6 Narratives of Climate Change at the Paris Summit

Earth globe with flames, symbol for global warming, climate change
Earth globe with flames, symbol for global warming, climate change

There are at least six strong narratives surrounding the Paris climate talks. As a communications specialist, and the coauthor of The Master Communicator's Handbook, I find narrative has a strong pull in how we interpret the world. We fit the facts we encounter into a set of stories that frame our reality. One the one hand, this is essential to our survival. Reality is too complex to grasp and if we didn't have a way of organizing facts into a coherent story, we would go crazy. On the other hand, our narratives often blind us to important new information. When new facts don't fit our story, we tend to forget the facts, and stick with the story. Nowhere is this more obvious than in conflicting narratives around Climate Change.

Here's a field guide to the most common narratives you will hear coming out of the Paris climate talks:

1. The Official Optimist narrative: "This is a historic agreement, and we the governments of the world will make great strides to meeting the challenge of Climate Change." (See this Guardian article on world leader's speeches in Paris)

Government leaders tend to believe they are the most powerful force on earth, and that a political commitment is the same as the actual result. The fact that the draft climate commitments are inadequate (if there were all followed, scientists say it would produce a catastrophic 2.7 degree Celsius increase) has been mostly swept under the rug. Under this narrative, disaster can be averted by the right mix of carbon taxes, clean-tech innovations and energy efficiency measures -- without having to sacrifice economic growth or a consumer lifestyle.

The danger with this narrative is it will allow leaders to declare "Mission Accomplished," and turn their focus elsewhere. Media and public interest will dwindle, and we will carry on with the status quo.

2. The Protester narrative: "Any agreement in Paris is likely to be a sham! The leaders negotiating the agreement are controlled by the oil industry and billionaires like the Koch brothers. It's the system itself which must be torn down. Revolution is the answer." (See this interview on Democracy Now with French activist José Bové).

Protesters were arrested in Paris even before the meetings began, and marchers around the world have a strong sense of solidarity in their narrative of mistrust of government and an economic system that favors those who are wealthy, white and male. The Climate Conference is mostly a venue to allow them to vent their views.

It's a narrative that motivates people to act, but with the downside that they act from a place of moral purity and outrage which keeps them in opposition. That makes it hard to play a constructive role in compromises and negotiations.

3. The "North versus South" narrative: "Industrial countries caused climate change while making themselves rich; it's their job to fix it now, and they should pay poor countries for the damage."

One of the biggest shifts in Paris is that emerging economic giants such as China, India, Brazil and Indonesia (who believe this narrative) have agreed to shift gradually to a lower-carbon path. However a new block of countries, those most vulnerable to climate change, has formed in Paris, demanding the target of 2 degrees warming be replaces with 1.5 degrees, and that all nations take urgent, not gradual steps to reform These are the nations that will feel the worst impacts of extreme weather events, and island states that will be submerged. (See The Guardian)

The biggest problem with this narrative is that it casts the global South as victims -- a position of powerlessness. It relies on the rich North to respond out of guilt or fairness. One surprising turn of events during the summit is hat OECD nations agreed to this new target of 1.5 degrees. The question now is - how much will they be willing to pay to help the South meet those targets?

4. The Denier narrative: "Fears about Climate Change are hugely overblown. There is no evidence climate change will be catastrophic. Whatever is agreed on in Paris will hurt business and damage our economy. " (For an articulate representative, see Bjorn Lomborg in The Wall Street Journal)

Deniers are a dwindling breed as the evidence continues to mount that the climate is in fact already warming and impacts like hurricanes and increased floods and drought are already happening . The most resilient among them have shifted their narrative from "Climate Change is a hoax" to "the climate is always changing; it's natural, not human caused." Deniers are great at ignoring science by ignoring scientists. (See this Huff Post Green blog about New Jersey governor Chris Christie)

The denier narrative requires one to believe that a massive conspiracy of climate scientists have duped the world for some nefarious purpose. Perhaps the reason it's got some sticking force is that most people on the planet actually behave as if they were deniers, and Climate Change won't really affect them.

5. The Doomsday narrative: "The Paris talks are too little, too late. The politicians are selling a false hope. They are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. " (See this thorough and depressing article by Dahr Jamail in Truthout.

Indeed we might have already set in motion irreversible drivers of Climate Change such as disappearing ice caps and melting tundra methane deposits. But that is not current scientific consensus, which predicts a 15-20 year window still open for humanity to act to avert disaster.

However for some, a narrative of despair gives twin comforts: You don't feel impelled to do anything to make the situation better, and you have the satisfaction of sitting back and saying "I told you so."

6. The "Hard Change" narrative. "The Paris talks are too little, but not too late. To genuinely avert climate change will take much more hard work, unity, and sacrifice." (See Climate Scientist James Hansen's "Wrong Track" article in The Guardian.

This is the narrative of many activists and environmentalists, who see a lot of work ahead, and also that the shift to low carbon economy will mean deep changes in our way of life. (See for example, WWF's climate initiatives)

This is a tougher narrative than the others because it offers no peace of mind, no reflex emotional response nor a route to swiftly dismiss those who disagree with you. Those who follow this narrative engage, communicate, and make changes in their personal lifestyles. The downside is fatigue, frustration, and the anxiety that comes with a sense of personal responsibility for the fate of humanity.

Tim Ward is the author of The Master Communicator's Handbook, a guidebook for thought leaders and change maker. See: "Communication: It's not about output, it's about impact!"