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Tell me a story – why climate change communication needs to embrace our childlike curiosity

Holly Parker explores how embracing the childlike curiosity of “why” can assist in communicating the complex issues of climate change.

This article is part of the ISC’s Transform21 series, which features resources from our network of scientists and change-makers to help inform the urgent transformations needed to achieve climate and biodiversity goals.

A child starts down the endless path of asking “why?” “Why is the sky blue?” Why is there day and night?” “Why do fish swim?” “Why is winter colder than summer?”  

I try to answer these questions in ways that a child might understand. I go with the facts. “The sky is blue because sunlight reaches Earth’s atmosphere and is scattered in all directions by all the gases and particles in the air. Blue light is scattered more than the other colors because it travels as shorter, smaller waves.” But after many exchanges, and receiving an increasing number of incredulous looks, I give up, thwarted by the relentless curiosity of “why.” 

Similarly, social and physical scientists working on climate face a communication challenge. How do we instill the urgency and intimacy we feel for climate science in individuals and communities, where action can make an enormous difference? 

I believe that the key to effective climate science communication is embracing the sometimes frustrating childlike curiosity of “why.”   

How do children learn what is important to them? Stories, myths, legends and fairy tales help children explain the world around them and understand their place in it. According the BBC, “Most small children live their lives in quite a limited environment. Reading stories to children can show them far-flung places, extraordinary people and eye-opening situations to expand and enrich their world… Scientists have found that children who have fiction read to them regularly find it easier to understand other people – they show more empathy.”  

As we grow older and focus on our disciplinary worlds with their own data-centric communication systems, we can lose track of storytelling as a powerful learning pathway. Stories help answer the question “why?” Why do we do what we do as scientists? Why does our work matter? 

Data shows that storytelling should play a prominent role in our adult world. Vanessa Boris of Harvard Business School writes, “Telling stories is one of the most powerful means that leaders have to influence, teach, and inspire…storytelling forges connections among people, and between people and ideas. Stories convey the culture, history, and values that unite people. When it comes to our countries, our communities, and our families, we understand intuitively that the stories we hold in common are an important part of the ties that bind.” 

Empathy. Ties that bind. Culture, history and values that unite people. These powerful concepts bring the urgency and intimacy of the climate crisis home.  

So. Why does climate matter to me? Let me tell you a story.  

I am driven by a passion for place. Maine is my physical and spiritual home. I spent my childhood summers running rampant in its forests and along its coasts. I imagined myself becoming a lobsterman or, at the very least, a marine biologist. I would come home from a day exploring tide pools and hunting crabs so filthy that my parents would use the garden hose to wash away layers of the muck and sea salt. I observed the changing seasons, the tides, the weather and its impacts the Gulf of Maine. I became a mariner, working in boat yards and professionally sailing in college and then on my summer’s off as a high school English teacher. Not yet a “scientist,” I was collecting my own data. I could see and feel the Gulf of Maine changing.  

NASA data shows that the Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest warming bodies of water in the world and that it is experiencing more storm events and higher winds.  I see it. From the deck of a 100-year old schooner I see sharks and large mammals in Casco Bay that five years ago would have been an anomaly. I see fishermen adapting to changing temperatures that are driving our heritage lobster fishery further off shore. On land, my electricity goes out much more frequently as storms and winds rip through the state. And from my office at the University of New England where I lead UNE North – The Institute for North Atlantic Studies, I strive to help other Mainers see and feel the changes around them and understand what they mean to them, their communities and their livelihoods.  

Happily, Maine has a history of “punching above our weight class” when it comes to climate and environmental leadership that can be used to the climate scientist’s advantage. In 1962, Rachel Carson, who lived on Southport Island where I spent my wild summers, published the first widely read environmental science text in the American canon, Silent Spring. She revealed to a broad audience the deadly impact of pesticides, particularly DDT, to our ecosystems, inspiring an environmental movement that would lead to legislation and the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.  

Carson used storytelling, a deep sense of place and hard data to appeal to the curiosity of why and create an urgency and intimacy with a topic that previously had not registered on the social/political landscape. In climate science, we have an advantage. We are already inundated with climate data. Climate is on the social/political radar. Now we must embrace the story. Authors like Andri Snaer Magnason in On Time and Water are doing just that, weaving together personal narrative, myth, and science to connect a global audience to stories of climate change. On Time and Water models how narratives, personal and cultural, can be woven together with data to create an intricate tapestry that inspires action. Increasingly, social and physical scientists are collaborating with writers, film makers, virtual artists, theater and dance professionals to communicate climate science.  

COP 26 is an opportunity for such collaborations to help global policymakers understand how story can unite diverse communities and governments in climate action, and also how it can provide a framework to create a transformative vision. Programs like the Creative Earth Competition are bringing the voice of youth into the storytelling, inviting children 8- 16 years old to foretell a sustainable future through art. As climate scientists, we all feel the urgency of the problem. But the problem is not ours alone to solve. By embracing the curiosity of why, we can harness the power of inspired and invested policymakers, communities and individuals across generations and cultures to put our data to work. Together, we will tell the story of a more resilient, sustainable and equitable future.  

Holly Parker, PhD, is Director of UNE North – The Institute of North Atlantic Studies at the University of New England, and part of The University of the Arctic (UArctic), which is a Member of the ISC.

Photo by Smithsonian Summer Zoo on Flickr

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