When I was a child nuclear war seemed like a very real possibility if things were to go badly between the powerful nations of the world. Although I was too young to understand all the implications of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we all knew something serious was happening. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and into the 1980s, it was a threat that bubbled up regularly into the public consciousness. Although there might have been disagreements about the likelihood of nuclear weapons being deployed, people seemed to accept that if they were, the consequences could be life-changing and might lead to the devastation of the planet. Would any country take on responsibility for such terrible actions? The effects of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still resonated and the Aldermaston marches provided a focus for protest.
When I was at the Living With EnvironmentalChange conference this week on “Supporting the Journey to Adaptation”, I was struck at how environmental concerns have filled that “fear niche” for some of us while others seem to remain oblivious. Although more countries now have nuclear bombs, the end of the Cold War has removed that most immediate threat. Dystopian literature has moved on from nuclear to environmental disaster. The difference in the present situation is that perceptions of such a threat, and any notion of responsibility, vary so much across the population. In the conference hall few would, I think, have denied the seriousness of the situation. We saw stark statistics laid out in powerpoint slides by distinguished climate scientists. Although probably not everyone agreed on the likely speed of environmental change, there was no denial of the need for action, for a journey towards both mitigation and adaptation.
However, we also heard from social science researchers who played us some clips of interviews with “real people”. They were confused, unconvinced, unwilling to buy into action that the scientists saw as essential. Uncertainty expressed in scientific results, and taken for granted by researchers as part of the scientific process, is viewed by the public with frank suspicion.
We see this every day in the media and in life. Recently I encountered one obviously intelligent man who maintained that climate change is a conspiracy by scientists to create jobs for themselves. It is difficult to counter this kind of world view. So how can we hope to change behaviour and, as a society, embark on that journey to adaptation, let alone achieve any mitigation? For me, the most encouraging session at the conference was a session on digital storytelling. This was a shining example of the benefits of bringing arts and science together, to tell real people’s stories. By bringing global climate change to a local level, through personal experience, we might help the wider public to understand the part everyone plays. I have not met many farmers, for example, who would deny that the climate is changing. Even if they might argue about the causes, they see the consequences in their everyday experience. Personal testimony isn’t just a fluffy and non-scientific, anecdotal approach. Stories are always powerful and, as communicators, we could make more use of them. They make big realities more manageable.