How our stories about climate change can help change the world

What can you do today to help save the world? How can you tackle climate change?

What story do you tell yourself when you read those words? That it’s too big? Or that collectively we can do this? Perhaps you’re wondering how personally challenging your action needs to be. Would you be surprised that small actions like growing house plants or not buying bottled water could help?

A photo of a flat full of house plants. Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

When I studied climate change as part of my OU degree one of the things that struck me was that people struggle to comprehend it because of the timescale. It seems so far down the road that it doesn’t affect us. Something which may harm the next generation or the one after that is too far removed. We can’t relate to it. You can tell as many stories as you like about loss of habitat, dead animals or even people’s homes being underwater – it won’t make a difference because people don’t feel an emotional connection.

10 years on and the road has got shorter and we’re going down it faster. We now know that change is happening at a terrifying rate. Those little occasional ponderings: there are fewer bees, I haven’t seen a sparrow for a while, are gradually ramping up. We now know hundreds of species are becoming extinct every year.

Science has also become more advanced. We can now tell stories about climate change over hundreds of thousands of years. The British Antarctic Survey has been drilling ice cores to find out how ice responds to higher temperatures. They are exploring ‘the last interglacial’ around 125,000 years ago, which had similar temperatures to today, to find out what could happen to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

A photo of Louise Sime talking about drilling ice cores
Louise Sime, from British Antarctic Survey, shows a picture of the camp where scientists have been drilling ice cores

What does this mean for our stories? How does it affect our lives? I went along to the British Antarctic Survey this week for an Impact Women’s Network workshop on how we can work together to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

It happened to take place on the same day that Parliament declared a climate change emergency, following 10 days of protests by Extinction Rebellion in London.

The voices are getting louder. The stories more personal. We are starting to relate to climate change and develop an emotional response to it.

How does that create change? Is our narrative becoming one of personal action rather than helpless observer?

Yewande Okuleye talks about Active Compassionate Leadership
Yewande Okuleye talks about Active Compassionate Leadership

Yewande Okuleye, one of the speakers at Impact Women’s Network’s event, spoke about climate change as a Rubik’s Cube. It’s a puzzle, a difficult problem, but solvable. On your own it is hard and will take a long time. Bring in another person and you can reach the solution more quickly.

But climate change is not just one Rubik’s Cube. It is a series of connected Rubik’s Cubes. We each hold a Rubik’s Cube, our own interlinks with other people’s. Together we can work to solve the problem.

Hold the cube in your hand. Where will you start?

Dr Bettina Von Stamm expanded on this story by demonstrating the wide range of issues interlinked with climate change. Climate justice is not just about CO2 and rising sea levels. The Mary Robinson Foundation on Climate Justice has identified a number of principles.

A slide showing the Mary Robinson Foundation climate justice principles

There are stories about gender equality, stories about education, opportunities and empowerment. There are social and economic stories as well as political ones. All of these are intertwined.

We can each play a part in our own story.

Back to the house plants and the bottled water. Zarine Jacob spoke about a number of projects people have launched. One was a woman from Vancouver who is encouraging people to grow indoor plants, making the city greener. Small actions add up to make a change.

What action can you take to tackle climate change? How can you change your story about where you shop? About how you store food? About when you put the heating on or how you heat your home. What stories are you telling about the clothes you wear and whether you really do need new ones. It can take up to 10,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton fabric. Humans need about 2.5 litres a day.

At the end of the workshop we were all asked to pledge an action we would take. Mine was to turn the tap off when I’m brushing my teeth. I’m also going to try to wean myself off only shopping in supermarkets, which sell me so much packaging as well as my food. We switched from buying milk in plastic bottles to having a milkman at the beginning of the year. Cambridge has a couple of new zero waste shopping options so I’m going to make time to explore those and find out how to reduce the amount of packaging we bring into our home.

Turning off a tap is a small act. But if we all do it, together we can make a difference.

Rachel Extance (photo by Jemima Willcox)

Rachel Extance helps business tell their stories so they can reach a wider audience for their work and ideas. A professional journalist, she knows how to write stories people find relevant and engaging. If you would like help to get your message across, need someone who can write articles for you regularly, or you would like actionable ideas for how to tell more people about what you do, get in touch by emailing rachel@extance.co.uk or contact her on social media.

4 thoughts on “How our stories about climate change can help change the world

  1. Hi Rachel, I really like how you are making the issue of climate change personal through the lens of stories. It’s so true, too, that when something feels far away, where we struggle to make the connection between ourselves and our actions with the ability to make real change, then we often disengage. It becomes too hard! I heard climate change described as being like the first domino fell a long time ago and we feel like all we can do is stand back and watch them all fall down.

    I really like how you’ve used the event you attended as the backdrop for your story and then it is great to read your personal commitments to do some small actions that will make a difference. Well done.

  2. Hi Rachel, this is an interesting piece. I must admit I am guilty of being lulled into complacency by the seemingly long timeline of climate change. The principles of climate change you referenced intrigues me, this is not a topic I know a lot about and so I’m curious how they all tie into climate change, would love to hear more in the future! I’m curious which stories were the ones that motivated you to make personal change.

  3. You’re spot on, but I’d go even further (about the stories bit, not the climatology). I’ve found the stories need to be *very* personal to create an action.

    For example, I once worked with someone who said (I’m paraphrasing) “If we don’t change what we’re doing sea levels will rise by …” and no one blinked. When the phrasing was changed to “If we don’t change what we’re doing sea levels will rise by … … which means no on in this town will be able to insure their houses” all of a sudden everyone got interested.

  4. I love the general theme of this article: that figuring out what to do isn’t enough—that we need to have a story that helps us to contextualize what we are doing.

    I was frustrated with the ending, though. You repeated a theme that I hear over and over again: that there is hope if we do something, and this is something, so if we do it, there is hope. I think it’s really really important to have hope, so I am not criticizing that. However, the “something” is problematic.

    Is it really the case that turning the tap off when you are brushing your teeth makes a difference? Of all the things in your life, why is that the one to change? Will less packaging actually improve the situation? I’m very jealous of those stores you have in Cambridge—I’ve read about them before, and they sound great. But if everybody shopped there, would that actually help to ameliorate climate change?

    I guess what I’m asking is, is having hope enough? It’s clearly important, but is there a risk that if you use the wrong story to give yourself hope, what you’ll really be doing is lulling yourself away from taking the actions that are actually needed to activate the emergency brakes on this freight train?

    Of course, I say “you,” but this applies to me too. The question is, have we gone far enough in figuring out what we need to do, or are we allowing ourselves to be satisfied by gestures that simply aren’t enough. If it’s the latter, are there things we _can_ do but aren’t doing? Can we identify those things and start doing them? Is there a mantle of responsibility we are afraid to wear, but could choose to wear?

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