Climate Change Narratives
When I tell my children about what climate change is, I am not sure how I could thoroughly explain it. Climate change is an experience, but also a multifaceted tale. It is the tale of science fighting against time to design the necessary tools, explore other worlds, and uncover our true impact on the planet. It is the story of moral reflection, social inequality and environmental justice, left-leaning conspiracies, and so much more. The differing narratives impact people by having specific core beliefs, myths, and commitments, which emerge from a multitude of intersectional aspects (political, social, and cultural). Ultimately, they form and gain traction based on how an individual sees and experiences the world. But having so many versions of the concept has only alienated people from truly understanding it.
No one group “controls” the narrative on climate change, because it isn’t a straight-forward, one dimensional issue. However, only certain narratives become popular and really influence people to choose a side. For the climate change narrative, it encompasses varying myths, political and economic beliefs, cultural morals and ideals, and anecdotes; making them incompatible with one another. Throughout the media, online forums and social media, and academia, there are vigorous debates and discussions, and investigations and hypotheses that can either weaken, strengthen, or create new narratives. It is important to be educated on the many narratives to really grasp the issue at hand. Those aspects of narratives may seem complicated already, but things get much more murky and complex when climate change becomes the topic.
The first contemporary tale detailing the climate crisis came in the form of the global warming narrative. The term arose because the average global temperature was, and still is, rising significantly (over 1℃ globally since World War Two). However, the term “global warming” proved to be a one-dimensional label as average temperatures around the world were, and still are, hitting their hot and cold extremes due to climate change. It was a very flawed term and narrative as a whole because it only told one side of the story and contradicted the wild weather events people were experiencing in particularly cold environments. This allowed deniers, who had an interest in shutting down climate change narratives, to delegitimize scientists' claims that the world was dying environmentally. Some tried to blame the sun for increasing temperatures, but that has been disproven by NASA (in fact, the energy output of the sun has decreased overtime). Climate scientists accepted the criticism and relabeled it climate change, although by then the movement was forever plagued and would struggle to move past that error in communication. This unfortunately allowed big oil to control the narrative even further through propaganda.
ExxonMobil was one of the first oil companies who knew about the ever-growing issue of a polluting planet. In fact, their own scientists published a research paper in 1957 concluding that fossil fuels were causing a rise in CO2 levels. But since that went against their economic agenda, they buried that research and put doubt in people's minds early on about the Earth "getting hot." Nowadays, fossil fuel companies create the illusion that they are part of the solution to the climate crisis, working with climate activists and boasting about their contributions. In El Segundo, California the Chevron Oil Refinery created ads to emphasize their work to protect the El Segundo butterfly, yet many residents never hear much about the various chemicals (and their side effects) they are releasing into the environment. However, that does not stop them from doing what they can to shift blame on the public by supporting legislation and initiatives for renewable straws and eliminating plastic bags; in doing so they reject any blame for the climate catastrophe and dictate that it is the consumers fault for living and actively participating in (with no fault of their own) in a capitalistic society.. It also does not stop them from vilifying left-leaning efforts to cut pollution through legislation, with the support of Republicans. Many conservatives in western countries believe that climate change is a tool used by global agencies interfering in domestic affairs. This has led to them pushing back against the biggest climate effort of our time, the Green New Deal.
The Green New Deal is an extensive social and environmental legislation that has spawned a contemporary movement which aspires to address the climate crisis directly through adopting modern scientific approaches and establishing techniques to minimize socioeconomic inequality. The particular narrative surrounding the Green New Deal involves addressing environmental racism, protecting workers, prioritizing the environment, and transitioning to clean energy permanently. While most narratives focus on the economic or scientific aspects of the concept, people who heavily advocate for the Green New Deal are more concerned with the social aspects. Because of their unique focus, they make up for what other narratives lack: social context. Any narrative that does not address how people in poorer or lower status bear the brunt of the climate crisis will never get the support it would need to be sufficiently influential. As we look towards technology for solutions, we will inevitably leave lower-income and poor-stricken communities behind in decision making and receiving aid if we do not amplify and highlight their voices.
Considering that the government is slow to act, it seems our only hope to mitigate the effects of climate change on future generations is to develop new technology that can adjust our way of living to survive on the planet. There are high ambitions in carbon removal and geoengineering whose purpose is to alter global climate conditions, but the scientific data to back those solutions up are lacking. But with new technology to address climate change comes the possibility of huge economic gains. Climate technology could lead to profiting off of a damaged and dying planet, and even threaten countries who do not have the resources to obtain climate technology. Since the environment already has direct ties to capitalism, profits will be streamlined straight to the first company that fully monopolizes the industry. Climate technology could further exacerbate the issue if attitudes do not change about holding corporations and ourselves accountable. But without the technology, we may be staring at the last few decades left for life on Earth.
Everyday the media reminds us just how close we are to the end of the world, yet their fear mongering only gives the impression that that statement is an exaggeration. The problem that plagues the particular "end-of-the-world" narrative however is the uncertainty of the future and facts, the very backbone of the narrative. How are people expected to just believe and actively work towards reducing climate change when you can’t sense it the way you can other issues? For issues like homelessness, weak infrastructure, poverty, hate and polarization, you can feel, smell, and hear them daily. But with climate change, it lurks forebodingly around us and people are not sure how to use their senses to detect it. Seeing plumes of smoke from buses and factories may seem normal if you spent your whole life in a city. Seeing dirty water might seem like the norm if you are from an area with poor water infrastructure. The point being is that people sense climate change everyday, yet many don't recognize it due to the narratives and education they have been conditioned to believe. Climate change forces us to strain our senses to not only recognize its existence, but also its negative impact on our lives.
What has a huge impact on our senses and our ideas about climate change are movies, specifically apocalyptic climate films — 2012, Geostorm, The Day After Tomorrow, Snowpiercer, Waterworld, and the list goes on. Those films tell tales about what happens when humanity does not listen and the Earth retaliates as a consequence. They sometimes have religious undertones (like the use of an ark for people and animals in 2012), and portray extreme yet slightly comedic takes on the world ending due to climate change. They show the struggles to establish or find a utopia in an evolving dystopian planet. While not the focus of the films, they try to inspire action but they only instill complacency since they fantasize climate disasters. They all follow the same ending of "humanity finds a way," giving a false impression that there is a better possibility to overcome environmental calamities than there really is. Even more so, they promote white-centric narratives, lazy and fictional science, and do not give coherent solutions. I have seen more ideas for audiences on what they can do personally in both The Lorax iterations than any climate change focused film. Apocalyptic climate films exploit the issue itself to sell fear, patriotism, white-superiority, and human excellence, ultimately leading to disengagement and temporary urgency.
So what now? People are detached or anxious, and without any cohesiveness in discourse, disinterest and nervousness will only be heightened. Well, first we need to make something clear: climate denial is not something "uniquely American," as some other western countries might believe. In fact, many Australians, Brits, and Mexicans are climate deniers due to the influence of the fossil fuel industry, so that misconception needs to be dropped. There are people in third world countries who suffer from the impacts of climate change who deny it as well from lack of education and being fed political propaganda. Next, we need to stop envisioning ourselves as unstoppable beings. Yes, it is true that we have survived all other obstacles we have encountered: the bubonic plague, the ice age, and a nuclear crisis to name a few. But we are due for a sixth mass extinction, and to think we could damage our only home that exists is ignorant. Space can only hold us for so long, and planets like Earth are centuries away from us. This is not a random war or single virus, it is a global catastrophe threatening what are possibly the only lifeforms in existence in the universe. Finally, people need the motivation to no longer feel so helpless on this issue. We need to stop vilifying the average person and give them the tools they need to stand up to their governments and politicians, as well as corporations. We need to educate every person on this planet that change will require limitations of some freedoms. If we were supposed to live our lives without consequences and physical limitations then life would be perfect and so would our planet, but it is not. Like most things in this universe, we have to take care of Earth so that it can take care of life on it.
Many solutions have been suggested and promoted, but implementation is slow due to the narratives that have plagued this global calamity. Scientists have produced and shared evidence from satellites and other technological advances, tree rings, ocean sediments, bleached coral reefs, and layers of sedimentary rock. They have taken samples from ice cores, of ocean temperature, and shrinking ice sheets and glaciers. For decades, rising sea levels, high and low temperatures, and increased extreme weather events have been recorded. Yet dialogue and action is slow. The reason being is that science is not getting through to enough people. We are fighting our own greed, gluttony, and willful ignorance. From the clothing companies we support that necessitate the use of 1800 gallons of water per jean, to the pounds of food we dump in landfills without a second thought. As a species existing on this planet, we can no longer try to mold such a huge issue into a set narrative with ulterior motives and objectives. The climate crisis is a worsening product of human advancement that will require extensive persuasion in order to address it directly as we should.