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Storytelling and climate change

Engaging with the challenge of low carbon transitions and climate impacts requires new academic and political work. It involves more than an assessment of the feasibility, effectiveness and legitimacy of particular technologies, incentives, institutions or policies to address short-term targets and timetables. As such, in the domain of climate change our political and ethical choices are critically informed by our understanding of the future as well as through the ways in which histories are (re)told to shape new practices in the present.

To this end, new frames and visions of a climate changed and carbon constrained world are being advanced as a means of narrating the future. This endeavour cuts across different domains of disciplinary expertise as well as between the research and practitioner communities. There are many techniques through which climate futures can be envisioned, for example through global and regional climate models, scenarios of future emission trajectories, as well as pathways and visions of societal transformation. Another technique is ‘demonstration and experimentation’ where, for example, city planners and developers demonstrate sustainable homes and city districts (e.g. climate smart Hyllie), transport schemes, or energy generation technologies. These are meant to exemplify how political and societal goals could be achieved.

In recent years, cultural representations of a climate changed world have increasingly emerged in terms of art installations, literature, film, etc. There is now a wealth of literary fiction addressing various topics in multiple genres, from post-apocalyptic and war-torn futures to intimate stories of daily life in a warming and increasingly carbon constrained world. Museums like MoMa in New York and Tate Modern in London have held exhibitions on the past and future of carbon, and the nature of a climate changed world and its morality.

These four groups of narrative techniques (1) Modelling and scenarios; (2) Demonstration and experimentation; (3) Cultural interventions; (4) Transition pathways and visions, differ significantly in terms of the disciplines they draw upon, the types of knowledge they seek to create, the agents involved, the audiences reached, and the methods and practices through which they are undertaken. Despite these differences, they all rely on forms of narrative: of telling compelling stories about the nature of a climate changed world and the means through which it can (and cannot) be mitigated and/or adapted to.