• Breaking the Frame: The Narratives that Help us Fight Climate Change

    When fire ecologist Cathy Whitlock set out to work on Montana’s first climate assessment, she began with a year of just listening. She travelled the state of Montana and listened to the concerns of ranchers, of growers, of tribal leaders. When she started engaging people in conversation, she did so carefully, searching for the right words to keep hearts and minds open.

    “When I talk to people about climate change in Montana I never call it climate change,” said Whitlock. “I call it changing climate. That gets me in the door.”

    Once she had a foot in the door, communication became possible. Communities in Montana did not want to be shown graphs depicting worrying annual shifts in temperatures; they associated that with being condescended to by scientists. And “climate change” has become a loaded, partisan term.

    But precipitation? Montana ranchers can tell you the amount of rain they’ve had on their ranch since the start of the year to the tenth of an inch. They know precisely how precipitation has changed in the previous decade; they know temperatures have risen in their lifetimes. They worry about these things. Respect their worries, respect their knowledge, and you have a bridge, Whitlock learned. In a state where only half the residents believe in anthropogenic climate change, nobody ever shouted her down. After visiting church groups, youth groups, tribal associations across Montana, Whitlock spent two years integrating local observations and concerns into the state’s first climate assessment.

    Whitlock’s story was one of the most unassuming at UC Irvine’s two day conference, “Fire & Ice: The Shifting Narrative of Climate Change,” which took place February 8–9, 2019, and carried forward a discussion that began ahead of time with the “Provocations” series here on BLARB.  Experts engaged with each other and the audience on everything from the science to the moral and legal challenges of climate change. But Whitlock’s storytelling coalesced, for me, the through line that tied the conference together: the importance of communication in a time of dogmatism, of giving space and weight to many different perspectives. When everyone is shouting, be the one who listens. Then build bridges out of quiet words.

    The basics of climate change are cold, hard facts embodied in events that are becoming our new norm: heat waves and wildfires, droughts and rising seas. But facts on their own have no voice: they derive meaning from narrative. And paying attention to communication is particularly important in the case of the urgent problem of climate change, because how you tell a story cracks open the door to different kinds of solutions. Storytelling traces webs of cause and effect; it highlights shared priorities. Stories tell us where we came from and what constrains us, and show us where we can go next.

    Sometimes the most powerful way to build new narratives and solutions is to fill a room with view points that don’t often overlap. There were clear enclaves of commonly-held jargon the room at “Fire and Ice,” from panels on science communication to those on climate law, and between academics on stage and revolutionary activists in the audience. All the more important, then, that they come together in a space like this, where storytellers can push boundaries and learn from one another.


    Changing the Zeitgeist

    The elephant in the room throughout “Fire & Ice” was the Green New Deal, which Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey had just unveiled that week. The Green New Deal proposes a wide-ranging, fast-acting response to the climate crisis that, like FDR’s New Deal of the 1930s, would bring government, corporations, and civil society together to coordinate sweeping, equitable social change. There is no question that we need to rapidly wean ourselves off fossil fuels. Decades lost to fossil fuel industry–funded climate denial — what activist writer Bill McKibben called in the symposium’s keynote speech “the most significant lie ever told” — have narrowed our options, but there are still multiple paths we could take. By keeping equity front and center, the Green New Deal proposes a very different kind of environmental narrative, where our first priority is social and environmental justice. The aim, as McKibben pointed out, goes far beyond legislation: the aim is to change the zeitgeist — to shift the spirit of our times.

    A tall order, but the Green New Deal was already a large part of the conversation at “Fire & Ice” after just a day’s existence in the world — so perhaps it is already beginning to accomplish its goal. “The road to building a climate coalition is dealing with equity,” pointed out Manuel Pastor, professor of sociology at the University of Southern California. How do you bring people whose top priorities are health care and job security into the fight against climate change? Make their concerns an explicit part of the fight, because they already are. As Pastor pointed out, the health effects of environmental pollution fall disproportionately on people of color and low-income communities. Coalitions like the Green New Deal that bring together environmentalists, labor unions, and those most vulnerable to climate change are powerful because they don’t wait for gradual shifts in the debate. Instead they break the frame and build a new one.

    What kinds of stories can break our current apocalyptic framing? In how many ways can we transform the spirit of our times? Many panelists, grappling with these questions, reached for the biggest pictures they could find. Several spoke of deep changes required in human philosophy. A conversation between author David Ulin, former book editor of the Los Angeles Times, and Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, brought the voiceless into the debate: plants and animals, and future generations. How might we as a species behave differently if we were better at thinking in terms of deep or circular time, with a perspective that went beyond humans and the present moment? Nathaniel Rich, the novelist who authored The New York Times Magazine long-form piece “Losing Earth,” highlighted the moral perspective that Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment embodies: common action requires a common moral framework. “Do our actions live up to what we hold most sacred about who we are as a species?” he asked.

    Rich was far from the only speaker to address rethinking morality in the context of climate change.  In a panel made up of law professors from various institutions, Douglas Kysar  of Yale called for no less than a new Enlightenment. The Western tradition of philosophy, he stressed, starts with ontology, with categorization: we are humans, they are apes. Draw one ontological border after another and eventually we work our way up to the social contract that binds a consenting populace to a ruling authority; implicit in its logic is the less deserving “Other,” thought to exist beyond the contract’s bounds. Kysar brought up the value of thinking in terms of an alternate code of ethics devised by Emmanuel Levinas, a continental philosopher grappling with the horrors of the Holocaust after World War II. Prior to assigning any categories whatsoever, this code begins with “Don’t kill me.” An impossible proposition, of course: “To be is to kill,” Kysar acknowledged. But start with that axiom, that we cannot kill, and the philosophical structure that emerges may look very different from the dominant one now.

    Break the frame, then, to expand perspectives: beyond species, beyond the present generations alive on Earth. Beyond nations too? As several pointed out over the course of “Fire and Ice,” one of the failings of the American environmental movement of the past few decades is its myopia about the world at large. One consequence of this is that national environmental regulations tend to export problems rather than genuinely address them. For instance, Stanford historian Gabrielle Hecht brought up regulatory arbitrage: when regulations prevent a particular type of activity in one place, industries just shift the pollution and its effects somewhere else. The fight against acid rain in the US and the EU saw success in very local ways. Fuel brokers now sell low-sulfur diesel to the West while dumping “dirty diesel” on, for instance, West African countries where air pollution in major cities is now a health hazard. And with global trade agreements on their side, it has become increasingly common in the past thirty years for industries to cherry-pick regions of the world with cheap labor and lenient environmental regulations for production of goods, side-stepping the local environmental and labor laws where goods are shipped and then consumed.

    Isabel Hilton, journalist and editor of Chinadialogue.net, an international and multilingual website, similarly spoke of “embodied carbon” — the total greenhouse gas emissions that go into producing and transporting the goods and materials we consume. Border-crossing phrases like embodied carbon can help us complicate discussions about climate responsibility in a globalized world. For instance, China may be the biggest overall greenhouse gas emitter in the world, Hilton pointed out, but how did it get that way? Where do its products go? An estimated 20 to 30 percent of China’s emissions relate to the export of commodities and raw materials which are consumed by other countries. The further emissions produced by shipping so many goods across the globe are significant, equivalent to the emissions produced by Germany, the world’s sixth largest emitter. But the shipping industry’s emissions aren’t incorporated into national carbon footprints in the international agreements we currently have in place.

    “We need to see the world as my country, rather than my country in the world,” said Carleton College specialist in environmental studies Tun Myint.  Climate action thus far has been hampered by many different types of borders — by ontology, as Kysar put it. As climate change muddles those boundaries, we need to be able to see past them to a common uniting cause.


    Planning the Future

    One of the rallying calls from climate activists is to “change the system, not the climate.”  A simple enough idea on the surface, but the idea of systemic change grows more complex the farther you wade into it. What is the system we live in — going beyond monolithic, simplifying terms like “capitalism” and “neoliberalism”? What does it mean to change that system, from the local to the global? And what are the most effective ways to push for transformation, in the short time frame that we have?

    An interesting element at “Fire & Ice” was the difference in opinions on the above points between panelists, audience members, and one of the most vocal groups in the audience, representatives of Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party. Over the course of two days, the latter group repeatedly expressed the view that we cannot make the changes we need within the constraints of capitalism. And though that point is debatable, it felt like a useful perspective to bring up for debate, just in terms of how many ideas spring from the question.

    Bill McKibben’s response was simple: we don’t have time for radical systemic change. The report released by the IPCC in October 2018 gives humanity 12 years to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, a line that we cannot cross without catastrophe. But there are many things we can do to change course within the system we already have. And McKibben’s activism has shown some paths forward: his site 350.org has organized 20,000 climate demonstrations in the past decade and $8 trillion in fossil fuel divestments, enough to get Shell to start feeling some of the same existential dread as the rest of us. McKibben emphasized that we already have the technology to rapidly shift to 100 percent renewable energy worldwide. We just need a grassroots movement large enough to break the hold of the fossil fuel industry and bring about that shift. And he had a clear idea of what “large enough” means: get five percent of the population actively involved, and that’s enough to induce a political sea change.

    Other panelists were more interested in talking about specific kinds of governance which could help bring about rapid, justice-centered change. Paul S. Adler, professor of Management and Organization, Sociology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Southern California, praised the Green New Deal but pointed out that businesses have far more to lose here than they ever did from the New Deal, and that the harsh compromises in store for the corporate sector might be hard to enforce under our current system. Instead, Adler proposed democratic socialism as a structure that might work: replacing private competition with public planning, modeled after the mobilization during World War II.

    But public planning at what level? Such planning might need to take very different forms, depending on location and scale. Several panelists spoke of how, in order to adapt to and mitigate climate change, what we really need to do is work on the agency of communities, of towns and cities and smaller regional blocks.

    Myint brought up “polycentric governance,” which the late economist Elinor Ostrom proposed a decade ago as a possible strategy for global mobilization against climate change. Ostrom’s Nobel Prize-winning work studied examples of common property resource management systems, worldwide, that bypass Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons.” The latter predicts that people will act in their own selfish interest in the short run, to the detriment of the long-term common good. Climate change has been held up as a classic example of the tragedy of the commons: local self-interest leading humanity down a path of collective destruction. But Ostrom found that communities are very capable of working towards a collective good, even in the absence of privatization or coercive government control, so long as a few important conditions are met. Some of those conditions are the free availability of information, platforms for open communication between community members, the potential to monitor actions over time, the perception that the rules are fair and apply to all, and the opportunity for individuals to earn one another’s trust.

    In the case of climate change, Ostrom’s theory was that international agreements, however ambitious, could never be enough on their own, because of the high amount of local cooperation and knowledge required to make them work. It takes a lot more energy to enforce controversial rules than it does to get local communities involved in the debate around and the crafting of future plans. Local knowledge is also key, because both adaptation and mitigation need to be fine-tuned depending on the region. And naturally these actions must also be coordinated at multiple levels of governance, to avoid cases like environmental arbitrage, where a problem merely slips from one side of the globe to the other. Hence the term “polycentric governance,” where public planning and action takes place in multiple coordinated spheres.

    Myint called for every locality to create their own Green New Deal, without waiting for laws to show up at the federal level — a call that journalist Naomi Klein recently echoed. Likewise, UCLA law professor Cara Horowitz spoke during “Fire & Ice” of our need to “empower the local.” It may not make much of a difference to the environment if one individual chooses to take shorter showers, as the environmental writer Derrick Jensen has pointed out. But it can make a real difference to work on adaptation and emissions reduction at the level of a neighborhood, a city or a state – and to work together with other such groups. Horowitz brought up the Under 2 Coalition, of which California is a part, which brings together cities, states and regions representing 40 to 50 percent of the world’s GDP in a commitment to keep temperature rise under two degrees Celsius. That ambition, we know from more recent scientific reports, is still half a degree too high. But it represents work in the right direction, with plenty of space to do more.


    Adapting to Change

    Regardless of what we do now, humanity’s future is going to look very different from its present and past. The challenge, going forward, will be to adapt our own behavior so that our future is still livable. That means, in part, flexible systems: local governments afforded the agency to respond and act rapidly as they adapt to environmental change and shift towards renewable energy. But there are many other structures that mold our lives.

    For instance, legal philosophy is particularly unsuited to dealing with climate change, UC Irvine law professor Alejandro Camacho pointed out at “Fire & Ice,” because the law tends to favor stasis. Natural resource policy promotes two goals: preventing human intervention into the environment, and preserving historical baselines by minimizing non-native disturbance and restoring native ecosystems. These policies were always at odds with natural environmental flux, but climate change has rendered the twin goals impossible.

    “We have to accept declining function in many ecosystems,” pointed out Camacho. If our priority is to promote ecological health, we need law that reflects that, and open discussion to figure out what those laws might look like — that perhaps allow for certain types of human intervention, certain kinds of environmental change, with the goal of maintaining an ecosystem’s dynamic capacity.

    And it isn’t just the law that is set up to resist change. Elsewhere in the conference, glaciologist Eric Rignot voiced concerns about the conservative culture of science as a whole. New ideas percolate slowly (“one funeral at a time,” mused early 20th-century physicist Max Planck); extreme predictions are discounted. And just as in the case of legal philosophy, that systemic resistance to change does not suit the present crisis. According to Rignot, the most moderate models of sea level rise tend to be taken more seriously by scientists. Reliance on such modest models of change undermines the reality that society needs a sense of the full range of possibility in order to plan for the future. Rignot argued for a change in scientific storytelling to suit the enormity of  “giant glaciers waking up.”

    The scale of transformation required of humans in coming years might seem overwhelming: we have to radically alter the systems that have enabled modernity, particularly in the realms of energy, infrastructure, law, politics, and philosophy. How do we get from here to there? “Fire & Ice” laid a multitude of perspectives and solutions on the table. But the nature of our future, as many speakers pointed out, will depend on a lot of individuals stepping up and claiming agency. Bill McKibben bequeathed every member of the audience “the privilege to do something about it,” now they had all the facts about the climate crisis.

    But what does it mean for individuals to effect change at so many levels? One story that has remained in my head for years came from a charismatic Bangladeshi woman named Runa Khan. In the low-lying country of Bangladesh, tens of millions of people with negligible carbon footprints stand to be displaced by rising waters. What Khan told me was that flooded rivers in the delta region make it difficult for climate migrants to seek out doctors even for routine ailments. Her organization, called Friendship, had a novel solution: put hospitals on boats. Turn rivers from barriers into roads. With that slight inversion in narrative, you change what you can do in the world.

    The message in that story has shifted and grown for me over the years. We need to find new ways to move with, rather than against, the currents of our dynamic planet. Radical transformation takes time and collaborative work, but it can spring from a very simple idea, like looking at rising waters and seeing in them a way to connect.


    Anjali Vaidya is a writer currently based in San Diego, California. Her non-fiction has been published in venues such as Orion Magazine, The Wire, Boom California, Public Books, and Dissent Magazine.