Changing the Narrative

When I was a kid, my dream was to become a speechwriter (nerd alert!) I like to think that was because even as a middle schooler, I understood the power of a strong narrative. Or rather, I did not understand it yet, but I felt it. I knew that when I heard a great story, I could be moved, inspired, and persuaded. Now, I don’t remember learning about the climate crisis or seeing its effects for the first time, but I do know that by the time I was a high schooler I already believed it to be a problem of persuasion. I saw that we had the science, the technologies to change, and we just needed the will to make it happen. 10 years later, I still think the same thing.

This week, rather than look at a specific piece of art, I want to take a step back and examine the narrative ecosystem as a whole. I encourage you to join me! Narratives are important, because humans respond to stories, and the stories we tell ourselves can change the course of our lives, and history. While reading I hope you’ll ask yourself questions like — where do I hear about climate in my life? What stories are told? Are there any spaces in my life where climate is not a topic of conversation? Have I ever been convinced, or convinced someone else, to believe something new?

This week in particular, I’ve been steeped in communications work. Outside On the Level, I am a communications manager for two different organizations, and so I have to create content most days of the week. I also took my own advice from last week’s Climate Culture and have been tearing through podcasts as my commute to training has gotten even longer due to a welcome snowstorm!

Being a communications professional, I’m trying to get people to change or act on their most deeply held beliefs most days of the week. When I’m listening to podcasts or talking to friends or reading articles or even endlessly scrolling Twitter, I’m trying to learn how to do this more effectively. And I have to say, this week has felt futile. How can I change someone’s opinion? My entire life has been lived in a cultural and media ecosystem that has been a steady march toward more conspiracies, less fact, and peak polarization. What’s a girl to do? When you try to learn from pundits, pollsters, other professionals and regular people — you’re assaulted by the fact that everyone has a different opinion of what is needed. “We need to be more hopeful.” “We need to be more honest.” “We need to be more visionary.” “We need to be more grounded.” “Nothing we say matters.” “If we could just get the messaging right we would win.”

It’s made me realize just how little we really understand about the specific combination of words, whether used in conversation with a neighbor, posted on social media, or spoken by the president, that will help to inspire a livable future. This is not to say that the people on the ground or the professionals and social scientists with the data don’t know what they’re talking about — they certainly do. We have some great initial anecdotes and research to guide us. It’s just that it’s still in the early stages. What EVERYONE understands, though, is that somehow, to win a livable future, we must change the narrative. We need a narrative based in fact. We need a narrative that centers on those who are most affected by the crisis. We need a narrative that helps people understand that everything is at stake, and we each have a unique power to do something about it.

How we deliver that narrative is going to depend on who we are and who we’re talking to, where we live and what we do for a living. That’s why I have been so excited to see reporting that suggests climate is finally breaking into mainstream media — one of the most potent cultural and narrative forces around — in a big way. An article out in today in Treehugger builds on Media and Climate Change Observatory research and Amy Westervelt’s reporting in Hot Take shows the myriad ways that is happening. 2021 had more climate reporting than any other, major newsrooms like The Washington Post and The Associated Press are doing major climate hiring, and of course, Don’t Look Up is still out in the world, racking up Oscar noms. In the real world, I had a chat with a teammate about the climate crisis and wildfire smoke just this morning. All of these things have the potential to change the narrative, or our idea of what is possible, to create a moment where change is inevitable. Incrementally, we are making real, tangible progress.

The especially wonderful thing about all this new content, is that it will only give us more data points for what works and what doesn’t, and it will help us to reach more kinds of people. If you like rom-coms and Taylor Swift like me, Climate Culture can continue to help you build a narrative around the climate crisis. If you’re a lawyer, perhaps you’d prefer the brand new podcast, Damages, about climate in the courtroom.

And in other exciting news about climate communication, culture, and narratives — On the Level is launching our own podcast! Starting next month, you’ll be able to hear Ingrid and my dulcet tones in Climate Convos — the entry level climate podcast here to help you navigate these rising seas. If you’d like to become a founding sponsor, you can join our launch donors in receiving exclusive access to our first 3 episodes with a donation of $50. Just today, we shared our amazing conversation about passion and activism with Winter Olympian, Paul Schommer. You won’t want to miss it! If you aren’t able to donate, though, not to worry, future podcasts will be free.

So keep an eye out for us coming soon, and thank you for being a part of this narrative. Together we can make change, we just need to keep talking to each other — through every avenue, with every emotion, and our whole heart.

Photo credit: Nick Tenney

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