How New Narratives can Help us to Overcome Obstacles to Climate Change Action

By incorporating some basic issues into a new climate narrative, we can begin to move forward. There are a plethora of reasons why our current narratives prevent us from acting on climate change, not the least of which is the fact that we spend far too much time debating the veracity of the science rather than tackling important  policy issues. The science is settled, it is time to stop delaying action and move beyond the illegitimate concerns of climate deniers. Another reason we have failed to craft effective narratives is the fact that we fall victim to dichotomous thinking. We must not allow the conversation to devolve into the false choice between economic growth and climate action. We know that the costs will increase the longer we wait and it is an economic certainty that the costs of mitigation are a tiny fraction of the costs of runaway climate change. We must move away from this false polemic as this way of framing the issue is a road to nowhere. A new narrative must address much more than the problems or the material benefits of action. A new narrative must highlight the societal value of social variables.


Narratives fail for a number of reasons including the fact that they are often cold and unappealing. This is a point made by Clara Changxin Fang in a February, 15, 2014 article titled,”Charming Your Way to Sustainability,” In this article Fang compares fostering action on climate change to the art of seduction. She makes the point that we need to know who we are talking to and what we are talking about but even more importantly we need to engage in a human dialogue which is both approachable and responsive. We must relate personally to the people we are speaking to and make points that are relevant to them. We need to show warmth and hospitality with the aim of building a relationship premised on trustworthiness and open-mindedness.

We need to be aware of a number of variables including the way we present ourselves. Above all, we need to be taken seriously and this involves both physical attributes (e.g. facial express, gestures and dress) and communication style (e.g. tone of voice and content). Finally, to facilitate agreement, we must strive to communicate in an appropriate setting that is conducive to an intimate discussion.

Once there is agreement on the nature of the problem, we need to foster shared approaches to addressing the issues. This is often where climate activism breaks down, we need to ask people to act (in marketing-speak it’s known as the “call to action”). However, you must make this effort as easy as possible. One very effective technique is to get them to make suggestions which can then give the appearance that the solutions come from them rather than you.

The importance of the human element in crafting a new narrative cannot be overstated. We need to show appreciation, give credit, be thankful, and acknowledge the parties you are speaking to. Be courteous and helpful and in most instances they will in turn be courteous and helpful to you. It is important to assume responsibility in the conversation and model constructive communication.

It is also very important to make your exchanges about more than just sustainability. However, do not shy away from difficult discussions that strike at the heart of the issue. Deal with any perceived annoyance or discomfort. Make a point of rebutting resistance as it arises. Deal with these issues in a straightforward fashion without being accusatory.

Overcoming Selfishness

People are inherently selfish and this impedes progress on climate change. As reviewed in Time, a new study shows that human beings are too selfish to sacrifice for future generations.  A new narrative must cultivate a greater sense of communality and altrusim. The climate crisis demands that we look beyond the narrow specificity of a group of skill sets that makes us employable or even the myopic preoccupation with our own survival. We must look beyond ourselves, beyond our tribe, beyond our nation. Ultimately we must inculcate an understanding that embraces the entire globe.

The desire to help others without consideration for ourselves is far more than just a noble ideal, our very survival may depend on it. Selflessness raises the quality and elevates the meaning of our lives, however we need to be realistic about our tendency towards self interest.

While we need to think long term, our brains tend to be more focused on short term impacts. We tend not to look at the distant horizon and we tend to plan only a few steps ahead. Even natural disasters garner our attention in the short term, but then they quickly fade from view. We will need to develop narratives that address our tendency towards selfishness rather than hope to change this deeply engrained psychological myopia.

Short Term Thinking

People think about the short term and because climate change will take generations to fully unfold, people do not grasp its gravity. To overcome the obstacle of time we must frame the problems in the here and now, rather than an abstract and distant future.

A new study in Nature Climate Change indicates that the kind of long-term cooperation demanded by effective climate policy is going to be challenging. People are unwilling to endure present pain so that future generations won’t have to endure an unlivable climate. The study also underscores the need for “win-win” climate policies. One of the implications of this study is that rather than talk about the cost of dirty energy, we need to communicate the savings associated with clean energy.


The one thing all humans have in common is that each of us wants to be happy. This is the view expressed in a Ted Talk by Brother David Steindl-Rast, a monk and interfaith scholar. He suggests that happiness is born from gratitude. He argues that the way to happiness involves slowing down, looking where you’re going, and above all, being grateful. This view has implications for a new climate narrative.

This view has been incorporated into the national vision espoused by the government of Bhutan.  This nation is currently measuring its success through a dedicated focus on wellbeing.

Cooperation and Collaboration

Cooperation and collaboration are essential to designing solutions to any effort to combat climate change. The concepts of cooperation and collaboration can be promoted by publishing indices of personal well-being and environmental preservation, alongside standard GDP data. The government of Bhutan already accounts for the “social wealth” and “natural wealth” of its people in addition to its GDP figures. According to Harvard University biologist Martin Nowak, “to solve new, global challenges, we must also find new ways to cooperate. The basis for this cooperation must be altruism.”


Despite research in the fields of psychology, economics, and evolutionary biology, which claim we are inherently selfish, other research indicates that true altruism does exist. There is also a train of thought which suggests that individuals can learn to be altruistic. Neuroscientists have identified three components of altruism that anyone can develop as acquired skills: empathy (understanding and sharing the feelings of another), loving kindness (the wish to spread happiness), and compassion (a desire to relieve the suffering of another).

As the value of altruism becomes increasingly obvious, the new approach will spread through the economy, benefiting all of society, future generations, and the planet.

While we are called to look at the big picture, we cannot do this unless we understand the psychological obstacles that keep us from caring about our own happiness and prevent us from cooperating and focusing on the well-being of others.

The vision required to overcome the threats we face is both multi-faceted and complex. However, with the help of a new narrative, we can move beyond the limitations of our current world view.

Image credit: Alex Vanderkooy, courtesy Flickr

Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor, and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics, and eco-economics.

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