What sort of story is climate change? And how should it be told?

The Royal Court’s current production of 2071 with climate scientist Chris Rapley illustrates that when bringing science and the arts together the focus needs to be on respons-ability, not resbons-ibility.

By Kate Monson

Theatre land’s latest offering to the climate change conversation started at the Royal Court last week. Created by Katie Mitchell, of Ten Billion fame, and written in collaboration with the influential climate scientist Chris Rapley (former Director of the British Antarctic Survey and, more recently, the Science Museum), 2071 is described as “a new piece of theatre…where the science is centre stage.”


And centre stage the science – and the scientist – certainly are, in a production that is more suited to a lecture theatre than a playhouse. Rapley, grey suited, in a blue shirt but no tie, sits almost static throughout the production in the type of chair you’re likely to find in a doctor’s waiting room, only pausing in his impressive, methodical, 70-minute monologue to take the occasional sip of water. Behind him dance epic monochrome graphics – maps of the Antarctic, swirling weather systems and stylish illustrations of what happens when glaciers melt. Monochrome that is, until the 2oC “guard rail”, as Rapley terms it, is depicted graphically in alarmist red, warning us of exactly where we’re going wrong.

Rapley and the team at the Royal Court should certainly be applauded for attempting to bring science and storytelling closer together. Few other scientists have ventured outside the academic sphere to speak out on this issue. It’s a vital task if we are to find new ways of engaging people with climate change and encourage positive action as our report Science & Stories: Bringing the IPCC to Life produced this summer illustrates.

IPCC cartoon - no ones listening by Jon Kudelka (1)

But I’d also like to unpack the production a little more carefully…here we are presented with a scientist of the most reputable kind (the production begins with Rapley running through his impressive CV) but also the most typical in profile (age, gender, race and class), if not in practice. He delivers a very measured and inoffensive lecture (in a tone he himself describes as “dispassionate and objective”) on how the most complex natural system on earth, the global climate, works and how humans are changing it. It’s a story of sorts, certainly. But is it the type of story that will inspire those who aren’t already involved to help change its ending…?

This feels unlikely. 2071’s story isn’t wrong or ineffective, it’s just limited – most likely appealing to people who are already engaged with climate change and hope to leave the theatre better armed with the facts.

Much of the social science and psychology research indicates that the climate change conversation needs to be broadened beyond these ‘usual suspects’. And further, that doing this requires new narratives and new ways of presenting information. Our co-founder, George Marshall, recently wrote a book – Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change – discussing some of these questions too. You can see a video of last week’s launch here.

Chris Rapley understands the importance of this better than most, having headed up a significant report on science communication earlier this year – Time for Change? Climate Science Reconsidered – with the aim of helping climate scientists get their message across. It’s essential reading for everyone who works in climate science and anyone who is interested in the communication and the psychology of climate change. Attempts at following these report recommendations are undeniably evident in 2071. However, writer Duncan Macmillan just doesn’t take them far enough to be successful for the non-converted.

For example, Time for Change calls for climate scientists to “employ the elements of successful narrative including personalizing their story, drawing on emotions and expressing their opinions”; and recognises that, “the public discussion of climate science is as much about what sort of world we wish to live in, and hence about ethics and values, as it is about material risks to human well-being.” It also specifically encourages climate scientists to collaborate with those who have experience in public narratives, such as the arts and museum community.

To the first point on ‘personalising the story’: as mentioned above, Miller’s script sees Rapley stating early on in his 2071 monologue that, as a scientist his role is to be “dispassionate and objective”, not emotional and opinionated. And while the production’s title does offer a personal touch – 2071 is the year Rapley’s eldest granddaughter will be the age he is now – it is one of only a few such references in the play, and is as vulnerable to submersion by the ocean of information presented as South Pacific archipelagos are to rising sea levels. Further, the year 2071 also lies well beyond the scope of the average human being’s temporal understanding – when pressed people struggle to envision a time 20-30 years in the future, let alone 40-50…

As for the second point, referring to what sort of world we wish to live in: again the production makes a nod to this, with Rapley restating this sentiment almost verbatim from the report near the end of the performance. Under the weight of all the graphs and maps, however, there has been so little build up to a comment on ethics and values that one could be forgiven for missing it completely.

And finally, to climate scientists collaborating with the arts community: there is no doubt that 2071 is a product of this, at least in the sense that it was conceived by a theatre director, a scriptwriter and a climate scientist. But placing a science lecture – albeit with uncharacteristically stylish graphics – in a theatre doesn’t feel like a particularly ambitious realisation of this type of partnership. I would have expected the outcome to be something unusual, something that sheds light on new ways of thinking and acting. A focus, to put it more poetically, on a respons-ability to climate change, rather than a respons-iblity.

Despite a different setting and some attempts to break out of the mould, 2071 appears to fall squarely into science’s persistent safety net – ‘the information deficit model’. Traditionally hailed as the holy grail of climate change communication, it has now been well and truly debunked. People are complex and often perverse beasts. Simply offering up more of the ‘right’ information does not mean we will make more of the ‘right’ decisions. In fact, it often has the opposite effect for the unconvinced. Instead, messages need to be linked to what’s meaningful for the audience. Finding out how the people you’re speaking to think and focusing on what they care about will take you far closer to telling a successful story than ensuring you’re well-versed in climate science. That’s not to say that a cogent and comprehensive understanding of the science isn’t important; it’s just not enough.

As I mentioned above, bringing the scientific and artistic community closer together is vital if we are to take on the challenge of climate change with any real vigour. This project is clearly attempting to do this and Rapley needs to be credited, along with a growing number of creative people focusing their energy and ingenuity on this endeavour. One recent result is the Culture and Climate Change: Narratives report published by the Open University’s Open Space Research Centre. The group behind the project believe climate change requires multiple framings and perspectives, and that these need to be provisional and evolving. “Only some voices have so far had the chance to speak” they continue “and the stories that have been told represent only a fraction of the ones that might be available to us.”

to change everything

We’ve also teamed up with the Royal Society of Arts on an innovative project to explore this. It develops the idea that the climate change challenge is not only (or even mostly) about ‘saving the environment’ and all the clichéd ideas that come with it. Instead, it should be viewed as a multi-faceted challenge with seven main dimensions, all of which speak to a different aspect of human existence: science, technology, law, economy, democracy, culture and behaviour. It’s this type of thinking that pushes COIN into new and exciting areas, such as our latest work with young people and, previously, the centre-right. And it’s this type of thinking that we need much, much more of if we are to succeed in Rapley’s call for “the greatest collective action in history.”

2 thoughts on “What sort of story is climate change? And how should it be told?”

  1. Thoughtful piece. But wouldn’t future be better served by writing about climate change, rather than how to write about climate change? Displacement?

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