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Climate Change stories, then & now

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

Notes on NYC Climate Week 2023

Climate Week NYC

Two weeks ago, New York was buzzing with excitement as every climate-related think-tank, foundation, and lobby in town fought for our attention in aggressive attempts to fill our agendas with panels, talks & workshops.

Shying away from the big finance and energy transition symposiums, I focused on events that addressed how we talk about Climate Change, how we build narratives that can raise awareness and trigger global action.

Storytelling is at the heart of activism and is a quintessential success factor to any given cause. As such, it's at the core of my experience as a climate activist and at the core of our mission at North Arrow.

So what did I learn? In a nutshell:

  • That the ways that we've historically told Climate Change stories need to change

  • That we cannot (only) rely on doom & gloom narratives that strangle audiences in anxiety and trap them in inaction. Activists should aim to reach audiences where they are, through their preferred mediums, with informative & serious but also humorous & light content

  • That the stories of communities on the frontline of climate change--often those that are most affected by racism, classism, and other inequities--are far more compelling than those of unsung scientific heroes

Changing and diversifying the narrative

My week started with a first panel of communicators, comedians & activists put together by the lovely people at AGO, all agreeing that we urgently need to diversify the tone and format with which we discuss Climate Change topics and through which we push toward action. Fundamental documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth, or Cowspiracy have reached incredibly large audiences throughout the world, but have they inspired action? Big, dark, alarming moments of big-screen television can act as effective invitations to enter a funnel of positive action, but they do not facilitate the movement from being aware to being active. Their often - rightfully - apocalyptic tone and message won't do much to mobilize the next generation into action.

It was with that lesson in mind that I later in the week attended the screening of Canary, a glaring example of what climate change content should NOT be. Canary, a brand new documentary, is a grandiloquent and heartfelt story of a glacier scientist, Lonnie Thompson, "who saw it all before everyone" and dedicated his life to sounding the alarm; yet, nothing changed. We need scientists like Lonnie and we need shocking images of our collapsing natural world, but we don’t need hero narratives that frame the fight as an individualistic venture. Not to mention making the failed hero a white male from the USA–the demographic with the largest carbon footprint.

So, what would work to inspire action? There is no single recipe. But what's clear is that younger generations, leaders of tomorrow, need quickly digestible content, on their screens and platforms. They need to hear the occasional joke, because if we can laugh so hard about death, we should be able to laugh hard about climate change. Humor is a positive driver that leads to action. Generation180 is an organization that leverages comedy to push the climate agenda to wider audiences, much like Hip Hop Public Health has leveraged music to bring public health issues to communities. Let's all flip the script.

Telling the stories of frontline communities

On that same evening, I attended an open mic show at the Nuyoricans Poets Cafe, organized by Hispanics in Philanthropy, who gave the stage to Latinx poets and activists to share their stories. Stories of abuse, stories of poverty, stories of never having had access to our natural environment, stories of feeling like it was stolen a long time ago, stories where social, racial and environmental inequities meet and where intersectionality roots itself as an unavoidable prism through which climate stories need to be told.

Open MIC at the Nuyoricans Poets Cafe

And despite being of a painful triviality, these stories are rooted in hope. They are told by those who feel the real punch of environmental injustice, after having been hit for so long by the daily punch of racial and ethnic discrimination. And they feel more inspiring and powerful than those of privileged and unrelatable scientists and campaigners for whom the climate change fight is more driven by belief and their quest for recognition than it is by mere survival. These stories are all around, and they look like us.

As a matter of fact, Canary's most captivating moments certainly were the testimonials of Peruvian or Papua indigenous women and men, who are already dramatically more affected by climate change than most Western communities, although they have zero responsibility. The Guardian has done this beautifully with this article, focusing on the consequences of the melting Quelccaya glacier on the tribes that have been living on the surrounding land for millennia.

Mapping disadvantaged communities and reframing the consequences of climate change

Climate Week was also the opportunity to witness some awe-inspiring initiatives coming out of the ground. North Arrow has been honored to work with the City University of New York and the New York Environmental Justice Alliance on the launch of the Climate Justice Hub, a groundbreaking partnership between the biggest urban university in the USA and a coalition of community organizations at the frontline of climate injustice.

Disadvantaged Communities Burden Level

At the launch conference, we heard from the leaders of these communities who have tirelessly worked for decades to better the conditions of their neighbors and are now tackling climate change as yet another battle. Their neighborhoods are not only the poorest in the city but also the least green, most polluted, the most vulnerable to extreme heat events, and its residents are the most prone to all sorts of climate-related health ailments, such as asthma.

We need to listen to the stories from communities on the front line of climate change because they are stories with solutions. As our impact maps show, climate change is already affecting these communities, forcing them into action. The campaigns they lead and the battles they fight and win will be the most powerful stories of our time.


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