Climate Narrative

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorSep 29, 2010 5:25 PM


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The role of narrative in politics is so well known that I wonder why it's not discussed more in the context of climate and energy policy. So this interview with Michael Jones, a political scientist who is studying how stories shape public policy is interesting. He reminds us of an obvious human trait:

I think that people think and organize narratively, that we're hardwired to do this. We think linearly, we assign agency to things that probably don't have agency "“ things like tornadoes. Even if the narrative is incomplete in a news story, people will fill in the blanks with what they already bring to the table.

Yes, I'm aware that some folks in the climate and communications sphere talk a lot about framing and messaging. Those are rhetorical devices. Story is something more. Here's Jones defining what constitutes a policy narrative:

You'd need some characters, you'd need a plot, you'd need a setting. For it to be a policy narrative, what you also need is a moral to the story or a solution to the problem. There are specific characters. You would have a hero, you would have a victim. For it to be a good narrative, you would have a villain.

(I've said this before: there are two guys--on opposite sides--in the climate wars who get this. They know the importance of narrative. It's obvious if you read their blogs. Guesses, anyone?) Now, I wasn't aware that someone out there was trying to measure the effectiveness of narrative in a scientific fashion. This part of the interview with Jones is fascinating:

How do you scientifically examine a narrative? You basically create stories that are experiments. You try to hold as much of the language constant as possible. In the case of my dissertation, I exposed people to one of three different narratives and then a control group. The control group was a list of facts about climate change. And then the three different stories were stories advocating a particular solution to climate change. But the actual text was 75 to 80 percent the same in each story, so you just move little bits of the text. Well, when you move a little piece of the text, then you can statistically analyze that movement for an effect. How do you evaluate their responses? Statistically "“ you would look for differences in means. Do people like the hero in this story more as compared to the control where you didn't give them any narrative information? With all the characters, you get significantly different responses than in the control group. And then you're able to analyze those affective measures within the stories on other dependent variables. Depending upon how much you like Ecodefense, does that matter as to how much of a risk you think climate change is? The answer is yes, and it matters more in the narratives. Quite a bit more.

The interesting thing about the climate change debate is that it's framed by shifting narratives from year to year. What largely remains the same, though, are the main heroes and villains. True, more people seem to be tuning out the topic, but I'm beginning to wonder if that's because they're bored with the same cast of characters. Or is it that they just haven't been sold yet on any one narrative?

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