Climate Narrative

The role of narrative in politics is so well known that I wonder why it’s not discussed more in the context of climate and energy policy.

So this interview with Michael Jones, a political scientist who is studying how stories shape public policy is interesting. He reminds us of an obvious human trait:

I think that people think and organize narratively, that we’re hardwired to do this. We think linearly, we assign agency to things that probably don’t have agency ““ things like tornadoes. Even if the narrative is incomplete in a news story, people will fill in the blanks with what they already bring to the table.

Yes, I’m aware that some folks in the climate and communications sphere talk a lot about framing and messaging. Those are rhetorical devices. Story is something more. Here’s Jones defining what constitutes a policy narrative:

You’d need some characters, you’d need a plot, you’d need a setting. For it to be a policy narrative, what you also need is a moral to the story or a solution to the problem.

There are specific characters. You would have a hero, you would have a victim. For it to be a good narrative, you would have a villain.

(I’ve said this before: there are two guys–on opposite sides–in the climate wars who get this. They know the importance of narrative. It’s obvious if you read their blogs. Guesses, anyone?)

Now, I wasn’t aware that someone out there was trying to measure the effectiveness of narrative in a scientific fashion. This part of the interview with Jones is fascinating:

How do you scientifically examine a narrative?

You basically create stories that are experiments. You try to hold as much of the language constant as possible. In the case of my dissertation, I exposed people to one of three different narratives and then a control group. The control group was a list of facts about climate change.

And then the three different stories were stories advocating a particular solution to climate change. But the actual text was 75 to 80 percent the same in each story, so you just move little bits of the text. Well, when you move a little piece of the text, then you can statistically analyze that movement for an effect.

How do you evaluate their responses?

Statistically ““ you would look for differences in means. Do people like the hero in this story more as compared to the control where you didn’t give them any narrative information? With all the characters, you get significantly different responses than in the control group. And then you’re able to analyze those affective measures within the stories on other dependent variables. Depending upon how much you like Ecodefense, does that matter as to how much of a risk you think climate change is? The answer is yes, and it matters more in the narratives. Quite a bit more.

The interesting thing about the climate change debate is that it’s framed by shifting narratives from year to year. What largely remains the same, though, are the main heroes and villains. True, more people seem to be tuning out the topic, but I’m beginning to wonder if that’s because they’re bored with the same cast of characters. Or is it that they just haven’t been sold yet on any one narrative?

7 Responses to “Climate Narrative”

  1. Ed Forbes says:

    “..You can see this with climate change. You just keep saying over and over that science says climate change is real, that there are the potential consequences we can expect to see if we don’t address it. But when people look at the issue, they see a different story. They see uncertainty, they see a scientific community that doesn’t have consensus. That’s because the anti-climate forces have put together a better narrative, one that focuses on that uncertainty..”
    In politics, it is also called staying on “message”. The alarmists have changed the message from “global warming” to “climate change” to “climate disruption”. The skeptics have stayed with the climate always changes, it has changed before, and it will change in the future. Nothing “new” is happing with climate. If the message keeps changing, people will tend to suspect it more.

    “”¦Villains tend to be important in policy narratives, but I found something else in my dissertation that actually shocked me. The hero really matters. The hero in each of the stories that I put out there, as the respondent grows more affectionate toward them and likes them more, the more they believe everything in the story, the more willing they are to accept policy prescriptions, the more willing they were to believe that climate change is real, the more willing they were to believe that everything they were told was true. Nothing else performed quite as successfully as that variable”¦.”

    The skeptics have
    Stephen McIntyre as a Hero and Mike Mann and  Phil Jones as villains. ClimateGate emails have dammed these  “villains” with their own words. The alarmists have Mike Mann and his hockey stick as a hero and “Big Oil” as a vague villain.  The more the public learns of Steve, the more they like him, which makes the public more willing to accept the skeptics steady message than the alarmists changing message and vague villain.

  2. Jack Hughes says:

    Can we have some more details of the “anti-climate forces”?
    And who are the heros and the villains? Normally people who tell lies and bully others are the baddies.

  3. SimonH says:

    Argh… I… can’t… resist… aaaargghhh…

  4. Ed Forbes says:

    Jack Hughes
     Normally people who tell lies and bully others are the baddies.

    yep…I agree
    remind me…..which side uses the bullying tactics of calling their opponents “deniers”,  “anti-science” and “flat earthers” because “the science is settled” with “a consensus of 2500 climate scientists”

    Love the “consensus” part.

    Frederick Seitz, President Emeritus of Rockefeller University.
    A Major Deception on Global Warming
    Op-Ed by Frederick Seitz
    Wall Street Journal, June 12, 1996
    “”¦The participating scientists accepted “The Science of Climate Change” in Madrid last November; the full IPCC accepted it the following month in Rome. But more than 15 sections in Chapter 8 of the report–the key chapter setting out the scientific evidence for and against a human influence over climate–were changed or deleted after the scientists charged with examining this question had accepted the supposedly final text”¦.”

    or better yet

    October 9, 1997: climategate email 0876437553
    “…I am very strongly in favor of as wide and rapid a distribution as possible for endorsements. I think the only thing that counts is numbers. The media is going to say “1000 scientists signed” or “1500 signed”. No one is going to check if it is 600 with PhDs versus 2000 without. They will mention the prominent ones, but that is a different story. …”

  5. kdk33 says:

    One common narrative is:

    Conservatives don’t believe in climate change because they are  knuckle draggin’, anti-science, Sarah Palin worshipers who drink tea at communion.  Enlightened liberals do believe, because they are… well enlightened, one supposes, and worship a proper god – Gaia – and drink tea, but not that kind (if you know what I mean).

    Many (at least anectodally) seem to have “believed” upon first hearing the narrative (as related by Gore & Co.).  Then turned against the movement once they got the past the scary stories and looked at the issues. 

  6. DeNihilist says:

    kdk33, eggxatcly! If the scientists/lobbiests had just stuck to the mundane of radiative physics and left the scaremongering in the ground, I am certain that we would already have more carbon taxes and more money going into alternative energies.

    But by trying to coerce scociety (because obviously we are not smart enough to understand radiative physics) by basing their argumants on the basest of stories, they pushed people like me to push back and to find out for myself. What we found out was not sincere. For too long, advocates have been using the scare tactic to try to get hteir way and the general population has now lived through enough of these scares to see that NONE of them have ever turned out to be as bad as predicted. It is called maturation. Talk to us as adults and the chance of us letting your ideas have a true discourse is heightened.

  7. […] discussed the implications of Jones’ research in September, but they’re worth mentioning again, […]

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