The tragedy of climate related story telling


By Šimon Michalčík, GLOBUS Correspondent

Devastating hurricane kills thousands. 

Malaria-transmitting mosquitoes enter Europe. 

The Netherlands completely sunk by rising sea levels. 

You may have seen similar headlines to the ones above. Some are yet to be seen, but climate change is increasing the likelihood that one day you will, whether that is on the TV, on TikTok or on the front page of a newspaper. Arguably, the climate crisis is the hottest issue of today and one that encompasses magnitudes of emotional stories. Inspired by years of my personal experience of working for a climate-related NGO, I would like to draw on my observations to contemplate how the story-telling we use to raise awareness on the climate crisis often fails to fulfill its purpose, instead misguiding us into developing ineffective responses to the problem. 


First, if you are not familiar with the concepts of climate change mitigation and adaptation, let us establish what these are, as all responses to the climate crisis generally fall within these two approaches.  

Mitigation strategies attempt to prevent the climate change by stopping the greenhouse gases (GHGs) from entering the atmosphere in the first place, or sucking the already-emitted GHGs down by increasing our carbon sinks – either way, mitigation diminishes the future growth of the problem across the globe by directly preventing the greenhouse effect.  Adaptation, on the other hand, takes the impacts of the climate crisis that are already here or those soon-anticipated, and tries to reduce the local damage as much as possible – adaptation increases our climate resilience by adjusting our lives to the changing climate.  

So, one could say that the two approaches represent opposite attitudes towards the crisis, even taking on different personas: (a) the Mitigators who think of the future and ambitiously try to take the matter into their own hands in order to prevent a catastrophe, and (b) the Adapters, who have given up in face of nature’s tremendous strength, instead attempting to salvage as much as they can. Now, both approaches are vital for our survival and work well side by sides. But I believe that ultimately, mitigation is the way that we can ensure our civilization lives to see the future centuries.  

However, global policy-makers continue to fail in developing sufficient efforts for mitigation, and adaptation is increasingly pushed at regional and city levels. So, the question arises: Why is this the case? After all, the scientific evidence arguing for immediate global mitigation of the climate crisis is beyond sufficient. 

We can explore this lack of quality mitigation from many perspectives, such as economic, political or even psychological. I, however, will offer observations that place the story-telling behind climate change awareness as one of the underlying causes of this dilemma.  


The importance of story-telling when trying to grasp someone’s attention is perhaps just as important as the science. Facts and figures rarely sway crowds into transformative action; a good story, on the other hand, often does. By story, I do not necessarily mean a lengthy novel, nor a hit Netflix series – stories can be small, contained within press reports or social media entries. And by good, I do not mean the complexity of the storylines nor the beauty of the words the story is told with – a good story in this context is simply something that sparks emotions.  

We have witnessed many times how emotional story-telling can shed light on an environmental issue and provoke action. Just a few years ago we saw an incredible increase in public interest towards reducing the amounts of plastic we use. Was it just the data concerning oceanic biodiversity loss that suddenly caused so many to dust off their fabric shopping bags and bamboo coffee cups? Not likely. Everywhere around me, I witnessed the public moved instead by multitudes of photos or documentaries displaying turtles trapped in plastic six-pack holders, whale stomachs clogged up with pepsi bottles and birds feeding their chicks with what might have been a kinder surprise toy. Such alarming reports are essentially stories with great emotional impact – stories you can tell by clicking one share button, and stories that had a common, explicit villain – plastic. As such, it did not take long to change the behaviour of millions (though the issue of plastic is still far from solved).  


Now, let us return to the climate crisis. As an environmental phenomenon, it also has a strong story-telling potential. Indeed, every year, our Earth is increasingly theatrical in its attempts to let us know about the severity of our changing climate: from raging hurricanes and wildfires to rising sea-levels and increasing desertification. These are each stories that make us aware of the issue and definitely trigger emotional responses. Yet, they often have one important down-side: they do not show us who the true villain is.  

Let us take a typical climate-related story: flooding. In this hypothetical story, a region is suffering from increased rainfall resulting in vast damage and casualties. The press reports are furious, social media is full of videos showing entire streets sunk beneath the water and a few years later, a hollywood blockbuster about this specific flood is released, moving thousands across the globe to mourn the damage of this particular horrific flood yet again. But, who is the villain that audience sees in these narratives? The straightforward answer would be the increased rainfall. Thus, the story triggers the people of the unlucky region to build flood defenses and center all their climate policies around this method, thinking that this is how the villain will be beaten. In other words, they develop climate adaptation strategies and leave the real villain unaddressed – and who could blame them? 

Of course, the actual villain (greenhouse gases) does not appear in any of the stories. But that dosn’t mean it isn’t pulling the strings, operating all over the world and setting things in motion years before they wreck havoc.

If we were to tell the story of the climate crisis accurately, it would be a complex tale. First, millions of companies and billions of people across the planet would be emitting large amounts of GHGs; then, those GHGs would become part of the complex global atmospheric motions, triggering an increased ‘greenhouse gas ‘effect over decades; then, the temperature would rise – and finally, because of that, thousands of seemingly-unrelated events happen across the planet: from floods to heat-waves and even to dying coral reefs.  

Do you see? Halfway through the story, we lost track of who the specific villain is. Unlike plastic pollution, we cannot attach a single villain to a single story; no particular body of GHG-molecules triggered a specific single climate change-related event. The real villain for every climate change-related story is the overwhelming collective volume of all the GHGs emitted anywhere in the world, triggering global warming that takes on different faces in different places. Such a villain is too difficult to portray and even more difficult to understand. Hence, it is no surprise that adaptation is the response preferred by many to whom the story is told, and mitigation – that is, the addressing our GHG emissions – remains a secondary concern.  

Similarly, just as the story-telling in regards to the climate crisis itself favours adaptation responses over mitigation, so does the story-telling we present our responses with. Let us go back to the scenario of floods that resulted in people building flood defenses. When the defences are completed, whomever led the effort to construct the defenses can live to tell the honourable tale of stopping floods for the foreseeable future. However, imagine a different ending; one in which the corporations and politicians of the region were to suddenly promote the reduction of GHG-emissions (aka promote mitigation). This story would lack an emotional element – there is no hero able to bask in glory. It would probably not even prevent the next year’s floods. The importance would be difficult to track, the heroism hard to evidence. The result? We go with Option A, the story of The Climate Crisis which leads to insufficient adaptation responses, and the sequel – Humans Strike Back: The Adapters – a story that might be popular in the short-term, but will inevitably reveal its shortfall later on. 


The situation we are in is dire. The climate crisis is perhaps the most complex global issue we have ever faced; on top of that (and perhaps because of that), our efforts to stop it in time are lacking. Scientific certainty is – sadly – not enough, and for a massive change, good story-telling is needed.  These good stories need to be told by everyone: from the UN to NGOs to governments to companies to individuals – including me, and you.

When you tell this story of climate change, whether that be by simply sharing a post on Facebook, or starting to shoot a documentary picture, tell it in a way so that it triggers a need for effective climate mitigation efforts. Always put emphasis on how climate change works as a whole, even if you’re just talking about one local drought. Celebrate those who make the future brighter by truly mitigating climate change, and tell everyone about the possible horrific events they will prevent by doing so. And above all, seize every possible opportunity to educate others about the climate crisis, so that when they see an incomplete story about it, they will be able to connect the dots and know for themselves who the real villain is. Because ultimately,  stories will either be told about how we stopped the climate crisis – or no stories will be told at all. 

Image by Fathromi Ramdlon from Pixabay 

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