding. Similarly, while Bill Gates says that “it’s our power to invent that makes me hopeful” does not mean he is unaware of the futility of an eternal-growth paradigm for our environment (Bill Gates, 2021). But, considering that most people get the vast majority of information about carbon pollution from mainstream media, which usually approaches it very superficially (greenhouse effect + human CO2 = warmer), it is understandable that the story of the cause and the solution of the problem remains shallow and singular. 

Artist Jill Pelto uses art to illustrate Climate Change data

So far, we have (annoyingly) used five different terms to describe “climate change”. Have you noticed? We’re not the only ones sick and tired of “Climate Change” though! The Guardian officially updated its style guide in 2019 to stop using the 1975 coined term “climate change” by NASA (The Guardian, 2019). On the one hand, we completely stand behind their choice, as it is an outdated term that can quickly downplay the menace of the issue. It implies that the climate will change, but a) it is an extremely spare and factual way to describe the violent ways in which this socio-ecological event will unfold and b) it doesn’t all the human and non-human systems that will be touched by it.  On the other hand, however, words can become politicized, and groups of people can feel excluded from a narrative if they are unable to follow what is being spoken about. A journalist on a discussion panel in Spanish television (EFE Verde, 2019) even said that it was risky to use climate emergency as elders could misunderstand it as an immediate emergency and believe that they have to “evacuate their homes” (maybe taking Greta’s metaphor a bit too literally). 

Climate change … is no longer considered to accurately reflect the seriousness of the situation; use climate emergency, crisis or breakdown instead.

The Guardian

Still, regardless of the exact term they use, it will come as no surprise that the media has a big role to play in science communication (unfortunately). Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have determined that media can influence policy and public understanding of the environment. Both of these things can also affect human behaviour. So the language they use is indeed important.

Climate Outreach, a European specialist in climate change communication, put together a handbook for IPCC authors to suggest effective ways to communicate climate change. Their main principles are:

  1. Be a confident communicator
  2. Talk about the real world, not abstract ideas. 
  3. Connect with what matters to your audience
  4. Tell a human story
  5. Lead with what you know
  6. Use the most effective visual communication 

While we are on the topic of science and the IPCC, I (Moeka) want to share some insights I had during my Climate Sciences: Past and Present class last fall semester. I noticed that climate science is and has been extremely European and North American centred excluding a lot of Asia, middle eastern, African, Central and South American regions and countries. Despite an abundance of paleoclimate proxies existing all around the world, most data collection points were in these two continents. The data and science bias could partly result in a bias towards western-centered climate movements. At the global climate march that took place in Tokyo in 2019, people there chanted (Funazaki, 2019):

I say 地球、you say 守ろう (I say “Earth”, you say “Protect”)

気候は変えず、自分が変わろう!(“Don’t change climate, change ourselves!”)

Save our future, Protect our future

What do you want? Climate Justice!

When do you want it? NOW!

As you may notice, half of their chants are in English. They probably just imported the chants from European or English-speaking countries without translating them. Given that most of Japanese people do not have a high level of English, the language they use would not have as strong a power as they would in English-speaking countries. I strongly believe that they should make a Japanese version of chants so that it becomes more powerful in the Japanese society.

Nowadays, since English is the lingua franca of (climate) science or/and climate movement (e.g. Fridays for Futures, Greta’s speech), most discoveries and concepts are crowned with an English word. By creating new words, we create new ways of seeing the world, because language has a power in itself. It is thus important that climate science concepts (e.g tipping points, Representative Concentration Pathways) and climate movement related words are given their own words in each language. 

Still, as mentioned 1,000 times throughout this blog, good local climate change communication does not only involve translating scientific jargon to the common people. If you are interested in the science of localizing climate change communication, environmental subjects, environmental news etc., may we introduce you to the fascinating field of Ecolinguism? Researchers in this field explore how language can change how we relate to nature in addition to translating the narratives of isolated and small communities that are extremely affected by climate change but yet, their voice often goes unheard of. Through doing this, they hope to protect not only their language from extinction but also their culture and population (Huang, 2016; UNESCO, 2019). 

For a habitable future, we need a reinvention of economics, politics and society. This, we believe, is only possible with a reinvention of culture, and what is culture if not powerful stories we tell? 

Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together.
All things connect.

(Attributed to) Chief Seattle, leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish Native American Tribes. 


Can think of the instance(s) when you started believing and not merely understanding the threat of the climate crisis? Let us know in the comments!


Reference list: 

Atwood, M. (2015, August 04). It’s not climate change – it’s everything change. Retrieved February 19, 2021, from https://medium.com/matter/it-s-not-climate-change-it-s-everything-change-8fd9aa671804

Bill Gates. (2021, February 15). How to Avoid a Climate Disaster [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/zrM1mcKmX_c

Dupar, M., McNamara, L., & Pacha, M. J. (2019). Communicating climate change: a practitioner’s guide: insights from Africa, Asia and Latin America.

EFE Verde. (2019). Meriendas Verdes. Expertos apuestan por “corregir lenguaje” ambiental para mejorar comunicación Retrieved February 21, 2021, from, https://www.efeverde.com/noticias/meriendas-verdes-sobre-como-mejorar-lenguaje-del-periodismo-ambiental/

Fighting climate change with translation, language and stories. (n.d.). Retrieved February 19, 2021, from https://www.tomedes.com/translator-hub/fight-climate-change-translation

Funazaki, Y. (2019, November 18). 「グローバル気候マーチ」に参加した。そこで見たのは、若者の熱意と周りとの温度差だった。. Retrieved February 19, 2021, from https://www.huffingtonpost.jp/entry/climate-strike-tokyo_jp_5d8562e2e4b070d468ccdbbc

How the words we use to describe climate change impact the planet. (2021, February 10). Retrieved February 19, 2021, from https://www.globallandscapesforum.org/video/how-the-words-we-use-to-describe-climate-change-impact-the-planet/

Humans are a “plague on Earth”: Sir David Attenborough warns that. (2013, January 22). The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/humans-are-a-plague-on-earth-sir-david-attenborough-warns-that-negative-effects-of-population-growth-will-come-home-to-roost-8461570.html

Huang, G. (2016). Ecolinguistics in an international context: An interview with Arran Stibbe. Language & Ecology, 1(10).

Jessica Blythe Assistant Professor, Christine Daigle Professor of Philosophy, & Julia Baird Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair in Human Dimensions of Water Resources and Water Resilience. (2021, February 18). The meaning of environmental words matters in the age of ‘fake news’. Retrieved February 19, 2021, from https://theconversation.com/the-meaning-of-environmental-words-matters-in-the-age-of-fake-news-106050

UNESCO (2019) Lenguas indígenas, conocimientos y esperanza.Retrieved February 19, 2021, from https://es.unesco.org/courier/2019-1/lenguas-indigenas-conocimientos-y-esperanza

Luedecke, G., & T. Boykoff, M. (2016). Environment and the media. International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment and Technology: People, the Earth, Environment and Technology, 1-8.

Makwanya, P. (2013). An analysis of the language used to communicate information on climate change. Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 17(2), 17-25.

Poortvliet, P. M., Niles, M. T., Veraart, J. A., Werners, S. E., Korporaal, F. C., & Mulder, B. C. (2020). Communicating climate change risk: A content analysis of IPCC’s summary for policymakers. Sustainability, 12(12), 4861.

Sample, I., Green, L., & Sanderson, M. (2019, August 02). The psychology of climate science denial – science weekly podcast. Retrieved February 19, 2021, from https://www.theguardian.com/science/audio/2019/aug/02/the-psychology-of-climate-science-denial-science-weekly-podcast

The Guardian. (2019). Why The Guardian is Changing the Language it Uses About the Environment. Retrieved February 22, 2021, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/17/why-the-guardian-is-changing-the-language-it-uses-about-the-environment

Weingart, P., Engels, A., & Pansegrau, P. (2000). Risks of communication: discourses on climate change in science, politics, and the mass media. Public understanding of science, 9(3), 261-284.

Word of mouth – communicating climate change – bbc sounds. (n.d.). Retrieved February 19, 2021, from https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000d719

環境省が気候危機宣言 脱炭素・循環経済・分散型社会への移行を進める. (2020, June 16). Retrieved February 19, 2021, from https://www.sustainablebrands.jp/news/jp/detail/1196995_1501.html

2 thoughts on “Knowing, believing and (story-)telling.

  1. You raise really interesting points about storytelling in science communication! I hadn’t heard about Ecolinguism before, and it’s amazing to see how preservation of nature and culture/language are combined. Just like how it’s important to translate the language we use to describe the climate crisis to other languages, I think it’s important to tell people what local consequences will be as well to add on to this “local effect” as so to speak. When we talk about the climate crisis, its global or at most regional effects are usually described, which means that for many it is still vague how climate change will influence their local surroundings and actual lives. Maybe local communities/people engaged with sustainability could help translate climate change’s global effects to the local consequences, hopefully helped by storytelling and get more people into action that way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is so interesting! As IrishM has said, there is a need to be able to translate these problems so the local layman can understand them. I know that it was not so long ago that there was an initiative to involve Kenyan Samburu (a tribe) warriors in the protection of lions and rhinos. Given the significant drops in poaching, it seems that it worked. Rather than come in and take over, a group went and explained what was happening and taught the warriors about poaching and the dangers of it.
    The same has been done all over Kenya actually. People have been taught about extinction and the dangers of killing lions or elephants who destroy crops or attack your cows. I mean it does not always work but the involvement of the people and explanations have led to communal involvement and in a country rife with ethnic clashes, it is a way to connect us to one another.
    The same has also been done in the coastal town of Watamu. The locals were taught about the dangers posed by overfishing and the threats faced by the turtle eggs. Now, they are an integral part of safeguarding overfishing and turtle conservation. Not only that, Watamu is the only place in the whole country where Environmental Studies is a course in primary school that all the students take. It is amazing what can be accomplished by translating what we know and including those on the ground. Personally, I think it has even more promise. It is kind of that whole teach a man to fish concept no?

    Great post!!

    https://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/articles/entry/samburu_warriors_are_safeguarding_kenyas_lions/
    https://localocean.co/watamu-turtle-watch/
    https://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/article/lions-warriors-samburu-kenya

    Like

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