Climate change is global, the pain is private

Imagine that your community has been battered or even destroyed by a climate change-induced flood, tornado, hurricane, or drought. Some community members have perished, including people that you know. You are lucky if everyone in your family survived. Perhaps you have lost your home and everything that your family accumulated. Maybe you lost all your mementos and photos of grandparents, parents, children, friends, and pets. Your family or friends might have been forced to relocate.

When people are forced to relocate, they lose their old community, and in turn, their old community loses them. The original community will never be the same. Any of these scenarios could be used to show the pain caused by climate change-induced migration. Or perhaps you lost the family farm because of a long drought. This scenario could be used to introduce such agricultural issues as farm crops that are unable to adapt to climate change or even famines. Or maybe you lost a beloved pet from Lyme Disease, which has spread to new areas because of climate change.

This story can be part of a larger discussion on the spread of diseases because of climate change. Or imagine that you suffered through a climate change-induced heat wave, and perhaps you lost someone you cared about.

Perhaps you haven’t yet experienced any of these hardships. However, your region is probably vulnerable to climate change-induced disasters. In all likelihood, you either live on a coast, a floodplain, an area susceptible to wildfires, or extreme weather such as devastating storms, heat waves, and droughts.

The preceding scenarios could be further elaborated to become stories that show how the suffering and heartache that climate change-induced disasters affect their victims. These stories then can be used to influence people to join the movement to combat climate change.

The importance of climate change stories was studied by George Marshall, who studied climate change communication for many years. He is the author of Don’t Even Think About It—Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. He wrote that “The author Philip Pullman, who has been among the handful of writers struggling to build stores around climate change, stated that ‘After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.’ Stories perform a fundamental cognitive function: they are how the emotional brain makes sense of the information collected by the rational brain. People may hold information in the form of data and figures, but their beliefs about it are held entirely in the form of stories.”

The climate change movement has mainly relied on facts and data in its arguments. However, convincing evidence is available regarding the persuasive value of telling stories. This is not to say that science, theories, and evidence are not important. For example, stories about disasters may emotionally move your audience.

They may even help to motivate them to mobilize against climate change. However, your audience also needs to know how climate change contributes to these disasters.

There are many ways of telling stories besides personally telling them out loud to a specific audience. For example, there are short stories, novels, magazines, children’s stories, fairy tales, puppet shows, myths, fables, legends, religious stories, radio programs, television, films, plays, podcasts, cartoons, video games, drawings, paintings, murals, and graffiti, song, and dance.

Use whatever method of storytelling that is appropriate, that you feel comfortable with, and are good at. Understanding the neurology of stories is essential in analyzing their value. Environmental author Rob Hopkins in From What Is to What If—Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want provided an excellent introduction to the neurological functioning of stories. He stated, “Neuroscience tells us that amazing things happen when we listen to and tell stories. When we listen to a lecture about climate change, for example, with PowerPoint slides, graphs and bullet points, the parts of our brain that show we are listening and the part where words are processed both light up. But when we listen to a story, something very different happens. First, the same parts of the storyteller’s brain and the listener’s brain light up together. …That is, we experience the story rather than just absorbing information. We understand it more deeply. We retain it longer.”

Mirror neurons help explain this phenomenon. Mirror neurons are brain cells that respond when either observing others performing a specific action or expressing emotion.

Further discussion of this neurological process is provided by Jonathan Gottschall, professor of literature, in The Storytelling Animal—How Stories Make Us Human. He quoted neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni on what occurs when watching a movie. Still, it is also likely true when we are exposed to other forms of storytelling. Iacoboni stated, “We have empathy for the fictional characters—we know how they’re feeling—because we literally experience the same feelings ourselves.”

Alina Siegfried provided additional information on our neurological response to storytelling in A Future Untold—The Power of Story to Transform the World and Ourselves. She included information from “Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React: The Neuroscience of Narrative” by neuroscientist Paul Zak. Siegfried wrote that “Hearing stories can release brain chemicals such as oxytocin and cortisol, evoking an empathy response and even inspiring post-story actions such as making a donation.”

Lisa Cron in Wired for Story added further evidence about the brain’s response to stories. She reported that “A recent study [in Psychological Science], in which subjects underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain while reading a short story, revealed that the areas of the brain that light up when they read about an activity were identical to those that light up when they actually experience it.” Thus, various neuroscientists find that when people respond to stories, they react to them as if they are real.
There are still further neurological explanations on why stories are so important to humans. Cron wrote that “As neuroscience reveals, what draws us into a story and keeps us there is the firing of our dopamine neurons signaling that intriguing information is on its way.”

Gottschall stated that stories are so intrinsic to humans that they create them in their dreams and daydreams. He said, “Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories. … dream researchers now know that storylike dreams actually occur independent of REM and across the whole sleep cycle. Some researchers think that we dream almost all night long.”

He also reported that people spend a lot of time daydreaming. He wrote, “Clever scientific studies involving beepers and diaries suggest that an average daydream is about fourteen seconds long and that we have about two thousand of them per day. In other words, we spend about half of our waking hours—one-third of our lives on earth—spinning fantasies.”

These statistics suggest that our brains are almost always processing internally produced stories. While Gottschall wrote about stories in general, his advice is valuable to climate change activists. He stated, “if you want a message to burrow into a human mind, work it into a story.” He added, “The emotions of fiction are highly contagious, and so are the ideas. As the psychologist Raymond Mar writes, ‘Researchers have repeatedly found that reader attitudes shift to become more congruent with the ideas expressed in a [fiction] narrative.’ Fiction seems more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, designed to persuade through argument and evidence. … People can think differently about sex, race, class, gender, violence, ethics, and anything else based on a single short story or television episode.”

Journalist Will Storr provided an example of this in The Science of Storytelling. He wrote, “One study had a group of white Americans viewing a sitcom, Little Mosque on the Prairie, that represented Muslims as friendly and relatable. Compared to a control group (who watched Friends), they ended up with ‘more positive attitudes towards Arabs’ on various tests – changes that persisted when re-tested a month later.

Siegfried provided further substantiation on the capability of stories to change attitudes.

She stated, “Recent research supports the idea that sharing stories can change a person’s deeply held point of view on divisive topics, in ways that the exchange of rational arguments cannot. A wide-reaching study, published in American Political Science Review, investigated whether it was possible to change exclusionary attitudes towards undocumented immigrants and transgender people. In three field experiments, 230 canvassers conversed with 6869 voters across seven US locations, engaging them either over the phone or face-to-face by knocking on doors. They found that while conversations deploying arguments alone had no effects on voters’ exclusionary immigration policy or discriminatory attitudes, otherwise identical conversations that also included the non-judgmental exchange of stories significantly reduced exclusionary attitudes for at least four months following the conversation.
By first listening carefully without judgment to the concerns of the voters whose doors they knocked on, canvassers shared stories of transgender individuals or undocumented immigrants they knew. In the sort of conversational tone you might expect from a couple of friends chatting over a beer down at the pub or café. No arguing, no defensiveness, just telling stories and sharing how current exclusionary policies affect the lives of real people.”

One reason why stories are so important is that facts alone do not seem to change many people’s attitudes. Marshall stated that “extensive research evidence shows that information does not change people’s attitudes.” Unfortunately, he did not provide any evidence to substantiate this assertion. Similarly, Cron stated, without any scientific evidence, that “Facts that don’t affect us—either directly or because we can’t imagine how the facts affect someone else—don’t matter to us. And that explains why one personalized story has infinitely more impact that an impersonal generalization, even though the scope of the generalization is a thousand times greater. In fact, it is only via a specific personalization that the point of a generalization is shot home.”

Further discussion on the disadvantages of relying solely on data to convince people was provided by Dr. Hans-Bernd Brosius, professor of communications, and Anke Bathelt in an article published in Communication Research. They wrote that “Research in social psychology has demonstrated the difficulties people have in processing or comprehending general statements that include percentages, probabilities, and so forth. … Handbooks on journalism recommend a combination of general statements with individual illustrations as a means of conveying a complex and abstract issue to a broader audience.” In other words, stories make it easier to process facts.

A few experts have offered advice on good storytelling for climate change activists. Frank Luntz is a communications expert who usually advises Republicans. In the past, he was a climate change denier. However, an article in Politico stated that he changed his mind and has recently stated that those fighting climate change should “personalize, individualize and humanize” the impacts of climate change to make it more relatable to the average person. Marshall reported on Luntz’s general advice on telling stories. Luntz stated that ‘a compelling story … can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.’ Luntz claims to have personally sat in more than two hundred focus groups, from which he has extracted his own rules for what constitutes a compelling story: simplicity, brevity, credibility, comprehension, consistency, repetition, repetition, and repetition.”

Additional good advice for climate change storytellers is found in What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming by psychologist Per Espen Stoknes. He wrote, “Make the issue feel near, human, personal, and urgent.”

Therefore, climate change activists should show through stories the harmful effects of climate change on the many individual concerns that people have. For example, the health of almost every person will be harmed both by burning fossil fuels and climate change. Exposure to fossil fuel pollution increases the risk of autism, dementia, and various mental illnesses, in addition to asthma, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Climate change will affect recreation and outdoor activities, including winter and summer sports. It will also affect political and economic systems. Almost everyone either has children or grandchildren or they eventually hope to. Most people want to leave a decent world to their descendants, and climate change will damage their legacy.

Fortunately, positive stories can be told about the future. For example, great alternatives can be shown through stories regarding the following topics. Deforestation increases climate change and ending it and planting new trees will both slowdown climate change and lead to increased biological diversity.

Climate injustice can be rectified. Food, water, and sewage systems can be made more sustainable. Urban areas can be made more pleasant with better and increased public transportation. Cities can become greener. The future does not have to be all doom and gloom, and stories can contribute to the dialogue on creating a more pleasant and sustainable future.

Lenore Hitchler

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    By: ONE Team

    ONE is a nonprofit magazine founded in 2014, dedicated to providing unbiased and independent commentary and reporting on energy and environment issues. ONE policy pursues the following principles: accuracy, integrity and transparency.
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