Shifting the climate narrative

In a Q&A with Penn Today, Michael Mann of the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media shares his views on the role of storytelling in the fight against climate change.

The sky glows yellow and purple after a strong summer storm in Philly.
On Sept. 12, PBS, WHYY, and the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media are set to gather a group of community leaders, journalists, science communicators, and scientists to explore the role of storytelling in climate change education. (Image: iStock / Luke Chen)

In a sea increasingly saturated with grim headlines and doomsday scenarios related to climate change, many may have feelings of disempowerment. However, some experts argue that in this cacophony of despair, media narratives focused on solutions can offer a beacon of hope and constructive action.

To that end, the Penn Center of Science, Sustainability, and Media is hosting “A Conversation with PBS and PCSSM about Solutions-Driven Climate Storytelling” on Sept. 12. In partnership with PBS and WHYY, climate scientist Michael Mann of the School of Arts & Science will lead a conversation aimed at equipping media professionals with the tools to tell a different kind of climate story, one that engages, inspires, and empowers people to take action.

Other panelists include biologist Shane Campbell-Staton, host of PBS’s Human Footprint series; Bill Gardner, vice president of multiplatform programming and head of development at PBS; Maribel Lopez, head of PBS digital studios; Susan Phillips, senior reporter/editor for WHYY News Climate Desk; Bethany Wiggin, director of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities; and Fay Yu, head of current for Part2 Pictures.

In advance of the event, Penn Today met with Mann to discuss his views on climate narratives and his motivations for leading events like these.

What inspired you to focus specifically on the role of media storytelling in addressing climate change?

As humans, we’re naturally drawn to narratives. Since ancient times, when we sat around the campfire at night telling stories of the hunt or the quest, we have evolved to learn and communicate through narratives. If we want to prevail in the rhetorical battle with polluters seeking to forestall societal decarbonization, we have to make use of all of the key tools for information exchange. And there is none more important than compelling, factual, and effective storytelling.

Could you share an example of a successful climate story that has effectively engaged the public to action?

One of my favorite stories is one we recount in my book ‘The Madhouse Effect’ which I co-authored with Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles. We discuss how Greensburg, Kansas, is perhaps most symbolic of the grassroots, bottom-up approach to tackling climate change. That this aptly named town, with fewer than 1,000 residents, located in the reddest part of deep-red Kansas and led by a conservative Republican mayor, has become the model of a green American town.

We explain how Greensburg was devastated by an F5 tornado that leveled 95% of the town. Yet, the real story is how Mayor Bob Dixson chose to turn a devastating event into a remarkable opportunity for sustainable reconstruction. Under his leadership, Greensburg evolved to become what is sometimes referred to as the ‘greenest city in America.’

Key municipal buildings like the hospital and city hall were rebuilt following the highest standards set by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, utilizing the most energy-efficient materials and technology available. Dixson’s exemplary leadership earned him the Mayor Richard M. Daley Legacy Award for Global Leadership in Creating Sustainable Cities. This story not only warms the heart but also serves as a beacon of what’s possible in the fight against climate change.

What is the primary challenge facing journalists and filmmakers who want to tell a more solutions-oriented narrative about climate change?

The primary challenge—as is true with all matters of policy today—is the flooding of our airwaves, cable news, radio, and social media feeds with disinformation, much of it promoted by polluters and those who do their bidding. A theme of both my last book, ‘The New Climate War,’ and my forthcoming book, ‘Our Fragile Moment,’ is that the primary obstacle to action today is ‘doomism,’ the idea that the problem is too big, that the climate is already spinning out of control and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.

Doom and despair have been shown to lead to disengagement. Bad actors have turned to other tactics to keep us addicted to fossil fuels, fanned the flames of doomism, and discrediting solutions.

What I try to communicate in my latest book, which is based on a review of the totality of evidence from all of Earth climate history, is that there is both urgency and agency. Yes, it’s already bad. No, it’s not too late to prevent catastrophe. I think it’s critical that we address each of those two elements in our framing and storytelling.

In your view, how can science communicators work collaboratively with policymakers and community leaders to create more impactful, solutions-based narratives?

I would say it’s about taking the fight to the enemy. The bad actors are doing everything they can to block progress and fill the public discourse with disinformation about climate and climate solutions. Reining in dark money is a critical part of that battle, and one of the policymakers who is leading that fight, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, came here to Penn as one of our first PCSSM speakers.

How will the insights and discussions generated at this event be disseminated more broadly to continue driving the shift toward solutions-based media narratives on climate change?

We hope this will both be the beginning of an ongoing conversation at Penn about solutions-based media narratives and the beginning of a collaboration between members of the Penn community, and leading media organizations like PBS.

Michael E. Mann is the inaugural Presidential Distinguished Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media. He holds a secondary appointment in Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication.

“A Conversation with PBS and PCSSM about Solutions-Driven Climate Storytelling” takes place Sept. 12, 5 -6:15 p.m. at the Harold Prince Theater on Penn’s campus in the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. The event is free, but registration is required.