Why the world needs more climate fiction

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on December 18th, 2018 by Leo – Be the first to comment

This was originally published by New Internationalist.

Visitor numbers at Bletchley Park, the home of UK wartime code-breaking, have soared in recent years. From fewer than 50,000 in 2005, ticket sales grew to 196,000 by 2014. The next year they suddenly jumped per cent, with an extra 84,000 people visiting the park.

Why the sharp rise in visitors? Word about Bletchley had been building for years but there was a specific reason visitors suddenly flocked to the museum after 2014. What had changed was the release of the Oscar-winning film, The Imitation Game, which dramatized Alan Turing’s wartime experience at Bletchley. Visitors rushed to the park not because they had seen a documentary or read a book about it, but because they had been told a story.

The story the film tells is, of course, about how Turing and others cracked the Enigma code – but it’s not just about that. It’s also about how women and gay men struggled in the strictures of mid-Twentieth Century Britain and how the country mistreated a hero. Without those sides of the story, the film wouldn’t have had such wide appeal and the park probably wouldn’t have had so many visitors.

Stories about individuals are easy to dismiss as trivial but are essential for conveying bigger stories. Anne Frank’s diaries help us grasp the horror of the Holocaust; photographs of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, dead on a Turkish beach, drew global attention to the European refugee crisis in a way that 3,000 deaths in the Mediterranean the previous year had not.

The roots of climate apathy

When it comes to climate change you might think the world has no need for human-interest stories. The record-breaking heat of this summer came after a year in which the US suffered its costliest hurricane season on record, much of South Asia was under water and Cape Town got within weeks of switching off the taps.

But there is little sign that these changes in the world’s weather are causing a surge in public worries. Long-term studies suggest concern about climate change has drifted up and down over the last 20 years. As I show in my book, climate apathy is widespread and resilient: most people understand climate change is real but don’t spend much time thinking about the subject.

A lack of science communication isn’t the problem. Since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2001 report, scientific confidence that humans are the cause of recent warming has gone from 66% to more than 95%. The latest report – at nearly 5,000 pages, the definitive statement of knowledge about the subject – had plenty of media coverage yet little measurable impact on public opinion.

Psychologists wouldn’t be surprised by this. To the human mind, climate change is distant, complex and slow-moving – a bad combination according to Harvard social psychologist Daniel Gilbert, who described the brain as a “get out of the way machine”. It has evolved to deal with problems that are proximate, clear and rapidly changing and it prioritizes these over distant threats like climate change. However quickly the planet is changing in geological terms, it’s still slow in human terms.

Perhaps this reflects the limits, in terms of persuasion, of the factual description of climate science. To persuade more people that the world needs to urgently cut emissions means making climate science personal and that requires storytelling. This is why a new genre, climate fiction – cli-fi for short – has so much potential.

Climate fiction

Most people’s experience of cli-fi is limited to one or two blockbusters. The 2004 disaster film The Day After Tomorrow is the best known: it may be the only work of cli-fi that editors assume audiences know. Other prominent ones include the post-apocalyptic book and film The Road – which doesn’t actually mention climate change though is often categorised as cli-fi.

But the famous works of cli-fi are perhaps the least important. They’re dramatic because they show a world that has been utterly transformed. But the world they show is so unrelatably different from everyday life that viewers might as well worry about a zombie apocalypse as about climate change. They’re unlikely to persuade many people that climate change is a threat they need to act to prevent.

nstead of this extreme transformation, cli-fi is most persuasive when it doesn’t try to do so much. Paradoxically, it’s the works that tell the smallest stories that may be the most important: those that focus on one change and explore what it means for the people living through it.

Among the most interesting, The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter, is narrow and simple. A woman gives birth, her home floods and she has to flee with her partner and baby. We hear no more about the rest of the country – let alone the rest of the world – than the woman does and the short book is dominated by the day-to-day of life with a growing baby as she seeks refuge. In its simplicity it conveys, more powerfully than any scientific report, what it would feel like to live through a climate change-induced flood.

Others don’t narrow their scope so much but still convey the emotion of global warming. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora isn’t obviously cli-fi – it’s mostly set on a generation starship – but gives a compelling description of a particular loss that could come from climate change when a character sets herself to remaking beaches that have been swallowed by rising oceans. The reader could easily have been alienated with descriptions of a future Earth but beaches are familiar. As a translation of the dull term “sea-level rise”, a woman’s experience of restoring sandy beaches conveys their loss in a way that makes it painfully imaginable.

If any descriptions of climate change could trigger Gilbert’s get out of the way machine, it’s ones like these. The power of the most persuasive cli-fi is its relatability. Homes flooding and beaches drowning, experienced through the eyes of a character we’re behind, are easier to imagine and care about than any scientific report or desperate struggles after a world-shattering apocalypse.

Cli-fi is still little known – it’s still largely limited to books (no big-budget Netflix show yet) and most of those are published with little attention. For now the climate change story is mostly told through dry reports, whose facts may be terrifying but whose story is barely heard.

But there is one sign that things might be changing. A production company, SunnyMarch, last year acquired the rights to turn The End We Start From into a film. The name behind that production company is someone who knows about telling personal stories: Benedict Cumberbatch, star of The Imitation Game.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.


Could businesses hold the key to overcoming climate apathy?

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on December 13th, 2018 by Leo – Be the first to comment

This was originally published by Business Green.

There’s an episode of the US TV show The West Wing where the President is looking for a reason to commute a murderer’s death sentence. He hears pleas from religious figures and prays for wisdom but, feeling God hasn’t answered him, is unable to find a way out. As the episode closes and time runs out, the President’s childhood priest chastises him: “He sent you a priest, a rabbi, and a Quaker, Mr. President. Not to mention His son, Jesus Christ. What do you want from Him?”

Those of us wanting faster climate action may be wondering what the world is still waiting to be sent. In the last 12 months California has seen the most destructive fires in its history, a heatwave set records across the northern hemisphere, a drought in Cape Town took the city to within weeks of switching off its public water supply, record-breaking rain and floods killed more than 200 in Japan, even more deadly floods struck Kerala, while the Carolinas were also hit by record flooding, from Hurricane Florence.

There are in fact some signs that climate change is starting to influence elections. Continued on Business Green (free read)

May fights on – so what now? Polling Matters

Posted in Polling Matters on December 13th, 2018 by Leo – Be the first to comment

On this week’s podcast, Keiran Pedley and I look back at events in a frantic week at Westminster. They debate whether May was right to postpone the meaningful vote, whether a change in leader would have any impact on Brexit negotiations and the prospect of another referendum breaking the parliamentary deadlock.


Can May win the ‘meaningful vote’ and what happens if she doesn’t? Polling Matters

Posted in Polling Matters on November 29th, 2018 by Leo – Be the first to comment

On this week’s podcast the Polling Matters team, including the returning Rob Vance, discuss evolving public opinion on May’s Brexit deal and what happens if she does not win the ‘meaningful vote’ next month.


What now for Trump and have voters changed their minds about Brexit? Polling Matters

Posted in Polling Matters on November 8th, 2018 by Leo – Be the first to comment

On this week’s Polling Matters podcast, Keiran Pedley and I look into the implications of this week’s mid-terms in the US and dissect data from Survation and Chris Hanretty suggesting that Brits would vote Remain if there was another referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

Elsewhere in the show, I look at what polling tells us about the prospect of a Cameron comeback and Keiran criticises Momentum’s “consultation” of its members about Labour’s Brexit policy – which he claims was nothing of the sort.


Looking ahead to the budget. Is it still the economy, stupid? Polling Matters

Posted in Polling Matters on October 24th, 2018 by Leo – Be the first to comment

On this week’s Polling Matters podcast, Keiran Pedley and I discuss the political lay of the land as we approach the budget, what the public think about the economy and our political leaders ability to handle it and how important the economy is in voting intention terms in a Brexit-dominated 2018.


Will May reach a Brexit deal and can she get it through parliament? Polling Matters

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters on October 20th, 2018 by Leo – Be the first to comment

This week’s PB / Polling Matters podcast is split into two parts:

In part one, Keiran Pedley is joined by Peter McLeod (Vice President at pollster GQR) to explore what the public think of “Chequers” and what they expect from any Brexit deal May brings back. It turns out that Chequers is more popular than you might think in the right context – but is that the context the Prime Minister’s eventual deal will ultimately be seen in? Keiran and Peter discuss.

In part two, I joined Keiran to discuss how May gets a deal through parliament, if indeed she reaches one. Keiran explains why he is much less positive than he once was and I talked about why pollsters will have a big role to play in how some MPs vote.


Climate apathy, not denial, is the biggest threat to our planet

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on October 5th, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on Climate apathy, not denial, is the biggest threat to our planet

This article was published in the Guardian – intro below and you can read the full text here.

Three years after world leaders signed the Paris climate agreement, we’re about to better understand what that deal means for how we live our lives. On Monday, a major report from the UN’s climate science panel will set out what it will take to limit global warming to 1.5C, the key Paris target.

There are reasons to think the world is, finally, getting to grips with climate change. Carbon emissions are still rising but more slowly than before, and in many countries they’re falling. The UK has slashed its emissions to 19th-century levels, and we’re not alone – plenty of other countries, including the US, are making progress as well. Crucially, that’s happened without many people noticing, suggesting the world might be able to deal with the problem without having to persuade the public to change their polluting lifestyles.

But this is wishful thinking. Continue reading…


Who are the centrists and who do they think they are? Polling Matters

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters on September 13th, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on Who are the centrists and who do they think they are? Polling Matters

On the latest episode of the PB / Polling Matters podcast, Keiran and I discuss some recent polling by Opinium that looks at where Brits place themselves of the left-right political scale, who classes themselves as ‘centrist’ and what they think it means.


Would Remain win a second referendum and could Brexit lead to a united Ireland? Polling Matters

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters on September 6th, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on Would Remain win a second referendum and could Brexit lead to a united Ireland? Polling Matters

On this week’s PB / Polling Matters podcast, Keiran and I look at a new report by NatCen suggesting that attitudes to Brexit are shifting and that Brits would vote Remain next time.

Meanwhile, Keiran takes us through some recent polling from Deltapoll on the question of a united Ireland following Brexit and asks whether unionism is too complacent about Northern Ireland’s future in the UK.