Science-informed storytelling key to communicate climate change

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November 1st, 2017

The scientific evidence tells us that we must adapt quickly to climate change. Yet a key problem confronting us is how we convey this important message to the general public.

Media stories informed by evidence-based climate science could be one such way to increase audience engagement and appetite for ambitious action on climate change, according to Professor of Climate Science, Chris Rapley, CBE.

Speaking at the Mansion House last week as part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s lecture series on climate change, Professor Rapley outlined the barriers to communicating climate change and the ways to move the discussion forward.

The University College London professor outlined the current scientific evidence for climate change, using visualizations of the projected rise in global mean temperature rise over the coming decades and the decline of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice.

Prof Rapley, however, indicated that it is still difficult to get across the sheer scale, importance, and global human interconnectedness of such massive transformations of major earth systems.

Human Psyche and the Arts

Venturing into the territories of human psychology and the arts, Prof Rapley cited the work of economist and Nobel Prize recipient, Daniel Kahneman, on human decision-making and his theory on A Machine for Jumping to Conclusions

Honing in on Kahneman’s assertion that the human mind is structured for storytelling, Rapley relayed his experiences as a scientist collaborating with artists on the theatre piece, 2071.

Rapley offered 2071 as an example of the informed engagement model of learning as a way to spur ambition to act for adaptation in the face of climate change.

The power of informed engagements, Prof Rapley said, allows for the management of the audience’s emotions and ideologies without compromising on scientific evidence.

A story of climate change, 2071 was first performed in 2014 at London’s Royal Court Theatre and has since been performed at the Bristol Festival of Ideas and the Edinburgh International Science Festival. The one-man play delivers evidence-based climate science through the form of a theatrical monologue in order to deliver a multigenerational look into the future.

The play tells the story of human dependence on fossil fuels, while also presenting Prof Rapley’s autobiographical account of his journey from a boyhood steeped in curiosity about Antarctica through his scientific career and up to his wish for his own granddaughter to come of age on a hospitable planet.

Corporations and Climate Denialism

During his talk, Prof Rapley suggested that corporations such as Coca-Cola and Shell are also starting to grasp the issue of climate change. Not everyone in the audience agreed, however, with environmental journalist, John Gibbons, telling The Green News that there is “simply no evidence to support this”.

Mr Gibbons pointed to the increase in Coca-Cola’s production of throwaway plastic bottles to an estimated 110 billion a year, most of which “end up in landfill, and many, in the oceans”.

“No company serious about sustainability would persist in such ecological vandalism,” he said, adding his disappointment that the talk did not also discuss the issue of climate denial.

“Climate denialism, either in the media or via so-called think tanks,… present huge impediments on the road to better communicating climate change,” Mr Gibbons said.

Mr Gibbons reported earlier this year on the launch of a newly formed group in Ireland called the Irish Climate Science Forum (ICSF), whose first meeting in May 2017 included a guest lecture from Professor Richard Lindzen. The Guardian reported in June 2016 that Lindzen has been a beneficiary of Peabody Energy, a coal company that has funded multiple groups contesting the climate consensus.

By Megan Kuster

Megan is a Research Fellow in Trinity College Dublin on educational equality, environmental justice, and climate change communications. She holds a BSc (Hons) in Biology from the University of Toronto and a PhD in Literature from Trinity College Dublin.

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