What’s stopping us? Acting on climate change will make life better

see you tomorrow © steve russell oil on tablet map background 98cm x 98cm

see you tomorrow © steve russell

Here is the text of an email interview exchange with Daniela Klebis, who is Executive Editor of a new Brazilian Magazine ClimaCom. The Portuguese version appears here, but I’ve pasted our exchanges (unedited) below. Daniela got in touch after reading essays in our Culture and Climate Change: Narratives book. When time allows I’ll trim down my essay into a post.

DK: We observe an overwhelming presence of climate crisis being present on media, arts, politics. However, it seems that suddenly people just become static, as if the problem is bigger than their possibilities. Too much talk and little action. What story about climate change have we been communicating? And why are these stories no longer having effect?

JS: Opinion polling shows that all over the world most people know about climate change, are aware that scientific research sees humans as largely responsible, and they are mostly concerned or very concerned about it. This level of awareness and concern is a great achievement of the media. But the story has become static when it comes to actions. And too often we try to  motivate people with fear. That tactic will not motivate people any more. It is important to connect climate change actions – whether to mitigate or to adapt – to other daily concerns people have. So we should be talking about making travel easier by getting cars off the road and supporting other ways of getting access to what we want; we should be talking about improving housing and workplaces to make them more comfortable (cool or warm) while using less energy. We should be talking about how designing cities, towns and buildings to cope with extreme weather can make them better places to live in any case.

DK: Could you talk a little about your work on the cultural politics and the six inter-relating features that structures the climate change stories? How can we turn down the volume and get everybody to talk?

JS: If we see climate change as a risk problem rather than a debate about facts then we can all come together to debate whether we are willing to take big risks and do nothing, or whether we will give permission to politicians to protect us and future generations from major risks. For a city like Sao Paolo there are some huge risks.  climate change and deforestation of the Amazon are interrelated. That sounds abstract to most people, but in Sao Paolo that means something very real: the water supply being cut off for a city of 20 million people. So people need to engage with stories about protecting forests, about using water wisely, about having fair water supply systems. And Brazilian people might reasonably expect to be rewarded by the whole planet for looking after the global air conditioning unit that is the Amazon.

DK: How can we make a communication that is able to generate new affections and problematize the importance given to concepts as adaptation and mitigation when it comes to climate change?

JS: Climate change is shifting the boundaries of ethics and politics: for the first time in human history we are starting to make policies and laws that represent future generations, and the non-human world. But the policies and laws are just the visible expression of what I believe is a much deeper process, whereby we are inviting future humans and also natural habitats and species into our ethical and political community. Obviously we can’t do that literally, but I see signs that we are starting to do that in other ways – including in the arts and popular media. Just to say to your kid or your granny in a joking way ‘turn that off to save the planet’ is to represent distant others in a new way.

DK: The reports published by governments and scientific institutions – the IPCC is the most well-known example -, should be considered as a relevant element for the research networks on climate change; their divulgation to the general public generates expectations as they have had plenty of space in the media.  How to think of them in terms of their effects and potential for communication and engagement with the issue?

JS: Science reports don’t make good news stories – even these important summaries of the best available knowledge on climate change struggle to capture the imagination. But I think we need now to recognise that the science has done its job: it has delivered a risk assessment (and that assessment hasn’t changed in its headline messages for 25 years). Now the stories need to focus on risk management. and those stories should not be ‘stories about climate change’ but rather stories about housing, taxes, about whether businesses or political leaders are doing their job or failing us in terms of having good energy, water, transport or biodiversity policies. In this sense the best thing is not to see more climate change stories, but rather to sense that climate change is embedded in many more ‘mainstream’ stories.

DK: The science of climate modelling  is a story of uncertainties, a science that tries to find some order to explain one moment  in a world in constant change. Why is it so hard to communicate these uncertainties as part of a process of understanding of our environment? 

JS: Climate change is one of the most complex intellectual challenges humanity has set itself. Nevertheless the headline responses from the science community are remarkably consistent. We should allow the science to be just interesting – it shouldn’t be seen as controversial. The political decisions are a different thing: we need controversy around all that – we need many more people to feel willing to debate and challenge whether our actions to decarbonise, to reduce methane from agriculture, to make our settlements more resiliient are the right ones.

DK: I’d like to ask you the question you propose at the beginning of the publication Culture and Climate Change: what new narratives about climate change might need to be nurtured? How can we frame climate change and engage the public with what’s effective real in the world without appealing to dramatic certainties and drastic images of polar bears dying in the melted arctic?

JS: The most important thing in my view is to convince people that action on climate change will take us to a better place than the place we are now. Fossil fuels have made us lazy in the way we live with technology. For 60- years fossil fuels have  given us: traffic congestion; a food industry that results in obesity; badly designed houses, offices, factories and cities. Climate-friendly buildings, cities, travel and food systems can give all of us a much much better quality of life. What is stopping us?!

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