Why storytelling may be the best bet to inspire action on climate change

The Kids Climate March prepares to leave from the Science Museum.
The Kids Climate March prepares to leave from the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul in April 2017. The march took place in partnership with the March for Science.
Matthew Hintz for MPR News 2017

There's no more optimistic person on the planet than a duck hunter. At least, Mike Furtman doesn't think so.

"You go out, and you're sitting in a little teeny spot in a marshy area, trying to meet up at the same place, at the same time," he said, with “birds from half a continent away.”

In years past, Furtman, who lives in Duluth, Minn., explains, ducks would fly south from Canada in predictable waves, on each cold front.

But over the past couple decades, thanks to the effects of a warming climate, the warm weather has lingered. And when the cold finally comes, it often comes all at once, in a quick freeze that sends ducks zooming over Minnesota, often right past eagerly waiting hunters.

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“There have always been slow days [hunting],” Furtman says. "But when there's no days, when nothing ever happens, there's a great sense of melancholy and loss because, at least for those of us who have done it for decades, we remember what it was like not so awfully long ago.”

Versions of Furtman’s experience exist across Minnesota, as people see the impacts of a changing climate in their daily lives, hobbies and outdoor experiences.

And now those stories are becoming a key part of the fight against climate change, as activists in Minnesota and elsewhere are turning to a new strategy to connect climate change to action, focused on sharing personal stories.

There’s been a strong scientific consensus for decades that humans are rapidly changing the Earth's climate. But facts and data haven't been enough to spur the urgent changes needed to prevent the most devastating impacts of climate change.

The group Climate Generation, founded by arctic explorer and Minnesota-based activist Will Steger, compiled more than 50 personal stories in a new book, called “Eyewitness: Minnesota Voices on Climate Change.” Furtman’s is among them.

Climate Generation recently sent copies to every state legislator in Minnesota, along with testimony from constituents who live in their districts.

Jothsna Harris, community engagement director for the group, said the effort was inspired by a book of essays presented to Congress in the 1990s called “Testimony: Writers on the West Speak on Behalf of Utah Wilderness.” President Bill Clinton later credited the book with inspiring the momentum behind the government’s creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

"We put out an open call for people to share their stories of climate change and the need for our legislators to act boldly and urgently to match the scale of the problem,” Harris said. “And we were flooded with lots of letters, which included people's really personal, emotional, vulnerable stories of how they have experienced climate change."

The stories came from people across the country — from a young man who grew up next to an oil refinery; from a farmer, coping with extreme rainfall; from a hockey player in southern Minnesota decrying the loss of outdoor rinks.

While it's still critical to continue communicating the science of climate change, Harris said, that alone usually isn't enough to change people's behavior — which is ultimately what experts say will help mitigate climate change’s impacts.

"I have found that when our stories are told, really vulnerably and with heart, it gives us an opportunity to move out of our heads and into our hearts, which is so important for sustained action on climate change,” Harris said.

Research has found that personal stories help to reduce “psychological distance,” the idea that climate change will only impact people far away in the future, or far away from where you live.

"Rather than thinking about it in the abstract, in terms of parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, or polar bears and melting icebergs, it's oftentimes more effective to think about climate change as happening in our own communities — which it is,” said Abel Gustafson, who teaches environmental communication at the University of Cincinnati.

“The effects of climate change are all around us. We can already see them happening."

Gustafson recently led a study, through the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, in which participants listened to a short radio story about a North Carolina fisherman named Richard Mode. In the story, Mode laments how the trout he’s pursued his entire life aren’t nearly as abundant as they once were, as streams have warmed.

“It makes me very, very sad,” he recounts. “There’s a sense of loss there that I cannot fully describe.”

The study found that after listening to Mode’s story, people took climate change — and its risks — more seriously. And the more compassion they felt for Mode, the more they shifted their attitudes about climate change.

"We don't have a scientific knowledge deficit, we don't have a technology deficit — we have a deficit of public and political will,” he said. "So that's the real problem. It's a social problem. And so that's why we need social solutions."

It comes down to communicating both the severity of climate change and the available solutions. And that communication is often most effective through stories.

These stories of how people experience climate change in their everyday lives are abundant. Gustafson’s own is rooted in northern Minnesota.

He grew up in the Duluth region, and his grandfather, Dick Mozzetti, was a longtime Lake Superior charter fishing captain, who spent 250 days a year outdoors — hunting, fishing and trapping.

What he was not, Gustafson said, was a “tree hugger.” Heck, he wasn’t much of a hugger at all. And he disagreed with his grandson’s political views on immigration and gun control.

So, during the last conversation the two ever had, as Gustafson sat next to his grandfather’s hospital bed in 2018, he was hesitant to tell him about his research on climate change communication. But it turns out, his worries were unfounded.

“If you don’t think there is climate change, then you are a fool,” his grandfather told him, going on to recount the changes he had witnessed over the course of his life outdoors: fish moving deeper to find colder water; animals hibernating much later in the fall.

Gustafson said that moment with his grandfather was a powerful one. He realized, then, how people from such different perspectives can approach climate change — some for political reasons, others through science.

But, for people like his grandfather, “they care deeply about the environment because of their own personal relationship and their own personal knowledge of how the outdoor world is changing.”

Those stories, he said, may be the most powerful of all.