‘If you win the popular imagination, you change the game’: why we need new stories on climate – The Guardian

So much is happening, both wonderful and terrible – and it matters how we tell it. We can’t erase the bad news, but to ignore the good is the route to indifference or despair
Every crisis is in part a storytelling crisis. This is as true of climate chaos as anything else. We are hemmed in by stories that prevent us from seeing, or believing in, or acting on the possibilities for change. Some are habits of mind, some are industry propaganda. Sometimes, the situation has changed but the stories haven’t, and people follow the old versions, like outdated maps, into dead ends.
We need to leave the age of fossil fuel behind, swiftly and decisively. But what drives our machines won’t change until we change what drives our ideas. The visionary organiser adrienne maree brown wrote not long ago that there is an element of science fiction in climate action: “We are shaping the future we long for and have not yet experienced. I believe that we are in an imagination battle.”
In order to do what the climate crisis demands of us, we have to find stories of a livable future, stories of popular power, stories that motivate people to do what it takes to make the world we need. Perhaps we also need to become better critics and listeners, more careful about what we take in and who’s telling it, and what we believe and repeat, because stories can give power – or they can take it away.
To change our relationship to the physical world – to end an era of profligate consumption by the few that has consequences for the many – means changing how we think about pretty much everything: wealth, power, joy, time, space, nature, value, what constitutes a good life, what matters, how change itself happens. As the climate journalist Mary Heglar writes, we are not short on innovation. “We’ve got loads of ideas for solar panels and microgrids. While we have all of these pieces, we don’t have a picture of how they come together to build a new world. For too long, the climate fight has been limited to scientists and policy experts. While we need their skills, we also need so much more. When I survey the field, it’s clear that what we desperately need is more artists.”
What the climate crisis is, what we can do about it, and what kind of a world we can have is all about what stories we tell and whose stories are heard. Climate change was a story that fell on mostly indifferent ears when it was first discussed in the mainstream more than 30 years ago. Even a dozen years ago, it was supposed to be happening very slowly and in the distant future. There were a lot of references to “our grandchildren’s time”. It was a problem that was difficult to grasp – this dispersed, incremental, atmospheric, invisible, global problem with many causes and manifestations, whose solutions are also dispersed and manifold. That voices from the climate movement have finally succeeded in making the vast majority understand it, and many care passionately about it, might be the biggest single victory the movement will have. Because once you’ve won the popular imagination, you’ve changed the game and its possible outcomes. But this was a long, slow, arduous process, and misconceptions still abound.
A lot of people don’t know that we’ve largely won the battle to make people aware and concerned. The LA Times ran a well-intentioned editorial last year about how most Americans don’t care about climate breakdown. That was true once, but no longer is. A Pew Research poll in 2020 concluded that two-thirds of Americans wanted to see more government action on climate, but last summer the scientific journal Nature published a study concluding that most Americans believe that only a minority (37-43%) support climate action, when in reality a large majority (66-80%) does. That gap between perceived and actual support undermines motivation and confidence. We need better stories – and sometimes better means more up to date.
Outright climate denial – the old story that climate change isn’t real – has been rendered largely obsolete (outside social media) by climate-driven catastrophes around the globe and good work by climate activists and journalists. But other stories still stop us from seeing clearly. Greenwashing – the schemes created by fossil fuel corporations and others to portray themselves as on the environment’s side while they continue their profitable destruction – is rampant. It’s harder to recognise a false friend than an honest enemy, and their false solutions, delaying tactics and empty promises can be confusing for non-experts. Fortunately, as the climate movement has diversified, one new organisation, Clean Creatives, focuses specifically on pressuring advertising and PR agencies to stop doing the industry’s dirty work. Likewise, climate journalists are exposing how fossil fuel money is funding pseudo-environmental opposition to offshore wind turbines.
(As the climate activist and oil policy analyst Antonia Juhasz recently told me, the climate movement is now going after every aspect of the fossil fuel industry, including funding by banks and, via the divestment movement, shares held by investors; donations to politicians; insurers; permits for extraction; transport; refinement; emissions, notably through lawsuits concerning their impact; shutting coal-fired power plants; and pushing for a rapid transition to electrification.)
But we still lack stories that give context. For example, I see people excoriate the mining, principally for lithium and cobalt, that will be an inevitable part of building renewables – turbines, batteries, solar panels, electric machinery – apparently oblivious to the far vaster scale and impact of fossil fuel mining. If you’re concerned about mining on indigenous land, about local impacts or labour conditions, I give you the biggest mining operations ever undertaken: for oil, gas, and coal, and the hungry machines that must constantly consume them.
Extracting material that will be burned up creates the incessant cycle of consumption on which the fossil fuel industry has grown fabulously rich. It creates climate chaos as well as destruction and contamination at every stage of the process. Globally, burning fossil fuels kills almost 9 million people annually, a death toll larger than any recent war. But that death toll is largely invisible for lack of compelling stories about it.
All mining needs to be done with respect for the land and people in the vicinity, but the impact of mining for renewables needs to be weighed against the far more devastating impact of mining for and burning fossil fuel. The race is on to find battery materials that are more commonly available and less impactful than lithium and cobalt, and some of the results look promising. Last summer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced an aluminium-sulphur battery is in the works, while a US company is developing one that stores electricity using iron – the so-called “iron-air” battery. Efforts to extract battery materials from longterm coal waste in West Virginia are among the many others under way. And the Inflation Reduction Act includes funding to research better battery materials and domestic US sources.
Other stories of premature defeat are all too common. In the 400,000-strong 2014 climate march in New York City, one section marched behind a huge banner declaring “WE HAVE THE SOLUTIONS” – but many people still believe we do not. We have the solutions we need in solar and wind; we just need to build them out and make the transition, fast. Looking to wildly ineffectual carbon sequestration and other undeveloped technologies as a relevant solution is like ignoring the lifeboats at hand in the hope that fancy new ones are coming when the ship is sinking and speed is of the essence.
One story I frequently encounter frames the possibilities in absolutes: if we can’t win everything, then we lose everything. There are so many doom-soaked stories out there – about how civilisation, humanity, even life itself, are scheduled to die out. This apocalyptic thinking is due to another narrative failure: the inability to imagine a world different than the one we currently inhabit.
People without much sense of history imagine the world as static. They assume that if the present order is failing, the system is collapsing, and there is no alternative. A historical imagination equips you to understand that change is ceaseless. You only have to look to the past to see such a world, dramatically different half a century ago, stunningly so a century ago. The UK, for example, ran almost entirely on coal power until the 1960s, and if you had said then that it would have to quit coal, many would have imagined this meant an utter collapse of the energy system, not its transformation. Even in 2008, the organisation Carbon Brief noted, “four-fifths of the UK’s electricity came from fossil fuels. Since then, the UK has cleaned up its electricity mix faster than any other major world economy. Coal-fired power has virtually disappeared and even gas use is down by a quarter. Instead, the country now gets more than half of its electricity from low-carbon sources, such as solar, wind and nuclear.” Scotland already generates nearly all the electricity it needs from renewables.
While I often hear people casually assert that our world is doomed, no reputable scientist makes such claims. Most are deeply worried, but far from hopeless. There are already profound losses, but our action or inaction determine how much more loss will occur, and whose it will be, and some repair is possible. Efforts sufficient to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could lower temperatures and reverse some aspects of climate breakdown.
Even the journalist David Wallace-Wells, who rose to fame with a deeply pessimistic book about climate a few years ago, has shifted his view. He currently describes a future somewhere between the best and worst case scenarios, a future “with the most terrifying predictions made improbable by decarbonisation and the most hopeful ones practically foreclosed by tragic delay. The window of possible climate futures is narrowing, and as a result, we are getting a clearer sense of what’s to come: a new world, full of disruption … yet mercifully short of true climate apocalypse.”
A climate story we urgently need is one that exposes who is actually responsible for climate chaos. It’s been popular to say that we are all responsible, but Oxfam reports that over the past 25 years, the carbon impact of the top 1% of the wealthiest human beings was twice that of the bottom 50%, so responsibility for the impact and the capacity to make change is currently distributed very unevenly.
By saying “we are all responsible”, we avoid the fact that the global majority of us don’t need to change much, but a minority needs to change a lot. This is also a reminder that the idea that we need to renounce our luxuries and live more simply doesn’t really apply to the majority of human beings outside what we could perhaps call the overdeveloped world. What is true of Beverly Hills is not true of the majority from Bangladesh to Bolivia.
When it comes to who’s harming the climate, it’s also been popular to focus on individual contributions. The fossil fuel industry likes the narrative of personal responsibility as a way to keep us scrutinising ourselves and one another, rather than them. They’ve promoted the concept of climate footprints as a way to keep the focus on us and not them, and it’s worked. Usually if I ask people what they’re doing about the climate emergency, most will talk about what they’re not consuming or doing – but these will never add up to the speed and scale of change needed to change the system.
One of the goals of system change is to supersede individual virtue. Just as you no longer have to opt in to buying a car with seatbelts or ask for the no-smoking section on the train or restaurant, at some point in the near future you won’t have to opt into travelling in an electric car or bus, or living or working in all-electric buildings. Electrification will have happened because of the collective action that takes shape as policy and regulation.
Last year, the veteran environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote a brilliant analysis pointing out that if you have money in one of the banks funding fossil fuels – especially, in the US, Wells Fargo, Chase, Citi, and Bank of America – your retirement funds or savings account may have a much larger climate footprint than you do. The impact of your diet and how you get to work may pale in comparison to the impact of your money in the bank. The vegan on the bicycle may still be contributing to climate chaos if her life savings are in a bank lending her money to the fossil fuel industry.
Individual impact, leaving the ultra-wealthy aside, matters mostly in the aggregate. And in aggregate we can change that. On 21 March, McKibben, via his new climate group Third Act (on whose advisory board I sit), and dozens of other climate groups will be organising actions by people with money in, or credit cards from, the key US banks, to try to force those institutions to stop funding fossil fuels. Our greatest power lies in our roles as citizens, not consumers, when we can band together to collectively change how our world works.
Various campaigns around the world have focused on fossil finance, with significant successes behind them, and much more to achieve ahead. The climate movement has become far more sophisticated and precise in its targets in recent years. It’s doing a brilliant job; it just needs enough people and resources behind it to be more powerful than the status quo.
Last year, I took three activists who were formerly part of the Sunrise Movement, a youth group campaigning to address climate breakdown, to see the 1991 film Terminator 2 at a cinema. The film was as great as I remembered, not least because the lead character, Linda Hamilton playing a ferocious young mother, chooses as her motto “no fate but what we make”. In that movie, the future has come back to meddle with the present through the sci-fi technologies of time travel and robot-warrior terminators. We see how actions in the present shape the future through tremendous battles over what that future will be. This is, of course, just as true in real life. We don’t get terminators and other time-travellers to tell us what the consequences of our actions are, but they still have consequences. You ban the insecticide DDT, and a lot of bird species stop dying out. You ban chlorofluorocarbons, and the hole in the ozone layer stops growing.
In another way, Terminator 2 is less useful as a lens for thinking about the climate crisis. It’s part of the conventions of storytelling in film – and comics, fiction, graphic novels and too many news narratives – that tells us that the world can only be saved by exceptional individuals, often loners, whose gifts are often the capacity to inflict and endure extreme violence. Linda Hamilton and co-star Arnold Schwarzenegger shoot, clobber, crush, outrun and outfight everything thrown at them, and that’s their celebrated skillset, along with a bit of dry humour.
Humour aside, this has little to do with how the world really gets changed most of the time. The skills of real-world superheroes are solidarity, strategy, patience, persistence, vision and the ability to inspire hope in others. The rescuers we need are mostly not individuals, they are collectives – movements, coalitions, campaigns, civil society. Within those groups there may be someone with an exceptional gift for motivating others, but even the world’s greatest conductor needs an orchestra. One person cannot do much; a movement can topple a regime. We are sadly lacking stories in which collective actions or the patient determination of organisers is what changes the world.
Another thing we get from our films and fictions is the expectation of a single solution and a clear resolution to our problems: a sudden victory, a celebration, and the trouble is over. The climate crisis does not fit easily into this format. Ceasing to extract and burn fossil fuel is central, but there is no single solution. Protecting carbon-sequestering peat bogs, forests and grasslands also matters; so does transforming high-impact materials such as cement; implementing better design for buildings, transport and cities, and addressing soil conservation, farming and food production and consumption. There are milestones and important goals, but the familiar Hollywood ending – crossing the finish line to wrap up the story – doesn’t describe this reality.
Change often functions more like a relay race, with new protagonists picking up where the last left off. In 2019, a Berkeley city councilwoman decided to propose banning fossil-gas connections in new construction, and it was passed by the council unanimously. This small city’s commitment to all-electric new buildings could seem insignificant, but more than 50 other California municipalities picked it up, as did the city of New York. The state of New York failed to pass a similar measure, but Washington state succeeded, and the idea that new construction should not include gas has spread internationally.
Such relay races have long been how human rights campaigns work: a good protest, campaign, or even piece of legislation can introduce new ideas that do their own work in the world at large. Even failed campaigns may succeed in opening the path for later change. The Green New Deal did not pass in the US Senate, but it became a template for the Biden administration’s climate legislation, and shifted the conversation about what is possible. It led the way to the Inflation Reduction Act, the biggest climate bill the US has ever passed. Opponents of environmental action often say it is killing jobs; the Green New Deal did a lot to change that story by portraying climate action as a job creator.
Recognising the reality of climate breakdown means recognising the interconnectedness of all things. That connection brings obligation: to respect nature, to build domestic regulation and international treaties that protect what’s needed, to limit the freedom of the individual in the name of the wellbeing of the collective. This is, of course, a worldview in direct contrast with free-market fundamentalism and libertarianism. Even the facts of climate science are ideologically offensive to people committed to individual freedom without accountability, let alone the demands created by treaties and regulations.
Responsibility and obligation are dismal words in mainstream culture, so perhaps there will be other stories that recognise this process as reciprocity and relationship, in which we give back, in gratitude and respect for all the Earth does for us. Even short of that, we can recognise our self-interest in maintaining the system on which life depends.
If news is the daily report on what’s just happened, we need a way of pulling back from individual events, to see the broad context of how it happened. If you only tell short-term stories, it all becomes kind of meaningless. Martin Luther King Jr said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We’ve seen it bend a lot of ways in recent years, toward and away from justice, but it takes time just to see it bend at all. You need benchmarks or memories of how things used to be even to see change of any kind, including climate change.
The South Pacific climate activist and poet Julian Aguon recently declared that Indigenous peoples “have a unique capacity to resist despair through connection to collective memory, and just might be our best hope to build a new world rooted in reciprocity and mutual respect – for the Earth and for each other”. That emphasis on collective memory suggests that a strong sense of the past allows for a strong sense of the future, that remembering difficulty and transformation equips us to face them again.
One of the things that buoys me up is the long arc of change in renewable technology. Mostly what you see in the news about renewables is short-term: stories on the latest drop in price, or proliferation of solar and wind over the past year or two. If you enlarge your time frame, you see that those annual changes have amounted to an astonishing plummet in prices and rise in efficiency and global use, compounded by innovations in materials and storage.
Twenty years ago we did not have constructive ways to leave the age of fossil fuel behind. Now we do. And the solutions keep getting better. In 2021, the organisation Carbon Tracker put out a report that showed current technology could produce 100 times as much electricity from solar and wind than current global demand. The report concludes: “The technical and economic barriers have been crossed and the only impediment to change is political.” At the end of the last millennium, those barriers seemed insurmountable. The change is revolutionary, but the revolution was too slow to be visible to most.
The report continues: “At the current 15-20% growth rates of solar and wind, fossil fuels will be pushed out of the electricity sector by the mid-2030s and out of total energy supply by 2050. The unlocking of energy reserves 100 times our current demand creates new possibilities for cheaper energy and more local jobs in a more equitable world, with far less environmental stress.”
We tend to think utopias are unbelievable, but this is a sober-minded thinktank focused on climate and energy politics. The report made little impact on the general public. Because the energy revolution has been incremental, there’s been no single breakthrough moment. Yet it adds up to an encouraging, and even astonishing narrative.
On the other hand, people find grim narratives all too believable, whether or not they are grounded in fact. We are still inundated by harmful, as well as untrue, stories about climate and the future. Prophecies can be self-fulfilling: if you insist that we cannot possibly win, you pit yourself against the possibility of victory and the people trying to achieve it.
There’s yet another narrative that’s persisted at least since the invention of compact fluorescent lightbulbs and the Toyota Prius: that we must renounce abundance and enter an age of austerity. It’s all in the telling. To consider our age an age of abundance, you have to be counting sheer accumulated stuff and ignoring how it is distributed. That is, we live in an age of extreme wealth for some, and desperation for the many. But there’s another way to count wealth and abundance – as hope for the future, safety and public confidence, emotional wellbeing, love and friendship and strong social networks, meaningful work and purposeful lives, equality and justice and inclusion.
Early on, we heard that renewables were very expensive – this was part of the austerity narrative, or an excuse for not making the transition. But improvements in design and economies of scale are among the factors making them the cheapest form of electricity almost everywhere on earth. There’s no reason to think the innovations of design and economic improvements are all behind us; I suspect they’re mostly ahead of us.
Engineer and energy expert Saul Griffith recently wrote: “Most people believe a clean-energy future will require everyone to make do with less, but it actually means we can have better things.” The old story was that we couldn’t afford to do what the climate emergency required. The new one is that it would not only be ecologically devastating, but more expensive not to. Renewables are on the way to being cheaper than fossil fuel; in many places, they already are. Texas and Iowa get a huge amount of their electricity from wind because it makes economic sense, not because these red states are passionate about addressing the climate crisis. Over their lifetime, electric cars work out to be cheaper than internal combustion cars because charging and maintaining them is cheaper. And of course these two examples don’t include the indirect effects of burning fossil fuels on human health and the climate.
A lot of people tend to measure climate action in terms of huge national or international news events, but the change that matters is often happening at local and regional and other levels. A university divests; a state sets a date for ending the sale of new petrol cars; a city passes a measure mandating all-electric new buildings; ground is broken on a major solar installation; a state or country sets a new record for percentage of wind power in its energy mix; a pipeline or gas terminal or drilling site gets cancelled; a carbon-sequestering forest or peat bog gets protected status; a coal plant closes.
This does not erase all the bad news, about continuing breakdown of natural systems and its toll on human lives and impact on a livable future, but it does contextualise them as crises we can respond to if we choose to. So much is happening, both wonderful and terrible, and it adds up to more stories than almost anyone can take in. But the overarching frameworks in which we receive them matter, and so do the critical skills to recognise, choose, and change stories.
The climate crisis is a problem with no single solution, but many, just as there is no one saviour, but many protagonists in the struggle. In 2019, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg said we must embrace “cathedral thinking”, adding: “We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.” The speculative fiction writer Octavia Butler included this passage in one of her essays:
“OK,” the young man challenged. “So what’s the answer?”
“There isn’t one,” I told him.
“No answer? You mean we’re just doomed?” He smiled as though he thought this might be a joke.
“No,” I said. “I mean there’s no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers – at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”
This is an edited version of a speech given at Princeton University in November 2022
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