The Power of Storytelling: Harnessing Short-Term and Long-Term Thinking for Climate Change Planning

Harnessing Short-Term and Long-Term thinking for Climate Change Planning

More and more these days, negotiating climate change is a storytelling issue. While scientific research is an essential part of the process, it’s far from enough. Encouraging people to act takes more than rigorous data. In the U.S. for example, while 87% of scientists now claim that human activity is driving global warming, only half of Americans agree.1 Even for those who accept that the science of climate change is real, how exactly to adapt – what policies to enact, which time frames to focus on – remains a conundrum. Start planning for the future and short-term interests quickly contrast with long-term uncertainties, paving the way to confusion.

This tension between short-term and long-term reasoning is an integral part of human nature. Together, the two form the foundation of our primary means of thinking.2 Short-term thought is our instinctual brain in action. This is the part of us that knows to flinch when we get too close to fire, that helps us avoid that speeding car when we step off the curb, that reminds us how to read subtle social cues during a date. Through experience, we learn to navigate the world around us. Over time, the process shapes greater cultural patterns and perceptions. Think of the Japanese — through their longstanding history of surviving tsunami, the population has developed a widespread understanding of how to respond when disastrous tidal waves strike.

Long-term thinking, on the other hand, is more deliberate, more conceptual. This is the thought process that helps us plan our yearly spending budgets, complete math problems, and conduct cost-benefit analyses. It’s more orderly and takes more effort. Lived experience counts for less.

The two often come in conflict but perhaps nowhere more so than in the arena of climate change planning. Thanks to short-term thinking, we’re the most motivated to act after we experience an event; when we go through a risky episode firsthand, we’re more likely to reduce the risk of it happening again. For example, people are more likely to buy flood insurance after they’ve gone through a flood. Time and again, we engage only after the worst has happened.

But that approach doesn’t work with climate change. Predicting the precise timing, scale and condition of climate impacts is largely impossible – systems are too wide-ranging and complex. Trying to plan for events that we’ve never seen before, that will happen at some unknown point in the future, goes against our fundamental nature. And yet if we don’t do that planning, we’ll find ourselves in increasingly dangerous situations. Cities like New York will soon have longer and hotter summers than humans have ever seen, with scientists predicting the number of days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit to more than double by 2050.3

Processing these kinds of facts before they occur calls for long-term thinking. Because climate change is very much a snowball situation – i.e. the more greenhouse gas emissions we put into the atmosphere now will result in increasingly drastic and unpredictable consequences in the future – adaptation and mitigation options demand a more logical approach. Once we emit those greenhouse gases, we can’t easily take them out of our atmosphere or oceans; the laws of physics don’t work that way. Yet because the consequences of runaway emissions are hard to precisely predict, it’s all too easy to say “that won’t happen to me” or “I can worry about that later.” Again, if we haven’t experienced something firsthand, it’s nearly impossible to view it as a critical issue to deal with now.

In order to harness the long-term thinking needed in climate planning, we have to work with our short-term brain. That’s where storytelling comes in. Studies have shown that when we find ways to connect to events and impacts that we have yet to personally experience, our levels of empathy and engagement grow.4 We start to care more, which helps us think beyond the envelope of our own families, communities and lifespans, and take the long view more intimately into consideration.

Cultivating that greater sense of empathy is a direct factor of good storytelling. Relating to phenomena outside our personal experiences happens when we see a powerful movie, read a gripping book or listen to well-made podcasts. Some efforts, like the 1990s movie Waterworld — in which all the world’s ice caps have melted and the oceans flood entire continents — take a much more science-fiction based approach. Projects like Years of Living Dangerously – a TV show exploring modern-day examples of climate change — harness the power of celebrities and Hollywood filmmaking to get the word out. It’s time to push this work further and faster forward. We can be faithful to the science while bringing in character development, plot and comedic timing. With these tools in hand, we can help people feel the ramifications of future climate change scenarios, to experience them far enough in advance that effective plans can be developed and put in place.

This approach activates the short-term brain in service of long-term thinking. While emotionally investing in futures that have yet to happen is difficult, it is also the key to navigating our increasingly shifting world. Climate change is arguably both the hardest issue to grasp and the most important one to understand. Strong storytelling is our way to get there.

1 Vaidyanathan, Gayathri, “Big Gap between What Scientists Say and Americans Think about Climate Change,” Scientific American, 2015, retrieved January 9, 2017

2 Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2011.

3 New York City Panel on Climate Change, “Building the Knowledge Base for Climate Resiliency,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2015, retrieved January 17, 2017

4 Keen, Suzanne, “A Theory of Narrative Empathy,” Narrative 14:3 (2006), 207-236.

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