Wednesday 20th April 2022
Communicating the climate crisis has been one of the major challenges in bringing about climate action. Learning how to improve the way we communicate is therefore an essential task for all science communicators.
So it’s with great interest that I finally read George Marshall’s book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. In this book, Marshall explains why we struggle to tackle this wicked problem.
He compares the lack of dialogue about climate change to that of death – it’s not something that is brought up in polite conversation. I could also sympathise with the author, when he explained that talking about climate change is often met with an awkward silence and the topic tends to quickly change. No doubt this is a familiar scenario for many in the climate movement.
Marshall talks about social norms and how the climate emergency is subject to the bystander effect. People tend to monitor what those around them are doing and saying, as well as what they aren’t doing or saying. As such, this provides a basis for their own behaviours.
As an author and storyteller in the cli-fi and eco-fiction space, I was particularly interested in what Marshall had to say about the power of stories and fiction. He writes that, “Rational scientific data can lose against a compelling emotional story that speaks to people’s core values.” This is because scientific data utilises the analytical part of the brain, whereas stories engage the emotional part of the brain, and this is something that can lead to behavioural change. Yet Marshall says that based on his interviews with experts that we haven’t been able to get through to our emotional brains about the climate crisis. I believe there is one way we can do this. To illustrate how, I’m going to use an example from Marshall’s book.
We know that stories can shape our worldview and our behaviour. As such, I believe that novels within the cli-fi genre can engage people who’ve failed to respond to the science. Stories can pull readers in as they live vicariously through the characters. We feel what the characters are feeling, we read their thoughts and empathise with them. We are reaching that emotional part of the brain that we need to. I’ve previously argued that we need more positive cli-fi which is grounded in the present and talks about solutions.
In Marshall’s book though, he talked about the bestselling climate change book (at that time), which just so happened to be a book by climate denier, Michael Crichton. The book was State of Fear. State of Fear presents environmentalists and climate scientists as the bad guys, and climate change as a hoax. Yet many people believed it was telling the ‘truth’ about climate change, despite the fact that it wasn’t based on science. Marshall says that one reader was the President of the United States of America, George W. Bush. Marshall writes that Crichton was invited to the Oval Office for an hour-long talk with the President, and that the two men “were in near-total agreement” afterwards. But it gets worse, “The novel was then presented as “scientific” evidence into a U.S. Senate committee and Crichton gave briefings on climate change around the world at the invitation of the U.S. State Department.”
State of Fear is a prime example of a compelling story, which contains many features that our brains are hardwired to respond to, which fulfilled the author’s ambition of changing minds, albeit to the detriment of our collective future. And it just so happened that one of those minds happened to be the so-called leader of the free world, who then went on to stymie climate action, censor climate science, and side with the fossil fuel industry. Not bad for what ‘just a story’ can do.
Marshall says that one of the reasons why State of Fear performed so well is due to its ‘narrative fidelity’. This is a term he attributes to Professor Walter Fisher who believes that people make their decisions based on the quality of a story (its narrative fidelity), as opposed to the information’s quality within it. As Marshall writes, “People will maintain their belief in an engaging story even if they are told that it is a fiction.”
This is why I firmly believe that stories can engage, educate and inform a much wider audience about climate change than pure science. Yet to avoid a Crichton repeat, I’d echo separate advice from Marshall that while we need new ways of communicating climate change, like through stories, we also need to ensure they contain credible scientific information. To get the balance right between creating an engaging story and incorporating science, is not easy. But authors have achieved this, and I believe one of the best examples is The Last Bear by Hannah Gold. Her follow-up book The Lost Whale is another great example of eco-fiction.
I highly recommend Don’t Even Think About It. Whether you’re a climate communicator or an aspiring cli-fi author, there are lessons in here that everyone can learn from. I think it would also be fitting to end on Marshall’s advice to incorporate narratives centred around our common humanity, shared interests and cooperation, in our climate communications. Nothing short of this will give us the people power we need to win this fight.
My new cli-fi children’s picture book is Nanook and the Melting Arctic. Nanook is a caring polar bear who lives in the Arctic. But when his igloo starts melting, Nanook must find a way to save his friends and his home. He knows that the people who can help are also those who’ve caused the problem and he must find a way to convince leaders to act on the climate crisis. You can purchase Nanook from Amazon’s global stores including Amazon UK and Amazon US.