Climate change: a new year, a new story?

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As we move rapidly forward into 2015, how do we turn the sagging saga of climate change into a compelling narrative that demands action? There are three main structures for the tension that drives a good story, as Richard Beynon, scriptwriter supreme and founder member of innovative writing course company Allaboutwriting reminded us in his Monday Motivation last week. Here’s the first one, in his words:

“There is a tension at the heart of all great stories. That tension can take many forms. In some stories, it’s the tension between desires: A wants B, B wants C, C wants A.”

We can see how this plays out in the great climate change story of international negotiations, where the desires of the different actors do not seem to converge. So, for example, developing countries want the developed countries to put up the promised climate finance, but the developed countries are not so keen to do so until (some of the) developing countries cut their greenhouse gas emissions first. So, in this case, C does not want A – or does it? We can see the structure of the tension playing out in various ways here – India does not want to cut their emissions, seemingly still firmly set on economic growth powered by their vast supplies of coal. China used to be seen in the same boat. As Richard says, in a good story, the tension is maintained, and drives the story onward, satisfying the reader. But in the case of India, and formerly of China – well, yes, the tension is maintained but it leads to a stalemate in the negotiations – nothing is driven forward. A little less tension would be a good thing.

Are we seeing any reductions in the tension? Well, we did have the positive agreement between China and the US to mutually reduce their emissions, just prior to the COP-20 international climate negotiations in Lima in December 2014. This resolution of tension between the two great economies is actually good for the climate change story, unlocking the way for progress towards the much-needed 2015 Paris agreement, that we hope will set in place a legally binding treaty to bring us down off our disastrous current emissions trajectory. Admittedly, we did not see the strong progress we had hoped for in the Lima negotiations, but we may yet see this accelerate in the lead up to the COP-21 to be held in Paris in December 2015.

Then, there is Richard’s formulation for the second kind of tension in a good story:

“In other stories, it’s the tension between ideologies. A cannot live in a society governed by the values held dear by B.”

Now we’re cooking. The oil and gas industry lobbyists tell us they cannot live in a world that is driven by the values of “environmentalists”. In the US, they say that President Obama’s executive orders on carbon pollution from power stations and curbing methane emissions will result in job losses for American workers. And the same claims are made around the world. It’s a false tension, however: no-one will be able to live very well in a world in which we race towards a 5 or 6 degrees Celsius increase in average global temperatures. If it happens that we cross certain tipping points and photosynthesis shuts down, collapsing our food supply, will we still think it was a good idea to listen to those scare tactics? Narrowly clinging to jobs in “heritage” sectors blinds us to the great transitions we must, and can make. To see these, though, requires rising above the local-level interest story to the story of our common global future. Here, to be good storytellers and listeners, we must find and exercise our reserves of compassion and a sense of mutual responsibility – the moral touchstones that you may find in a great, even transcendent story?

Richard then delivers a precis of the final type of narrative tension:

“And in, perhaps, the great stories, that tension is maintained within the heart and the mind of a single person, who desires A, but must give up B to get it, when B is itself something of inestimable value to A.”

Here again we are on fertile ground for the climate change story. Even amongst those of us who have long since accepted the warnings of the climate scientists, there is the tension between our “little luxuries” and the necessary actions / steps we need to take to maintain our storylines in the climate justice story. Maybe it’s not okay for you to buy that SUV just because other ‘environmentalists’ are doing so, to overcome the potholes that bloom in the streets of our suburbs after heavy rains. As Saleemul Huq said in an earlier blog on this page, “you express solidarity with the victims of climate change, you understand that you have caused them harm … you then figure out what’s an appropriate level of action for you to take to help the victims of your pollution. Because you realise that it’s a morally right thing to do, and you want to do what you can.” So, to keep this trajectory of the storyline going, we need to embrace more fully the concept of Lent, so that we can still have a post-Lent scenario of relative comfort for all of our children and descendants. But, unfortunately, even when we can clearly see the writing on the wall, we keep screwing up our eyes to make the letters blur, to make it go away.

Richard ends by pointing out the tensions inherent in the stated desires for peace and social justice in the world, and concludes:

“In other words, it’s a tension from which there is no ultimate relief. I have twin appetites and to satisfy one, is to frustrate the other. I must live with this, because there is no resolution possible, no compromise available.

And it’s out of this eternal contradiction that we make fiction.”

So, we can see how these tensions and contradictions play out in our seeming inability to respond appropriately to climate change. In fiction, the irreducible tension is the novelist’s powerful tool. But, in dealing with climate change, the opposing strains do not generate positive friction. They ignite destructive fire rather than propulsive movement. We need some resolution to move forward in the international negotiations, to break the logjams between opposed countries and groups of people, and to find a way to integrate the opposing desires in our own hearts. Do we also need a new way to tell the climate change story? A structure that can move us away from the cognitive dissonance that paralyses many of us, and many of our governments?  In 2015, can each of us find new ways to tell the climate change story, so that we build the positive tensions and reduce the erosive ones? I do hope so. Happy-ever-after would be a fine outcome for the climate change movement.

With many thanks to Richard Beynon, who I must disclose is my brother-in-law, for stimulating these musings.




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