Three narrative shifts to heal our planet

Nicky Hawkins highlights the need for effective communication and collaborative storytelling around climate change. This is the first of a series of blogpost reflections on the subject of public engagement and climate action, which will be authored by invited partners in the lead-up to COP26 in November.
Photo by Elena Mozhvilo

If you work in social change, the word “narrative” is bandied around an awful lot. It’s what we want to say and what we don’t like other people saying. It’s how we bemoan everything from mild disagreement to differing levels of knowledge. This lack of definition can be unhelpful. 

To understand narratives and actually shift them, we need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. We need to recognise that overarching ideas and recurring stories shape how people understand the world, not technical detail. And we need to spot how those stories play out so we can avoid getting stuck in the ones that hold us all back. As I recently heard from a vaccine narrative expert, we need to focus on “themes, not memes.” 

This can be hard for experts who deal in detail. But just as vaccine sentiment isn’t shaped by everyone engaging with the specifics of each clinical trial, pure facts and detail won’t change how we feel and act in relation to our environment.

And when we take a step back, we see that the “narrative” around our planet’s health has shifted in recent years. It’s gone from something we think other people care about to something most of us care about. It’s gone from niche to normal. 

This is welcome and necessary. And we now need to build on it – because awareness and concern alone won’t repair our planet. We need to cultivate enthusiastic support for the seismic policy shifts ahead. We need to move the norms that shape how we all act. Here are three big picture story changes that can help us do that.

1. From ‘wake up’ to ‘we can fix this’ 

The vast majority of us know we face a climate crisis – and want more action to solve it. 

Communications that only tell us we face planetary peril are telling us something we already know. Worse, they invite us to keep believing that these problems are too big and overwhelming to solve. 

To move from despair to action, we need all of our stories to balance the scale of the problems with our collective capacity to solve them. As Prince William says, we need to see and hear about “our ability to rise to the greatest challenges in human history.”

2. From “people are problem” to “we’re all part of the solution”

All too often communications about complex societal issues imply that the “public” is ignorant, passive, selfish – or a combination of all three. Communications are premised on the idea that “they don’t get how much this matters, they need to wake up and look at the facts.” 

Rife in the debate around the UK’s EU membership, the same assumption comes across in the climate and nature conversation. The response from some quarters to the summer’s flash flooding was akin to an exasperated parent yelling “maybe now you’ll get it!”

Instead of accusing the public of snoozing while the planet burns, communicators need to show “the public” that they are with us and for us. That they get how concerned and scared most of us are – and that they’re on our side and they want to help lead us to safety. That they know people are the solution, not the problem. The Climate Assemblies told this story, as did the moving documentary about them, The People vs Climate Change.

Ultimately, change will happen if it’s backed by the public. So it’s best not to imply that climate action is poorly understood or wildly unpopular, especially as neither are true. As Boris Johnson recently said, taking action “puts [world leaders] on the right side of public opinion both at home and on the international stage. Because climate change is no longer an issue that solely concerns the unkempt fringes.” However kempt you are, it’s good to keep reminding ourselves and our leaders that the majority care and want to see change.

3. From “competing concerns” to “it’s all connected”

We’re often told that we face a choice between competing agendas and priorities: ending the pandemic vs fixing the climate crisis. Emissions reduction vs biodiversity protection. The natural world vs a thriving economy. Our immediate needs vs humanity’s survival. 

In reality these are not binary choices but interconnected challenges. Our health and wellbeing depends on us having a healthy planet. Our climate depends on our natural world and vice versa. And while we do face choices and trade offs, pitting major issues and challenges against each other puts us in a zero sum game. Instead, we need to keep emphasising the opportunities for change that offer us win-wins.  


Nicky Hawkins is Communications Director at On Road Media. Follow her on Twitter where she tweets about framing and narrative change. 

More information and advice on climate and nature narratives
Six ways to change hearts and minds about climate change by On Road Media and the FrameWorks Institute

Britain Talks Climate from Climate Outreach

Reframing the ocean from the FrameWorks Institute