How could academics improve their physical understanding of climate change to help us better imagine what weather the future might hold? By way of narratives and storytelling, some researchers suggest.
In the past, words, villains, heroes, events, and phenomena told engagingly and recognizably have moved people to act – and will likely do so in the future. Storytelling matters, also for climate change.
In fact, storytelling, as Margaret Atwood tells us, is an uttering, and outering, of the human imagination. “Understanding the imagination”, she repeatedly illustrates in her works of fiction and non-fiction, “is no longer a pastime or even a duty but a necessity, because, increasingly, if we can imagine something, we’ll be able to do it”, she writes in the academic journal PMLA.
Novel future projections
Dr. Jana Sillmann with the Oslo-based CICERO Centre for International Climate Research takes this insight with great seriousness in her research project Translating Weather Extremes Into the Future (TWEX).
This innovative, transdisciplinary research project uses a so-called “Tales of the future-approach” to take real extreme weather events and project them into hypothetical future climate settings – in deep collaboration with those who will need that knowledge the most.
“We want to feed the imagination, not for the sake of forecasting as we see global climate modelers do, but for preparedness”, Dr. Sillmann said in the mid-way stakeholder meeting of the project, hosted in early May.
“Luckily, everyone wants stories”, she said.
Present in the meeting were people from the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate, the Norwegian Public Roads Administration, and Directorate for Civil Protection and Emergency to mention a few of the project stakeholders and co-producers of results.
Center stage of TWEX is the flood in Flåm in October 2014, part of a larger flooding event that affected large parts of mid-Western Norway. Researchers use data from that event as well as a global weather forecast model, a global climate model, high-resolution regional weather forecast model, and – not at least, input from decision-makers in need of downscaled data to feed into their own tools, such as hydrological models as used at NVE or Statkraft for operational flood forecasts.
The Tales of future weather-approach is unique in allowing interaction with users from the very beginning, but interaction also means deliberation, discussion, disagreement ...
Today, halfway through the project, what poses the greatest challenge is the mismatch between what the users ideally want, and what scientists can realistically provide.
TWEX will finally provide you with a possible story of a future flood which has to be seen/interpreted in the context of local vulnerabilities and the range of possible future climate scenarios without information on how likely this event is to occur.
"Users of weather data want to know exactly what the largest flood will be in the next 100 years in their catchment, which is impossible to say", said Nathalie Schaller, one of the TWEX researchers.
"There are several reasons for this: On the one hand, there is no predictability of the atmosphere past two weeks, which is an inherent feature of the climate system, and on the other hand, we don’t know what decisions humanity will take in the future. We might still decide that we want to limit global warming to a certain level", Schaller said.
The whole point of TWEX, then, is to imagine a future of extreme weather and for local communities to prepare for this imagined future.
The role of narratives
TWEX seeks to couple weather projections based on physical science climate models with social science approaches of narrative future building. Narrative is key, Siri Veland and colleagues argue in a new paper, when researchers and policy-makers now “urgently move from the natural science basis and into practical adaptation and mitigation”.
An ensemble of models would give better data, but TWEX does not aim for probability as in the traditional way to look at climate scenarios. It works for making a good tale supported by physical modeling. Why should we trust a risky TWEX tale?
In their paper, Veland and colleagues detect two gaps in climate discourses. Stories about climate change, they claim, suffer from a narrative deficit. Further, stories about climate change coming out of the influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suffer from a future narrative deficit.
The stakes of not filling these two voids are high, Veland and colleagues explain, because to engage transformative change, we need narrative – we need heroes, victims, villains. This is how we make sense of the world. People produce and reproduce the world through the stories they tell – about climate change, about extreme weather events, about species extinction etc.:
“Narrative structure simultaneously constitutes the basis for knowing how the world can be changed and manipulated, while shaping the individual and cultural cognition that engenders a sense of being-in-the-world”, Veland and colleagues argue.
“Narratives constitute reality as we know it by making sense of observations, leading us to new inferences, and providing models for a path forward”, they conclude.
Stories help us become protagonists in our own stories, help us imagine ourselves in other worlds. Why would Michelle and Barack Obama choose to collaborate with the streaming company Netflix? Why did George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale reach (new) sky-high sales after the inauguration of the 45th US president?
Stories help point us to who and where we want to be(come) and vice versa.
As research has shown, the story, if it is to be effective, needs to make sense to each individual or each group; it should not be universal, but specific.
Veland and colleagues are hesitant to claim that the so-called information deficit model is superfluous. Rather, they want to compliment it with filling the narrative and future narrative deficits – this is crucial, as they see it, to inform decision-makers on climate change, or in TWEX’ case, future weather tales.
When moving an extreme weather event story from being a mere science narrative – a Representative Concentration Pathway, for example – to a narrative in its own right, it is important to interact with the users’ belief systems to motivate responses, Veland and colleagues remind us. They show how narrative is inherent in all knowledge production, as a human praxis, and therefore relevant for all knowledge production. Not as another technological or methodological fix, they assure us:
“Its transformative potential lies in co-constructing meaning – with each other and with the material world”.
Time will yet tell what the final TWEX tale will sound and look like. And, as for extreme weather events?