Information overload: Shifting the narrative of climate change

A play by Eva O’Connor and Hildegard Ryan aims to put ‘heart and soul’ into the debate

Alarm bells have been ringing for decades; reams of scientific evidence presented; eyewatering projections, statistical analyses and countless pages of numerous reports. Information on the climate crisis is hardly lacking, so what is?

One element is the way that information about the climate crisis is framed. We face an information overload that lacks context, making it difficult to evoke action. Repeated instruction to listen to the science assures that information is clearly and objectively presented, but it can feel distant and we sometimes lack a relatable narrative.

The most conventional means for providing context to information is through story – it is how we bind society, precisely what is needed for a collective response to the climate crisis. This is the approach taken by Eva O'Connor and Hildegard Ryan in their play Afloat, a centrepiece of the upcoming Future Limerick Festival. In a lighthearted take on climate Armageddon, two friends find themselves bickering atop Liberty Hall while the rest of Dublin lies submerged in the encroaching tide.

“We forget that the climate crisis is a human issue,” says O’Connor, pointing at the need to “put some heart and soul back into the debate [that] can compel people”. For O’Connor, placing the crisis in a familiar setting for an Irish audience gave it meaning. “Scientific articles are hugely important,” she says, “but we also have to make people feel as strongly for this situation as they would for any social crisis.”


‘Jockeying for position’

At present the climate crisis is contextualised by a tedious handful of narratives, explains Dr David Robbins, director of the Dublin City University centre for climate and society. "Mostly in the Irish context it's framed as a contest between different political actors... a jockeying for position in the political arena," he explains. "The next most common one is the disaster framing, which emphasises the impacts and findings of climate science, and portrays climate change as a sort of looming apocalypse."

Both the political and disaster narratives can be problematic because they set blunt hurdles of conflict and shock that are difficult to process into a rounded understanding. “Polarised conflict can be very involving for audiences,” he adds, “but the disaster narrative can be very disengaging for people because they feel it’s a done deal.”

There is a live debate in behavioural science at the moment about whether small actions crowd out big actions

Although not as prominent, other contexts exist for the climate story. The economic frame, as well as the public health and intergenerational justice frames. The latter has been brought to prominence by Greta Thunberg – as she declared to the United Nations, "you have stolen my dreams and my childhood". Stories from the global south are also gaining a platform, demonstrating the immediate consequences of coastal flooding, famine and migration. These are the worldwide realities upon which O'Connor and Ryan's play is based. While coarsely real and human, even they can be too geographically distant to conjure a reaction.

Denial movement

The climate change narrative must be strong, because it comes against a denial movement voiced by loud characters. Here too, the range of stories is evolving. “ [The] climate denier movement has morphed into a climate delay movement,” says Robbins, summarising that the “moment isn’t right and the moment is never right to take action”. Falling back on stories that postpone a response to climate change is a good strategy when outright denial loses credibility.

The climate sceptic narrative is known to be largely fuelled by multinational corporations. Not only that, but in many cases they have found their way into the mainstream. "It's pretty indisputable that the fossil fuel industry... have been really successful in getting the argument about climate change down to the individual level or personal responsibility," notes Prof Pete Lunn, head of the Economic and Social Research Institute's behavioural research unit.

Lunn points out that the concept of the carbon footprint was the brainchild of Ogilvy and Mather, a public relations firm working for British Petroleum that aimed at drawing responsibility away from oil giants and on to the individual. The company released a "carbon footprint calculator" in 2004 that allowed people to assess how their normal daily lives are responsible for heating the globe, integrating the term in our everyday lexicon.

Small individual actions

Thus is unveiled another challenging narrative of the climate crisis – small individual actions are what is needed to take on global devastation. “There is a live debate in behavioural science at the moment about whether small actions crowd out big actions,” Lunn says. “So if you get people to switch off the lights and be assiduous about recycling... do these kind of small environmental actions enhance or crowd out the larger ones that are needed to create a difference?”

It might be better to show people more local stories about what a postcarbon future looks like...

Small individual steps can be empowering, and Lunn acknowledges that they help form a base for broader societal action, which he describes as more “strategically important”. He also points out that large-scale systemic change is frightening, and better communication is needed for people to understand what it will involve. “People will make sacrifices, will bear costs, provided they think that what they’re being asked to do is fair,” he says. In essence, individual responses will follow examples displayed at higher levels. This switches the story roles of the regular citizen and those in power.

Scientists have been driving a message based on objective fact for decades. Their foundational principles need not change. It is strong, but the narrative woven around them must grow if it is to keep pace with the rising challenge. “People are more persuaded by stories than they are by abstract theories and statistics,” Lunn adds.

“A lot of our reasoning, a lot of our decision-making and the judgments we form, our politics, are strongly driven by the emotions that we feel,” he adds. If the present climate story is too focused on the physical problems, as demonstrated by science, then a shift to people-led solutions might invoke greater public fervour.

Local people

“It might be better to show people more local stories about what a postcarbon future looks like... so you’re kind of holding out this vision of what society might look like if we took climate change seriously, rather than what our society will be like or might be like if we don’t,” Robbins suggests. If the narrators of climate change are local people taking positive action, then the wider public can relate to and reflect their stories. Neither fossil fuel fuel corporations or bare-knuckled politicians can achieve such resonance. If people can feel inspired by other people, they have an empowering base to work from.

“One of the big issues here is that people don’t know what to do... and we can already see that people are motivated,” Lunn says. If people are indeed turning toward action and in need of guidance, then who better to learn from than each other?

Community groups such as Green Skibbereen and Love Leitrim are working to take collective action against climate change. The Lurrig community solar scheme in Co Cork is another project that might set out a blueprint for others.

These sorts of projects are not just about climate, but also participation, responsibility and community – things that have meaning and provide relatable context. It is crucial that the climate story is woven into the wider human narrative, not just presented as a dry standalone piece. After all, the entire chronicle of climate change from cause to effect is centred around humankind.

Stronger future

The purpose of O’Connor and Ryan’s play is not only to depict that dreadful outlook atop Liberty Hall, but to look to a stronger future. “A utopia, not a dystopia,” says O’Connor. It is important that communicators in the climate crisis demonstrate “what it means to be alive and what it means to be human, and all these gritty questions”, she underlines.

Story is the fabric of society, and our reality is tearing at the seams. If we are going to do something about climate change, then we need to make sure we are sharing the best stories, and telling them well.