​Climate Change – Dire Warnings Don’t Tell A Compelling Story

Most people appear to agree that we need to change our behaviour concerning the climate and natural environment that sustains us.

This is not a new debate – as outlined in the media coverage of “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice” which has been circulating in the last few days. The latest Warning comes 25 years after the first and, frankly, paints a dour picture of our future.

Sadly, I don’t think that this warning will be any more effective than the first, even if the climate narrative is more mature than it was in 1992.  

What needs to change?

There’s a simple answer: storytelling.

Stories are human beings’ natural way of making sense of the world.  We take facts, opinions and fragments of experience, and remix them into narratives to educate, entertain or illuminate.

Using a story is a way to create relationships to information, and involvement in outcomes. A great story contains peril and hope, heroes and villains, dramatic pauses and moments of reflection.  A good story allows us to build empathy for the characters and the situations.  It allows us to see ourselves taking an active role, to walk in someone else’s shoes.

So far, this story of climate change doesn’t feel much like that type of story.   The myriad efforts to stop/reverse climate change are somewhat disjointed and narratives seem to compete with each other.  There’s no dramatic pause before someone swoops in to tell us how we can become heroes and fight the devastating change.

Storytelling is hard work and requires a deep understanding of the recipients (and participants) in the narrative, an overall understanding of context, pacing and, of course, purpose and outcome.

I just don’t get this from the coverage around the Second Notice.  And this is a missed opportunity.

Get the story right, and it’s a way to create compelling connections.  Get it wrong, and it’s no story at all – just words on a page…

Three other things A Second Notice should have considered

So, ‘A Second Notice’ didn’t take the opportunity to tell a compelling story.  In my opinion, there are three other areas in which I think their communications fell short (and which we can all learn from):  Disconnection, Alarmist Thinking and Managing The Media.


The following is taken from the first piece I read, distributed through Futurism:

To Crist, there’s clearly a disconnect between the way experts look at the impact human activity is having on our environment and the way the general public sees the situation.


​Ideally, the report will help narrow that gap by providing the average person with access to a large quantity of scientifically accurate information, getting members of the public rethinking their stance on environmental issues.

My question here is whether the “average person” wants or needs “access to a large quantity of scientifically accurate information”.  

letters-286541_640As an “average person” myself, I have to say that I don’t have time for “a large quantity of scientifically accurate information”.  I spend my time working (or looking for work), running errands, relaxing with family etc.  I frequently don’t have the time to wade through complex information which isn’t related to my practice and often use the media I trust as a filter.

​Having “access” to information is one thing, having the time, inclination or – very importantly – the energy to take an active role in processing that information is quite another thing.  [I have “access” to the 50 Shades of Grey series through my library, but I don’t have the time or inclination to actually read them – and am fairly sure that they’d take less processing power than the scientific information]

I feel that there is a substantial disconnect between the experience of the scientists and the experiences of the “lay citizens” (a horrible term).  And, more to the point, a disconnect between the expectation of the scientists and the lived experiences of the “lay citizen”.

Information is not just interesting or terrifying because you say it is.  It needs to resonate with someone else to share that emotional connection.

Alarmist thinking

From William Ripple, co-author:

​“Some people might be tempted to dismiss this evidence and think we are just being alarmist,” said Ripple.

Personally, I don’t think that the scientific community are being alarmist.  They are alarmed; we should be alarmed; my personal feeling is that this is a real and credible threat to our well being as a species.

comic-1296117_640However, my first thought when I saw the headline was “Oh right – what now?”  

As a child of the 80s, I have been brought up with dire warnings about the state of the planet – from the hole in the ozone layer to the effects of deforestation and the visible destruction caused by oil spills, pollution.  We’ve been teetering on or careening over the brink for as long as I can remember…

I’ve also been aware of the numerous contradictory headlines over the past few years:

In my opinion, the dire warnings are less effective because they’re part of a constant desensitising (and often contradictory) narrative of doom and destruction.  Without the time, inclination or energy to wade through “a large quantity of scientific information” every time a new report is released, I feel somewhat disempowered to act meaningfully.

(I do recycle, cycle rather than drive when possible, am a vegan etc – but these are small acts in the face of mass extinction events)

How would the narrative change if the “alarmist” idea was replaced with “realistic”?

Managing the media

The final piece in the disappointing jigsaw is how poorly the media have been used to tell this story.

Reading the source letter, accompanying press release and a host of media coverage (links at the bottom of this post), I feel that the scientists have created the report, issued a press release and hoped for the best.

The media haven’t read the report end to end.  This therefore affects the quality of the reporting and the messaging (and thus behavioural outcome) which is received.

hongkong-2654531_640Journalists don’t always have the time to go in-depth on a story – they love a headline, some easily cut/pasted copy and a good image.  Then they move on.

Which is why, whether you read this story in  The Independent, The Sun or Fox News, you’re getting the same thing.

There is an exception (thank goodness!):  Big Think.  They have really done their homework, read the whole report, broken it down into key messages and key actions.  

This raises a key part of the equation which I believe that the scientists have missed – telling a story for the widest possible audience.  Afterall, if a journalist is basically going to cut/paste you, don’t you want your copy to be optimised for as many people as possible?

Take the British newspapers The Sun and The Times.  Both have very different audiences and different reading ages:   The Sun is written to the standard that an British 8 year old can read; The Times to a 14 year old (source: See-A-Voice.  Further info about newspaper reading ages is also contained in this great article from Media First – both retrieved 11:50 15/11/17).  

I use online tools, especially the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level test, to keep an eye on how I’m writing when I want to optimise for the widest audience.  Using https://www.webpagefx.com, we get the following results:

  • Original press release: Grade 14
  • The Sun’s story: Grade 15 (I have no idea how this has happened!)
  • The Independent’s story:  Grade 14 (and slightly more difficult that the original press release)

(By comparison, this post is at Grade 11 level – which is fine as my intended audience is professional social marketing and social change practitioners)

Readable.io gives similar results.  OK, so this is the American Grade system, but Grade 14 equates to around 19/20 years old.  


In other words, well in excess of the reading ages of the newspapers and massively higher than the average USA reading age which is around 9th Grade level (source: Impact Information, retrieved 12:00 15/11/17)

If the press are cutting and pasting, with the occasional addition of a meteor-about-to-hit Earth picture to ram home the devastation for those who don’t want to (or can’t) read the copy, there’s an issue when the scientists aren’t optimising for the widest readership in the first place.

In my experience, when dealing with the media, one needs to spoon feed them the interesting stuff.  And, if necessary, you need to write multiple copies of your content.

A certain type of person reads Big Think and will be grateful for their coverage.  My gut is that this type of person is probably already engaged in the issues and world around them.  They need Content Type A.

A different type of person engages with The Sun, BuzzFeed or CNN.  They need Content Type B, C or D.

Looking at the overall coverage, it’s all doom & gloom (apart from Big Think).  Unless you decide you want to engage with the “large quantity of scientifically accurate information” to make up your own mind that is…  Now, if that’s my read of the main body of coverage, I’m willing to bet that this is the read of many other people too.

How disempowering is this?  It’s as though the scientists have basically said that there’s nothing we can do, so sit back and enjoy what’s left while it’s here (assuming that you don’t go back to the primary source and massive amounts of primary data, of course).

So, in conclusion?

It feels self-evident that those with the evidence aren’t telling their stories effectively.

This is supported by the idea that if the stories were told in effective, compelling ways, there would be little or no need for such repeated dire warnings as they would be acted on each and every time.

If climate change is the biggest existential threat to our species, then we need to be talking about it in a way which the species can understand and act upon.  The information shared needs to be appropriate to the audience, through channels which reach them and with clear actions to inspire them.

We need to be using a social marketing approach to create change – change in understanding between those with information and those in need of information; change in action in corporations and individuals; a change in the fundamental story and positioning of climate change itself.

This is a big task.  But it’s not insurmountable.  If only we can speak to each other in the right way…


(If you’re interested in carrying on this conversation – or working with me on your own story telling – please get in touch!   Leave a comment below, connect with me on LinkedIn or head over to my work website to have a look at what I can do!)


Futurism (retrieved 11:15 15/11/17)

The Independent  (retrieved 15/11/17)

CNN (retrieved 15/11/17)

Fox (retrieved 15/11/17)

The Sun (retrieved 15/11/17)

Big Think (retrieved 15/11/17)

One response to “​Climate Change – Dire Warnings Don’t Tell A Compelling Story

  1. Pingback: Talking Science – an interview with Allison Coffin | Contagious Truth·

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