Vector editors at COP26

Vector editors are bringing their Communicating Climate Risk: A Toolkit to COP26 in Glasgow. You can register here to watch Jo Lindsay Walton at the launch, live-streamed from the Science Pavilion. We talk about science fiction in a chapter on communicating around the tipping points.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Communicating Climate Risk: A Toolkit written by Vector editors, Jo Lindsay Walton and Polina Levontin.

From the film The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

The many emotions of apocalypse

The science of tipping points can lend itself to apocalyptic storytelling. What are some of the pros and cons?

“Are you getting this on camera, that this tornado just came and erased the Hollywood sign? The Hollywood sign is gone, it’s just shredded.”

— Character in The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

From the perspective of climate risk communication, tipping points can be associated with apocalyptic and cataclysmic narratives. The tipping points session at the COP26 Universities Network Climate Risk Summit, late 2021, provides an illustration (Mackie 2021). The session opened with a slide alluding to the 2004 Hollywood blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow. Of course, this movie stretches science in ways that are regrettably familiar. “Scenarios that take place over a few days or weeks in the movie would actually require centuries to occur” (National Snow & Ice Data Center 2004). Nonetheless, The Day After Tomorrow does represent a real tipping element: the potential shutdown of AMOC, a large system of ocean currents that conveys warm water from the tropics northwards, which is responsible for the relative warmth of the North Hemisphere. 

Movies like The Day After Tomorrow vividly communicate the fragility of human lives — as tornadoes tear apart the Los Angeles skyline and toss cars through the air, as New Yorkers scramble down narrow streets from oncoming tsunami-like waves — in ways that are not always captured by terminology such as “extreme weather events.” In the broader context of climate action, is it useful to tug on the heartstrings in this way? Much of the literature on catastrophic narratives and climate storytelling focuses on a distinction between fear and hope. An overreliance on fear has been quite widely criticised.

[…] some studies suggest that there are better chances to engage an audience by including positive messages in film narratives about environmental risks, especially climate change, rather than adopting the strategy of fear, which would instead distance and disengage them, making them feel overwhelmed and helpless […] 

(Leal Filho et al. 2017)

However, one thing we should remember is that apocalypses are about many more emotions than fear and hope. A movie like The Day After Tomorrow showcases a range of emotions including exhilaration, confusion, companionship, desire, curiosity, anger, encounters with the sublime, and even moments of humour, both grim and sweet. As many scriptwriters will tell you, an immersive narrative needs emotional variety, or the audience will introduce variety of their own — they will daydream, feel bored, pick holes in the plot, or find their own things to laugh about. Apocalyptic hearts are full hearts: there is probably no human emotion that cannot find some niche in narratives of disaster and collapse. Indeed, the end of the world can feel alluring. The more dissatisfied people are with their existing lives, the more alluring it may feel. As the recent ASU Apocalyptic Narratives and Climate Change project describes (focusing on the US context):

From infectious disease to war, a broad swath of the public has long interpreted social and environmental crisis through the prism of apocalypse, casting potential catastrophes and their causes in religious and moral terms. These apocalyptic visions are often narrated from the point of view of the survivors (the “elect”), thus reinforcing a sense that the end times need to be survived by remaining among the elect, rather than prevented through pragmatic action. 

(CSRC 2020)

Alternatively, an apocalyptic or eschatalogical idiom can sometimes make climate change feel like nothing special. When has the world not been ending? “For at least 3,000 years, a fluctuating proportion of the world’s population has believed that the end of the world is imminent” (Garrard 2004). Insofar as apocalyptic framings feel extreme yet in a familiar way, they can be counterproductive, especially with audiences who are already wary. This includes those who are ready to view anthropogenic climate change as a left wing conspiracy (perpetrated by charlatan scientists to secure themselves power and funding, in cahoots with governments that aim to justify increasingly authoritarian, totalitarian, and unjust policies) or as a neocolonialist agenda (perpetrated by the rich countries of the world to impose new forms of domination, indebtedness, and exploitation on the Global South). 

De Meyer et al. (2021) offer an intriguing spin on the respective merits of fear, hope, and other emotions: they suggest that current debates on climate communication have exaggerated the role of emotions altogether. Instead they advocate for a focus on practice, by storytelling (and doing other things) to create spaces where new audiences can experience agency in relation to the climate, at many different scales and in many different circumstances. People should be able to see what they can do.

Here, we propose that both place-based, localized action storytelling, and practice-based action storytelling have a role to play in expanding climate agency. As examples of the latter, for creative writers and journalists the required agency would be about knowing how to make action on climate change part of their stories; for architects, how to bring climate change into building design; for teachers, how to teach about climate action within the constraints of the curriculum; for fund managers, how to bring climate risk into their investment decisions; for health professionals, to support the creation of place-based community systems that respond to the health impacts of climate change. These examples of communities of practice provide different opportunities and challenges to expand the notions of climate action beyond the current notions of consumer choice and activism.

De Meyer et al. (2021)

Let’s summarise, then, some approaches to effective climate risk communication. One approach is to focus on information. How can information be clearly expressed and tailored for users to easily incorporate it into their decision-making? A second approach (partly in response to perceived shortcomings of the first) places more emphasis on emotion. What mixture of emotions should be appealed to in order to motivate action? This focus on emotion is also implicitly a focus on moral normativity, an appeal to the heart rather than the head (there is of course a great body of literature deriding this split between reason and emotion, which in reality are always mutually entangled). More recently we are seeing the emergence of a third approach, not strictly supplanting but rather complementing the other two, which focuses on practice

The distinction between a “practice” focus vs. a focus on “informative and tailored stories” or “stories of hope not fear” is a bit subtle. Of course the three may often overlap. It may be helpful to think about what the “practice” focus means in the longer term. In the longer term, each new representational domain of climate agency will not emerge solely through hopeful portrayals of an agent (e.g. journalist, architect, teacher, fund manager) exemplifying an orthodox version of their role-specific climate action, however cognitively and affectively well-judged. Telling these stories may certainly be the priority in the short term. But what they should hope to kickstart are diverse stories filled with diverse agents, affects, and values: stories which superficially contradict each other in many ways, but whose deeper presuppositions mesh to create fields of imaginable action that can accommodate the particularity and the creativity of real people. “Environmental activist” is a social role that is available for real people to fill precisely because it can be filled in many ways (not just one way) and because it means many contradictory things (not just one thing). The same is true of the figure of the ethical consumer.

Audiences are more likely to engage with stories about the world they live in, than about who they must be in that world. Successful rapid mitigation and adaptation entails shifting to more participatory and equitable societies. Many audiences with centrist or conservative leanings may struggle to see themselves accepted within such societies. They may reject realistic climate narratives as hoaxes, or even welcome the end times: revel in fantasies of courage, ingenuity, largesse and revenge, set amid the ruins of civilisation. More can be done to create narratives that accommodate a range of self-reported aspirational virtues across the political spectrum, in ways that are cohesive with an overall just transition. Storytelling that focuses on multiplying domains of agency also entails interventions beyond representational techniques altogether, transforming the material contexts in which people seek to exercise agency.

What’s wrong with a little apocalypse?

Are experts sometimes overly wary of apocalyptic connotations?

For reasons described in the previous section, apocalyptic framing and imagery should be used with care. Moreover, it can be difficult to narratively reconcile tipping points with the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees. As already mentioned, with regards to action, there is no contradiction at all. Reducing emissions as rapidly as possible will make crossing tipping points less probable, and will make it more likely to stay under the 1.5 degrees threshold. But with regards to storytelling, it may often feel simpler to give your audience one or the other to focus on. 

However, experts can also stray into different problems when they are too averse to apocalyptic associations. Consider another example from the AR6 WG1 report that in trying to distance itself from apocalyptic storytelling, in style, gets semantically tangled up.

In summary, while there is a strong theoretical expectation that Amazon drying and deforestation can cause a rapid change in the regional water cycle, currently there is limited model evidence to verify this response, hence there is low confidence that such a change will occur by 2100.

(Masson-Delmotte et al. 2021)

Firstly, there is an ambiguity about the word ‘change’ in the last sentence: does it refer to Amazon deforestation on the whole, or to the regional water cycle (the two are also connected, so the uncertainty is not just linguistic but epistemological — would one cause another, and how to interpret ‘a strong theoretical expectation’ that it would, despite being told that such changes are implausible)? It seems that the epistemological uncertainty over the mechanism for change is low (the theoretical understanding of the process is solid) while modelling uncertainty is high and evidence is lacking, and as a result there is low confidence about the risk of a rapid undesirable change. And how to interpret this? How should we feel as a result of reading this sentence? What are the appropriate ethical or judgment responses? 

It is also worth noting that cataclysmic storytelling around tipping points preceded their acceptance within academic circles. The narrative about tipping points within dominant climate science is relatively recent, emerging around 2005. Previously it was considered “too alarmist for proper scientific circles” (Russill and Nyssa 2009), although there was earlier scientific exploration of large-scale discontinuities, especially associated with warming in excess of 2 degrees. Russill and Nyssa (2009) found the timeline disconcerting, asking, “Should we draw any conclusions from the fact that popular discourse on tipping points precedes use of the concept in peer-reviewed climate change science?” But we might also then ask: should we be worried about travelling by air, or using touch screen devices, simply because these practices appeared in science fiction before they became reality? ‘Tipping points’ are an example of diegetic prototyping (Kirby 2010), whereby an idea arrives from the popular imagination to aid the development or articulation of technology or science — in this case, the science of climate risk modelling. 

The tipping point metaphor is an example of the less common reverse journey, beginning as a rhetorical device to communicate the dangers of abrupt climate change to the public (in 2005–2007) and then developing into a theory-constitutive metaphor in the climate sciences (2007 onwards). While the exegetical function of the metaphor aims at explaining the underlying process to others, in the theory-constitutive phase, the metaphor starts shaping a subdomain of climate science. 

(van der Hel, Hellsten, and Steen 2018)

Tipping points are now a lot more prominent in both popular and scientific cultures. The context in which we communicate changes rapidly; if it was perhaps true that in the early 2000s that “[t]he desire to increase public urgency is driving the mainstreaming of tipping points in climate change communication, not the reporting of peer-reviewed research” (Russill and Nyssa 2009), then the scientific research in the last decade has matured considerably. However, their research poses questions that are still relevant today, especially since ‘climate anxiety’ has entered mental health professionals’ list of symptoms: “Do tipping points induce unwarranted anxiety and perhaps fatalism […], or, on the other hand, do they help correct for the ‘false sense of security’ produced by smooth projections of change, which can lull society into inactivity?” (Clayton 2020; Thompson 2021).

Where do we talk about climate risks such as tipping points?

Climate storytelling tends to be siloed, which reduces its impact. How can we help to spread it more widely through our cultures?  

Science fiction across various forms (literature, movies, games, etc.) has a long history with climate change themes, and provides one key cultural context for communicating climate risk. Here is a description of tipping points, from Fifty Degrees Below, a novel by Kim Stanley Robinson:

They had passed the point of criticality, they had tipped over the tipping point in the same way a kid running up a seesaw will get past the axis and somewhere beyond and above it plummet down on the falling board. They were in the next mode, and coming into the second winter of abrupt climate change. 

(Robinson 2006)

This passage is also quoted by van der Hel, Hellsten, and Steen (2018) who are interested specifically in the physicality of the metaphor, noticing that the “image of the earth on the edge of a cliff, only inches away from tipping over and falling into the abyss” is pervasive in all forms of communication. The researchers combed through a vast array of scientific papers, popular media and journalism around tipping points, and found four linguistic and discursive archetypes:  

“(1) In the climate sciences, the tipping point metaphor was first introduced from 2005 onwards as a rhetorical device, warning the public and scientific peers for abrupt and possibly irreversible changes in the climate system. This use of the metaphor is characterized by occasionally clearly deliberate metaphorical language use explaining tipping points as motion in space.

(2) Meanwhile, journalists adopted and employed the notion of a tipping point in climate change as a metaphorical scientific concept with societal implications, also occasionally exhibiting features of deliberate metaphorical use.

(3) From around 2007, the tipping point phrase becomes popular as a theory-constitutive metaphorical model for research in the climate sciences.

(4) Finally, from around 2011, notions of tipping points in news media on climate change become used as conventionalized ideas and expressions for important impending change, no longer automatically drawing attention to the metaphorical status of the phrase.”  (van der Hel, Hellsten, and Steen 2018)

There is a lack of consensus about the relative roles of metaphors, scientific information and narratives in terms of translating into actions, especially in the face of climate emergency (De Meyer et al. 2020). What is clearly significant in this respect is one’s politics (Kahan 2012). Whether scientists like it or not, questions about politics and climate science will be asked. The inclusion of political considerations in discourse about effective climate communication partly reflects a frustration with the use of “the need for better public engagement” to distract from well-attested economic and political obstacles to effective climate action. Furthermore, the example, the extent to which political climate could influence science, especially modelling results (one may question on this basis the extremely low value for climate sensitivity in Russian models) and their interpretations, has to be addressed in some constructive way. The more limited the scientific evidence the greater is the potential for the social and political backgrounds to be reflected in the narrative about climate risks. Assessing that influence can be tricky, since “the standard ways of using probabilities to separate ethical and social values from scientific practice cannot be applied in a great deal of climate modeling, because the roles of values in creating the models cannot be discerned after the fact—the models are too complex and the result of too much distributed epistemic labor” (Winsberg 2012)

The production and circulation of this knowledge is also shaped by (among other things) structural power and by the counterpower of social movements, such as Black Lives Matter and many others, which critically foreground the historical, economic and cultural politics of climate change. In this way the cultural politics of climate change aspire to echo post-colonial discourse in “paying attention to histories of vulnerability and responsibility” (O’Riordan and Lenton 2013). Moreover, recent reframings of climate change in terms of extractivist and neocolonial histories have not yet translated into the effort to redress these historical injustices by cancelling debts, or providing proportionate level of support through grants for adaptation and mitigation in developing countries — or what is referred to be the “compensatory justice” or polluter-must-pay component of climate justice (Okereke 2010). The other important aspect of climate justice is “procedural justice”:

Despite the elevation of certain ‘methods and prescriptions in our epistemologies’ and the increasingly ‘scientized veneer’ of modern climate debate, it is well known that decisions on targets, metrics, emission counting methodologies, and reporting systems all involve both technical and political considerations. Hence, figuring out how to ensure broad and effective participation of all countries in the decision-making process represents another important dimension of justice in the climate regime. 

(Okereke 2010)

O’Riordan and Lenton (2013) propose that “six features – global pervasiveness, uncertainty, interdependency, the reverberations of history, interdisciplinarity, and temporality – form the cultural foundation on which media engagement with climate change has developed and will continue to unfold.” Yet one perennial problem with climate risk communication is that it is usually so clearly identifiable as climate risk communication, or nearby discourses like apocalyptic or superdisaster narratives, or science fiction (especially subgenres such as cli-fi or solarpunk). Heavy-handed framing risks limiting the audiences who engage with it, limiting the variety of cognitive and affective resources with which climate risk is construed, and limiting the proliferation of action-based storytelling. At the same time, the climate storytelling that does exist plays out against a background of intensive cultural production which undermines it and crowds out its perspectives and possibilities. It is even tempting to indulge in dubious fantasies of controlling all the stories that are told, to ensure full-bandwidth climate messaging. Setting aside the ethically untenable presuppositions of such fantasies, they also miss the point: the aim should be to encourage climate action themes to spread throughout culture and to hybridise with its preexisting variety in ways that are surprising, generative, and perhaps sometimes discomfiting — even to lose control of the messages. In this spirit, there are strategies that policymakers, third sector, environmental activists and creators, and other stakeholders might explore to help break climate storytelling out of its traditional well-marked boxes.

But Okereke’s procedural justice also requires representation not just in the decision-making process or the cultural contexts which broadly inform it, but also in the production of knowledge that feeds it, especially if the knowledge is deeply uncertain. The next sections begin to explore how tipping points, and other kinds of deep uncertainty, tend to expose the polycentric character of knowledge. All knowledge is distributed across specific knowing persons (and the technological systems in which they are embedded). Knowledge about climate change, for example, is embedded across a vast variety of different perspectives, values, interests, and levels and forms of power, all of which inform the nature of that knowledge. So if deep uncertainty is understood as a lack of agreement about how to model a system, it raises the question of who has been invited to agree in the first place — the question of whose voices count.

Works Cited

Clayton, Susan. 2020. ‘Climate Anxiety: Psychological Responses to Climate Change’. Journal of Anxiety Disorders 74 (August): 102263.

CSRC. 2020. ‘Apocalyptic Narratives & Climate Change | Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict’. 2020.

De Meyer, Kris, Emily Coren, Mark McCaffrey, and Cheryl Slean. 2020. ‘Transforming the Stories We Tell About Climate Change: From “Issue” to “Action”’. Environmental Research Letters 16 (1): 015002.

Garrard, Greg. 2004. Ecocriticism. London: Routledge.

Hel, Sandra van der, Iina Hellsten, and Gerard Steen. 2018. ‘Tipping Points and Climate Change: Metaphor Between Science and the Media’. Environmental Communication 12 (5): 605–20.

Kahan, Dan M. 2012. ‘Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection: An Experimental Study’. SSRN Electronic Journal.

Kirby, David. 2010. ‘The Future Is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating Real-World Technological Development’. Social Studies of Science 40 (1): 41–70.

Leal Filho, Walter, Evangelos Manolas, Anabela Marisa Azul, Ulisses M. Azeiteiro, and Henry McGhie, eds. 2017. Handbook of Climate Change Communication. Vol. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Mackie, Erik. 2021. ‘COP26 Universities Climate Risk Summit Blog: “When Is the Day After Tomorrow?”: Tipping Points and Abrupt Climate Responses | Www.Zero.Cam.Ac.Uk’. 2021.

Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, and S. L. Connors. 2021. ‘Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’. Cambridge University Press.

National Snow & Ice Data Center. 2004. ‘“The Day After Tomorrow” Q&A Response’.

Okereke, Chukwumerije. 2010. ‘Climate Justice and the International Regime: Climate Justice and the International Regime’. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 1 (3): 462–74.

O’Riordan, Timothy, and Timothy Lenton, eds. 2013. Addressing Tipping Points for a Precarious Future. British Academy.

Robinson, Kim Stanley. 2006. Fifty Degrees Below. London: HarperCollins.

Russill, Chris, and Zoe Nyssa. 2009. ‘The Tipping Point Trend in Climate Change Communication’. Global Environmental Change 19 (3): 336–44.

Thompson, Tosin. 2021. ‘Young People’s Climate Anxiety Revealed in Landmark Survey’. Nature, 22 September 2021.

Winsberg, Eric. 2012. ‘Values and Uncertainties in the Predictions of Global Climate Models’. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 22 (2): 111–37.

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