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Where is the climate change story's ignition point?

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By Ken Cottrill

· 3 min read

In his excellent book The Science of Storytelling (William Collins, 2019), renowned writer and teacher Will Storr explains how good stories have an ignition point.

“It’s that wonderful moment in which we find ourselves sitting up in the narrative, suddenly attentive, our emotions switched on, curiosity and tension sparked,” says Storr. An unexpected change in the plot often triggers the ignition point “that sends tremors through the protagonist’s flawed theory of control.”

Has the epic story of climate change, in which humanity is the protagonist, reached such a plot-twisting moment?

Multiple fault lines

The “flawed theory of control” Storr refers to in his book renders the protagonist vulnerable to the jarring change that sends the plot hurtling in another direction and to its ultimate conclusion.

Such theories abound in the climate change story. An example is that the crisis is a hoax dreamed up by capitalist haters. Some people believe that humanity will adapt as the climate breaks down or that some miraculous solution will emerge because it always does. Ignoring climate change, assuming it is a tall tale spun by scientists, various forms of self-interest, and the idea that self-destruction is humanity’s inevitable and justifiable fate are other variations on the theme.

In each case, the flawed theory is deeply ingrained in the protagonist’s model of the world. As Storr explains in his book, it is very difficult to change such beliefs, so great stories conjure gripping changes that shake the protagonist to the core of their being.

Headlines as harbingers

It can be argued that we are now experiencing this type of change. Record-breaking heatwaves and rain deluges frequently make headline news worldwide. Dramatic images of polar ice melting add to our discomfort. Climate-related horror stories involving loss of life and property are becoming increasingly common.

These disturbances have significant shock value, but are they, individually or collectively, compelling humanity to respond in fundamentally different ways to climate change? In other words, do they qualify as ignition points?

The consensus among climate experts is negative. Yes, the world is responding to the crises in myriad ways, such as switching to renewable fuels and developing circular supply chains. However, whether these actions will produce the speedy step change required to reverse climate breakdown quickly enough to avoid catastrophic consequences is still being determined. The protagonists’ flawed theories appear to be holding firm.

Breaking the impasse

What unexpected changes might crack these belief systems? A moonshot technology-based solution developed by some supranational organization, perhaps. In his book Hothouse Earth: An Inhabitant’s Guide (Icon Books, 2022), Bill McGuire, Professor of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at University College, London, UK, maintains that forcing the fossil fuel industry to curtail methane emissions by withdrawing subsidies and clamping down on new fossil fuel exploration represents a good start.

But broader change is needed to challenge embedded model flaws.

“In order to limit the consequences of the climate chaos heading our way, the honest truth is that, of every decision taken, of every choice made – by individuals, local authorities, businesses big and small and governments – the question must be asked: is this good for the climate?”

says McGuire.

Happy ever after?

We are some way from such a global mindset. What ignition point might be capable of triggering it? Something akin to the sight of twisters wreaking havoc in downtown Los Angeles, as depicted in the movie The Day After Tomorrow? The cumulative impact of relentless climate-induced upheavals as Mother Nature takes the gloves off might do the trick.

The outcome for humanity, the protagonist, could be a happy ending, a tragic ending, or a “bittersweet mixture of the two,” in the words of Will Storr.

This article is also published on the author's blog. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Ken Cottrill is an award-winning writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience turning business ideas into compelling stories. His articles have appeared in many mainstream publications including GreenBiz, Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review, The Guardian, and Wall Street Journal as well as on thought leadership platforms from organizations such as The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and The World Economic Forum.

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