Storytelling is Critical to Climate Action

Seated in an auditorium at The George Washington University, dozens of undergraduate students from across the country listened with rapt attention to a National Geographic photographer tell the annual Planet Forward climate conference how he got the perfect shot of a barely visible cricket parasite.

Anand Varma shared the captivating, fully illustrated story of how he populated his own kitchen with parasites for days to get the photo he needed. His beautifully detailed photos and descriptions of creating them echo Planet Forward’s ethos: How you tell your story is just as important as its real-world impact.

A post shared by Anand Varma (@anandavarma) on May 28, 2015 at 8:37am PDT

That surely was a tough act to follow, but C2ES President Bob Perciasepe went ahead and took the stage to kick off a discussion on leadership in the effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s much more difficult without slow-motion video of humming birds and “zombie bugs,” or macrophotography of a honeybee colony’s collapse, but leaders in the fight against climate change have compelling stories, too. And we need to find the best way to tell them.

With the EPA rolling back federal policies like the Clean Power Plan and revising vehicle standards aimed at curbing emissions and boosting fuel economy, it’s clear there is an absence of leadership at the federal level.

But the reality is that we’re seeing a new group of climate leaders emerge. American states, cities, and companies are stepping in to take the lead by reducing emissions in their own actions and investments.

This has culminated in the past year into the We Are Still In and America’s Pledge movements. To limit the impacts of climate change until the federal government is once again leading the way, we’ll need them to continue pushing ahead.

We need to consider carefully the story we’re telling. When the public is awaiting a tidal wave sweeping through Manhattan to signal the dangers of climate change – it’s difficult to create a sense of urgency.

The truth is, impacts are already happening even if they don’t resemble the disasters depicted by Hollywood (looking at you The Day After Tomorrow).

It’s not hard to see devastating events happening globally. Drought can lead to food shortages and in turn stoke conflict, creating refugees, large-scale health crises, and national security concerns. Meanwhile, Pacific islands are sinking, and Arctic sea ice is disappearing.

But here in the United States, we have human stories that go beyond the made-for-cable-news storms of growing intensity. The story we tell has to illustrate the human impact confronted by cities, states, and businesses across the country.

City leaders can tell stories about family homes damaged from sewer overflows caused by heavier rainfall and the costs of unexpected snow removal, or how they enforce water restrictions brought on by drought.

State leaders can tell stories of working with farmers whose crops are ruined by floods, paying for repairs to storm-damaged property, and footing additional healthcare costs for people susceptible to high temperatures or bad air quality.

Business leaders can tell the story of studying flood plain maps before breaking ground on multi-million or billion-dollar investments, or of the corporate policies they enact to satisfy investors, consumers, and potential employees who want them to be a part of the solution.

Businesses, cities, and states are dealing with the consequences today. This is why we see them acting.

Though we are seeing more action from non-federal actors and from coalitions of private industry and local governments, we must continue to tell these stories at the annual Climate Leadership Conference we host with The Climate Registry, at the Planet Forward’s conference which enlightens young minds, and at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco later this year.

While we still call for the comprehensive U.S. national policy to match the international collaborative effort the Paris Agreement represents, the story we must continue to tell are those that illustrate the ongoing impacts we face today and every day.