To move the masses into climate action, we need a really good story

November 19, 2021 GMT

Life is extremely complicated and will only become more so. The just-completed Glasgow Conference of Parties (COP26) has generated many agreements but climate activist Greta Thunberg said: “There is a still a very, very long way to go.” Yet some agreement is better than nothing, even if the hard work is only just beginning.

Leaders have to go home and start delivering their promises. That the United States and China (the two largest carbon emitters) agreed to work together on the 1.5 degree Celsius goal set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement was welcome relief. Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden delivering on their domestic commitments would be steps in the right direction.


But how do we convince more people to make the change on climate action?

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There is so much distrust of authority that many are cynical. Elections seem to solve nothing because when the majority margin is wafer thin, coalition governments cannot make tough decisions. We become like Josef in Franz Kafka’s book The Trial, in a faceless court facing charges and accusations we cannot understand with no idea how to get out of the predicament.

Kafka describes very well how many feel alienated, hopeless against a faceless bureaucracy, frustrated against the system and lost in an absurd reality. Many hark back to a lost golden era, which causes identity conflict between race, religion and cultures.

Politicians at both ends of the spectrum from democracies to autocracies understand the power of mass movement. People have always been mobilised by powerful storytelling. Either we unite against an enemy or we strengthen the institutions and shared interests that bind us. No one seems to have found the right narrative to unite us in confronting a frightening future of climate catastrophe.

COP26 showed how the climate warming story changed over the years. In 1972, the Club of Rome built a pioneering model warning about the limits of growth. Hardly anyone believed it.


In 1988, amid the hottest year on record, Nasa scientist James Hansen declared that global warming was upon us. That year, the United Nations established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to determine the scientific basis of climate change and its political and economic impact.

For two decades, scientists warned of climate disaster while economists and businesses delayed action because they thought markets alone with economic growth and technology would solve everything.

As more evidence arrived, the public became more concerned, but businesses still saw climate warming as a cost rather than an opportunity. The US missed its chance for global leadership when it flip-flopped on climate warming. The Kyoto Protocol was the first global agreement to reduce greenhouse gases, but president George W. Bush pulled out in 2001, claiming it would hurt the US economy.

President Barack Obama signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, only for Donald Trump to withdraw. The latest IPCC assessment warns that we may have moved beyond the 2-degree temperature increase threshold, with only the next two decades to work on adaptation and mitigation.

With the public showing real concern about the hottest years on record, businesses and the financial community have finally accepted that they must act on climate warming as a profit opportunity. Unfortunately, we are still unable to agree on carbon prices or taxes, let alone removing subsidies on fossil fuels.

A lot of time in Glasgow was spent debating whether rich countries should put up US$100 billion in hard cash annually to help poor countries deal with climate change ” India has boldly asked for US$1 trillion.

So what narrative can make people move from agreement to action? Writing books and articles no longer matter so much, because most people do not get their information through print media.

Video, tweets and social media matter far more. Most people no longer have the patience or interest to go through very complex and technical scientific evidence. They need simple stories with clear-cut options.

Thunberg is very effective because she speaks the language of the young. To get the story right, four elements are required. Clearly identifiable characters ” villains, victims and heroes; a political context that is believable; a moral theme that shows options and outcomes; and, finally, a riveting plot.

This week, I passed through the Spanish village of Guernica, which has a mural painted by Pablo Picasso of the horrendous bombing of the village destroyed in the Spanish civil war. In a single mural, Picasso evoked emotion worldwide that the violence and suffering of war is futile.

What we need post-COP26 is not more blah blah blah, but to evoke an emotional reaction from more people that climate warming is everyone’s responsibility, so that they will act. We do not as yet have that story, video or event, nor a hero or heroine.

The war between Troy and Sparta was never really about Helen’s beauty, but about power and glory. The destruction of humanity by climate heating is either too catastrophic or too remote to be believed.

Perhaps human beings will only move like a murmuration of starlings when attacked by a hawk. One will make the first move, some others will follow and then mass movement begins like a symphony. The hawk may kill a few starlings, but the mass survives.

We should never doubt the power of imagination to spark change, which is why stories are ingrained in the human DNA. We need that spark to set our imaginations free ” and the leadership to make the mass move to save ourselves.

Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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