Throwing stuff on paintings can’t win the climate war. What are the climate narratives that can?
The new wave of climate activists protesting in museums around the world brings up questions about the narratives promoted by these actions and their effectiveness. To win the fight against climate change we need narratives that can win over people, but how do we do it exactly?
Was the protest of Just Stop Oil activists throwing soup on Van Gogh’s painting at the National Gallery in London (or later, the activists throwing mashed potatoes at Monet's painting) successful or effective?
This question kept coming up in the interesting debate that took place between those supporting and opposing this action. George Monbiot wrote that “the soup-throwing and similar outrageous-but-harmless actions generate such fury because they force us not to stop listening, but to start.” Zion Lights, on the other hand, suggested that climate activists in general need “to stop believing that attention alone will lead to success. They need to find tactics that speak to people instead of annoying them.”
One point for consideration in this debate is the narrative the activists were pushing with their actions and to what extent it could win the narrative war on climate change. Their key message — “are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet?” — seemed to be along the lines of the climate emergency/urgency narrative (“our house is on fire”).
Is this narrative important? Absolutely. Is this narrative effective in 2022? I’m not sure.
We are at a stage where most people around the world recognize the risks of climate change and worry about them. This is very much due to the work of activists working hard to disseminate the climate emergency/urgency narrative before 2020, the growing visibility of climate impacts, and the increased attention to the latest IPCC reports. However, while people worry about climate change and support steps such as moving from fossil fuel to renewable energy, it is almost always NOT their highest priority.
A recent YouGov poll in the UK demonstrates it, with findings suggesting that “while concern about climate change remains largely the same, Britons would far rather focus spending on bringing down prices.” We can see the same sentiment in the U.S. An Epson survey from October 2022 found that “unsurprisingly, immediate financial issues are people’s main concern. Nearly half (49%) of the people surveyed as part of the Epson Climate Reality Barometer in the U.S. believe rising prices and fixing the economy is the most urgent issue that governments, companies, and people should be focusing on (climate change 15%).”
So, what does it mean in terms of the narrative war on climate?
I would suggest that while the narrative of climate urgency had a key role in raising awareness in the past, it is not effective enough for the war we need to fight today or tomorrow. We can consider it as the narrative we used for the first step in the climate war, but it’s time to start thinking about the next step and the narratives that fit it. Let’s be clear — not all people are concerned about the climate crisis, but the majority are as survey after survey suggests. For example, the global survey I mentioned earlier found that “a majority of respondents in nearly every area surveyed (108 out of 110) say they are “very” or “somewhat” worried about climate change.” At the same time, as we can see being concerned is just not enough as these levels of concern are not translated into more needed action.
Here’s the key problem: Concern is one thing. Priority is another. No matter how much we suggest that climate change should be on everyone’s mind as the most important issue and thus mobilize people to act, it is unlikely to happen with the current framing of the climate crisis narrative. For most people, urgency is about struggling with paying the bills, buying food, paying for gas to get to work, or other concrete issues that have an immediate impact on their lives and their economic situation in particular. Can we persuade people that fighting for climate change solutions is as important as their ability to pay for groceries, bills, or gas? Not if we can’t make a clear connection between these two issues and make them part of the same fight.
It’s time to move to step #2 in the climate war: Linking climate action with taking care of people’s most immediate and critical concerns. In other words: We need to create, develop, and promote climate narratives that offer different versions of one key equation: Fighting climate change = helping with your critical needs NOW. To be clear, this shift to step #2 is NOT about avoiding the efforts to shed a light on those exercising predatory delay, including fossil fuel companies and the banks supporting them. It is about making these efforts more effective.
Moving from step #1 to step #2 is grounded in the understanding that to win the narrative war on climate change you need to win people over. Without winning enough people over you can’t have a political alignment of those supporting change and establish the critical mass necessary to make change happen. To make a systemic change we need both regulation and shifts in social norms and we can’t have any of those without having a significant part of the public on board.
So, what narratives should be developed now? First, I talk in plural as what we need is not one unified narrative, but numerous narratives that, while they share core principles, are constructed in alignment with their specific context (e.g., local versus national) and audience (e.g., company employees versus community members). The core principles that will serve as the connecting thread between these narratives are as follows:
Meaningful and rewilding
First and foremost, narratives should be meaningful for their audience. As Reinsborough and Canning explain in their book Re:Imagining Change: “Narrative power manifests as a fight over how to make meaning. We often believe in a story not because it is factually true but because it connects with our values or is relevant to our experiences in a way that is compelling.”
The challenge for the narrative warriors is to connect with their audience and the way to do it is first and foremost by helping them make meaning of what they see and experience. Anand Giridharadas explains in his new book The Persuaders how meaning-making is a key strategy for those engaging in the work of persuasion. One example he gives in the book is of AOC, who “understood that provocation, commanding attention, didn’t just come from putting ideas out there; it often required those ideas to be attached to a moment that people were trying to make meaning out of.”
It should be emphasized that while meaning-making aims to connect with people and their experiences, it does not shy away from making clear who we are fighting against. Narratives should present fossil fuel companies, banks, and others involved in predatory delay as the barriers to change and drivers of key systematic issues that impact people’s lives. At the same time, the challenge is not only to help people make sense of their struggles and hopes but also to do so while connecting to their cultural identity. “We relate to climate change through our prior ideological preferences, personal experiences, and knowledge,” Andrew Hoffman Writes in his book How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate. This makes the challenge more difficult but not impossible — Anand Giridharadas shares one lesson he learned from long-time organizer Steve Deline of The New Conversation Initiative: “most people are 60/40 on most things.” If this is the case, then more effective narratives can make a difference.
Moreover, narratives should open the doors for new possibilities, rewilding people’s imaginations. Sam Knights writes in This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook: “We must all learn how to dream again, and we have to learn that together. To break down the old ways of thinking and to move beyond our current conception of what is and what is not possible.” Effective narratives are the ones enabling us to do exactly that.
Narratives should provide people with the agency and vitality to take action, incorporating the need to act on the climate crisis, the belief that people can make a difference, and a clear understanding of what exactly they can do to help generate change. In her book How Change Happens, Leslie Crutchfield writes that one of the patterns characterizing effective movements is that “they do this by fostering bonds between individual members as well as by empowering them to collectively fight for the cause.”
You can see it very clearly, for example, in the 350.org’s Go Fossil Free divestment campaign, which empowered many students to organize and work on campuses to push their universities to divest from fossil fuels. Another example is the efforts to encourage young people to run for down-ballot office. In both cases, people are provided with a clear pathway for change and how they can be a key part of it, whether it is about pushing your university to divest from fossil fuels or becoming a city council member to make your community more climate resilient.
Fighting climate crisis should be framed in terms of personal well-being, creating a clear connection between tackling big issues and improving people’s living conditions. The notion of well-being should be broad, building for example on the OECD well-being framework, it should incorporate within it “non-material dimensions, including social connections, health, quality of jobs, quality of the environment, etc.”
A key point is that the focus on well-being needs to be clear — many fights are trying to make this connection, but in some cases it’s vague and as a result ineffective. For example, I am not sure if most people see the connection between throwing tomato soup or mashed potatoes at pictures in museums and their own well-being. A good example of how to offer narratives that center around concrete pain points in people’s lives is the organization New York Communities for Change (NYCC). It “brings neighbors together to build community power” and fights among other things for “a safe planet to build our communities on.” NYCC’s vision shows how you make the climate crisis part of a narrative that is above all well-being centered:
“NYCC believes that all people deserve to live in safe and healthy communities. But safety is not a reality for too many New Yorkers. High rents, poor living conditions, climate change, violence, low wages, and lack of a social safety net are in the way of thriving communities. This did not happen by accident. The unsafe conditions we live in are profitable for the industries that control our State. Wall Street, Real Estate, and Oil and Gas corporations make billions by exploiting us and the planet. To win safe and healthy communities for all New Yorkers, we must attack the economic systems that protect profits over human life.”
Impactful in the present, not just the future
Benefitting people’s well-being solely in the future is not a compelling story for people who struggle with daily hardships now, especially if these future gains represent (or are portrayed as) a trade-off against present concessions. This principle does not ignore the fact that change takes time so many times we need to take action today, but it will start producing impact only in the future. What it calls for is the idea that the short-term is as important as the long-term — when you have a problem now, you want to deal with it now, not in five years.
People are prioritizing their current pain points and we need to meet them where they are, rather than just convince them that the fight is for a better future. Thus, the framing of remedies should focus more on their impact on people’s lives in the short term, and the sooner the better. Examples include household electrification incentives and discounts provided by the Inflation Reduction Act (starting as early as 2023), investments creating green jobs in the short term, and regulations requiring businesses to donate food instead of disposing of it to fight hunger.
Using at least 2–3 of these principles to construct climate narratives could be useful, but the most powerful narratives are the ones that include all four principles. One example that I find inspiring is the fight for a $15 minimum wage, which echoes all four principles.
The fight for $15 narrative excelled in meaning-making (“McDonald’s and low-wage employers everywhere are making billions of dollars in profit and pushing off costs onto taxpayers, while leaving people like us — the people who do the real work — struggling to survive”) and rewilding the imagination of many low-paid workers in the U.S. (“we believe in a world where working people are treated with dignity and respect”). It empowered workers to take action, focusing on “the power of direct action, of taking to the streets, of organizing,” was framed around the workers’ well-being and how they are treated at work, and looked to create a clear impact in people’s lives in the present via regulation on different levels (city, state, federal).
The climate fight offers different opportunities to emulate the success of the fight for $15 narrative — right now, I see great potential, for example, in the issue of food waste as a battleground for climate narrative fighters. With food prices rising, food waste becomes even more troubling. We have an opportunity to take a problem that “accounts for 8 to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions” and connect it to issues people find more critical (i.e. lack of access to food, rising food prices, living in a food desert, etc.).
I should also point out that narratives are not solely constructed and used by activists — companies and entrepreneurs do it as well. In the case of food waste, good examples are Flashfood and Too Good to Go, which really do a great job of ”connecting people with unsold food from restaurants and grocery stores.” Flashfood, for example, is very clearly framing its value proposition around customers’ economic pain points: “Get massive savings on fresh food items like meat and produce that are nearing their best before date at grocery stores across Canada and the U.S.” This is the business version of meeting people where they are to get them involved in fighting food waste.
Finally, narratives should be constructed with a theory of change in mind (see the example above from my book with regard to corporate sustainability). This is the key challenge with throwing stuff on paintings — they represent a relatively weak theory of change, assuming that media attention will evolve into public interest and action. Therefore, climate narrative fighters should not only look for ways to put the principles above into a coherent narrative that would make sense in their context but also be able to articulate a clear theory of change around the narrative. The theory of change should imagine the unimaginable, but also understand the tenets of change and the context in which it should be operating. Hopefully, getting it right will take us closer to making change happen.
Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons School of Design — The New School in NY, where he serves as the Strategic Design & Management BBA Program Director. He is the author of Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach, which was published by Palgrave Macmillan in July 2021. For more information on his work see Sandbox Zero. Feel free to connect on Twitter and LinkedIn.