Building shared knowledge on the climate crisis

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© Arctic Circle
© Arctic Circle
Professor Annegret Hannawa from USI Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society will conduct one of the sessions of the upcoming Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavík, Iceland. The conference is the largest annual international meeting on the Arctic, and over 700 speakers and more than 2000 participants from 60 countries are expected.

The Arctic Circle Association, a non-profit organization, was established in 2013 to promote discussions between political and business leaders, environmental experts, indigenous representatives, scientists, and other stakeholders about the challenges caused by climate change and melting sea ice in the Arctic. Among the initiatives of Arctic Circle is the annual conference, which this year will be held from 19 to 21 October at the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre in Reykjavík.

Professor Annegret Hannawa devised the session "Hearing the Arctic’s Call: The Time to Act as One", focusing on the need for effective communication to address global challenges. Simply sharing information is insufficient to create a shared understanding that engages people and moves them to act.

Professor Hannawa, what do you find lacking in communication on climate change?

Well, it sometimes reminds me a bit of reading the package insert for a medication: When we hear talk about climate change, we quickly feel threatened and overwhelmed and may want to run in the opposite direction. The problem is that communication about scientific issues often remains misunderstood as "information". We need to focus on ensuring a shared understanding is attained so that the information is believed and acted upon with motivation. As scientists, we have a responsibility to not only generate new knowledge but also to make sure that it is properly received and correctly understood by the general public. If we abdicate that responsibility, then we run the risk of science being misinterpreted or even hijacked by people who want to politicize it. 
In addition, global matters like our Arctic issues require coordinated, solid action from many people who are not intrinsically invested in the challenge. The necessary action goes beyond geographical boundaries, but unfortunately, the voices proclaiming the need for action do not reach far enough. To make a real impact, we must actively strive for a common understanding, encouraging everyone to want to take a leading role in writing the "Story of our Future."

Which techniques could be effective? The presentation mentions storytelling and fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood.

Storytelling is an incredibly powerful tool for science communication. In fact, studies have shown that only 5% of audiences remember data and statistics presented to them, while an impressive 63% remember stories. This is because our brains are naturally wired for storytelling. When we consider our ancestral history, this is not surprising. Since the beginning of our existence, storytelling has been a way to keep each other safe. Sitting around the fire, we would tell stories to educate each other about the threats and risks we faced throughout the day. Life has always been a trial and error for us, but thanks to our communication, we have been able to adapt and survive. Even today, as small children, we gather around the table with our parents and are told stories, myths, legends, and fairy tales that pass down lessons from past generations. These messages were understood, believed, and acted upon across cultures and have stood the test of time.
In contrast, when scientists discuss issues that threaten human existence on Earth, their explanations often start with "It’s complicated" and leave the audience confused. People either zoom out, attribute conspiratorial motivations, or disregard that information altogether. This leads to the question: how could storytelling inform more successful communication about Arctic issues? Or, simply said: How can we turn our messages about Arctic issues into a communicative wildfire with an impact like "Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf"  

Is it possible to narrate a complex phenomenon such as global warming and the climate crisis with a story?

All projections of the past and the future are stories. What matters is how the story is told. An old Native American proverb states: "Tell me the facts, and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever." Humans tend to relate more to stories than data and numbers, and we find them more compelling. Issues of climate change are a threatening and emotional topic. It is difficult to reach people on an intellectual level when they are under stress and fear. Much of the current storytelling around climate change casts us, humans, as villains who will vanish in Armageddon. But we all want to be heroes who defeat the antagonist, not the other way around! This is why conspiratorial storytelling resonates much more with our nature than the science-based rationalist voice. The conspiratorial "hero" figure who is threatened unjustly defeats the evil antagonist. We urgently need a counter-narrative to the Armageddon story and a competing narrative to the conspiratorial conceptions. We need "data-based stories" that can turn numbers into heroes and villains and move our human minds and emotions into self-motivated collective action.

Wouldn’t more detailed communication increase the likelihood of evoking eco-anxiety, particularly in younger individuals?

Again, it depends on how the story is told. Chronic stress and fear make us ill. Fear is a fleeting emotion, and we are not designed to endure it over an extended period. As these global issues are here to stay, the challenge is to talk about them in a way that doesn’t add to people’s anxiety and fear. Instead, it should empower them and give them the feeling that they have a lead role in the story of our future! Young people, for example, love gaming. Minecraft has already created ways to educate youth about climate change by having them "build" different futures based on different behaviours. But just like one company or person isn’t going to make a difference in the larger scheme of things, one science alone will not solve the problem either. This is why I organised this panel at the Arctic Circle Assembly and named it "The Time to Act as One." The purpose of the podium discussion is to demonstrate that the sciences now need to join forces and combine their evidence into a compelling story that inspires each person on this planet to take a leading role in the story of our future. This story belongs to every human on Earth, and therefore, it is urgent that we pave the path for it.