07 Oct

Trump-ing climate change: How narratives can save the planet

‘Factual truths are never compellingly true. Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy domain of human affairs. From this it follows that no factual statement can ever be beyond doubt.’ – Hannah Arendt, Lying in Politics

The world has moved on from it but let’s talk about Hurricane Irma. Or rather, let’s talk about the way we talked about Hurricane Irma.

Two distinct memories of the reporting on Hurricane Irma have stayed on my mind. The first was the media coverage of the hurricane as it approached Florida. There were dedicated segments on live news slots, and additional documentary reportage on the hurricane. The reporting became surreal; a combination of journalistic reporting, wildlife documentary and sci-fi cinema.

The second image was from a disaster appeal campaign ad requesting funds to deal with the damage caused by Hurricane Irma in North America. Except this ad was different from others. Video footage from previous disaster appeals were used because it was raising funds for the anticipated damage of Hurricane Irma. The campaign ad used footage from disasters in the ‘Global South’. I’ve wondered why footage from previous natural disasters in America (Hurricane Katrina) could not have been used instead. Perhaps, the humanitarian relief organisation owned the footage from previous relief campaigns but did not own video footage from other disaster appeals such as Hurricane Katrina.

It’s interesting that images of Global South were used for a disaster campaign while other natural disasters in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sierra Leone happened in the same period, with little to no coverage in Western mainstream media.

Climate change is happening but there is a gap between the reality of climate change and our perception of it. One implication of this is that we have different narratives of climate change and consequently the way we act on it.

In his article, ‘Mental Infrastructures: How Growth Entered the World and Our Souls’, Harald Welzer concludes that in order to create a sustainable world and tackle climate change we need a new narrative which does not look to the past but positions us in the future:

‘Who would we like to have been in the past? How do we want the world to be organized when we leave it to our successors? Today’s society has no narratives to tell about that; it simply wants to be the same it was in the past, while it is, at the same time, looking with trepidation at geopolitical shifts and impending ecological disasters that seem to forebode that the future will not be better than the present – as has been the case over the past 200 years –, but worse. It is not possible to tell a narrative about that’ (2011:35)’

Reflecting on these observations and the analysis by Welzer, I posit four existing narratives in the climate change discourse.

Narrative 1: Climate change as a narrative of time.

Although our policy agendas and implementation strategies are created to respond to the future impacts of climate change, there are at least three tenses used in the narratives of climate change.

Past-present: For climate justice advocates, the effects of climate change are unequally spread, disproportionately affecting those from low socio-economic backgrounds or communities living in areas with greater impact.

Present-future: For climate change adaptation/mitigation proponents, present action on climate change are key determinants of the future impact of climate change. While the assumption of historical agency is implicit, the focus is on what we can do now.

Past-future: The case for present and future accountability on action against climate change is determined by the extent one believes the argument of historic responsibility. For climate change sceptics, the cause and effect between past actions and present effects of climate change cannot be verified beyond reasonable doubt.

Narrative 2: Climate change as a narrative of power.

While climate change is global, its impact reflects the geographical inequalities shaped by the social, political and economic systems of our world. Take, for example, the mass suicides of male farmers in rural communities in India. The rapid degradation of their farms due to a drastic change in the environment has led to a significant loss of income. Faced with the loss of livelihoods and increasing debt from the high-interest loans they borrow to sustain themselves and their families, they commit suicide.

These inequalities can lead to what is known as triple injustice; communities that historically contributed the least to climate change are most at-risk of the effects of climate change, and are least likely to access the mitigation mechanisms developed due to cost and feasibility.

For proponents of this narrative, to detach the physical phenomenon of climate change from the political realities is to tell an incomplete story.

Narrative 3: Climate change as a narrative of facts.

Couched in the scientific discourse of facts and evidence, climate change has been a great revelation of what we know now; truth is not about what you can prove but what people can connect with in their lived realities. There is fact, and there is evidence which both need each other. Then there is ‘alternative truth’ which need neither.

Climate change sceptics such as Trump, question the verity of climate change. Withdrawing from the Paris agreement stems from the denial of these facts and the relevance of climate change to his administration’s vision of American life.

Other actors use the facts and evidence of climate change as an attempt to bring it away from the realm of subjectivity and to stimulate action on it.

Narrative 4: Climate change as a narrative of fear.

When we talk of climate change, often the narrative of fear is used to stimulate action.  This narrative is, ‘lest we do something now, terrible things will happen in the future which will destroy this earth.’ Yes, that is likely and we are already witnessing the negative impacts of climate change right now.

The challenging work is to evaluate whether the narrative of fear spurs people to action more than a narrative of hope can. Additionally, if the narrative of hope is more effective, what does this narrative look like and why is it not the prevailing narrative?

Given the existence of these narratives, there are two questions to consider:

  • Are these narratives helping or hurting our efforts to make progress in tackling climate change?
  • Can the facts of climate change have more influence than the narratives we tell about climate change?

4 comment on “Trump-ing climate change: How narratives can save the planet

  • I think we are currently telling the climate change challenge more from the narrative of fear rather than hope and in my honest view I think this approach is doing very little to spur more action to sustainable transform our society both from all segments of the society. How effective the narrative of hope can and will be in different societies will be a debatable depending on the people and several other factors but its worth trying how this approach can further drive the climate change narrative.

    • Hello Segun,

      Thank you so much for your reflection! I think one narrative of hope is trying to make people feel some agency over the issue, that they can do something. However, this comes at the expense of centering these actions around the individual as global dev campaigns tend to do. I think on the one hand it’s been successful in the past in persuading people but it can take away from the ‘bigger picture’ issues. For example, climate change requires cognitive reconditioning and reviewing the existing models of progress underpinning global social, political and economic systems.

      You are right – context is very important – do you know of any interesting initiatives you think are making progress?

      Thanks so much


  • I think that most of the ills in the world are due to certain valued behaviour patterns of some, undertaken in the belief that it would enable ythem to make some end they consider to be worthwhile, and at the same time, the others engage in similar activities knowing that those will enable them to achieve a desirable goal. Both groups unite in that their behaviour is not guided by any particular consideration neither for the well-being of our environment, nor for other people. Now, I find it hard to envisage a nebulous term from literary criticism like ‘narrative’ (ref. old narratology of transient fame) to motivate human behaviour any more than any other ‘narrative’ like a faery tale about a magic carpet would motivate a child to go and look for one. I think what is needed its some effective way to inclulcate into people an ethical sense from childhood that embodies two simple principals, viz., one’s well-being is inextricably linked with that of many others and we all depend on the felicity of our environment for every enoyment and satisfaction of every need. The possibility of these depends on our willingness and ability to cooperate and not compete like the classical Darwinian brute whose survival often depends on mechanical competition. To bebrief, such cooperation will involve nurturing our environment, refusal to sequester huge quantities of values (money, land, stocks and shares, commodities, etc) as we do now producing specimens like the ‘richest rhodent in the universe’ of tabloid and telly fame.

    • Hello Lal,

      Thank you so much for your reflection! Yes, action against climate change will require co-operation and revaluation of the social, economic, and political models we currently have.

      I do think narratives play a very important part in how people perceive issue – narratives are used in politics as well as global development campaigning for the good and the bad. They also reveal alot about the assumptions people make about a certain topic in order to ‘believe’ that narrative and as you mentioned in your comment, your two principles also hold assumptions about the world.



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