Climate. Is it the Anti-Story?

May 24, 2014


Human beings, like it or not, process facts and reality not as data, but as story. Climate deniers have been good at the over-simplification and pounding repetition it takes to make a story stick.

Making the facts of climate change a compelling story is one of the greatest challenges of human history.

Cassandra Willyard in Last Word on Nothing:

The most recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) doesn’t pull any punches. The globe continues to warm, ice continues to melt at an alarming pace, and the seas continue to rise. Climate change isn’t some distant dilemma. It’s already happening. The science is solid, and the problem is urgent. “Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change,” said IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri at a news conference in March.

Yet most Americans don’t seem to be all that concerned. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, only 40% cited climate change as a major threat to the US. And even fewer — roughly a third – listed global warming as a top priority for Congress and the White House.

So what gives? Why aren’t people getting the message? Are we* — the science journalists –delivering it wrong? Perhaps we need more stories, and better storytellers.

“Why don’t you do something about climate change?” I asked my husband, Soren Wheeler. He’s the senior producer of Radiolab, a crazy popular science program that tells some of the most compelling stories on the airwaves.

“Because,” he said, “climate change is the anti-story.”

Naturally, I asked him to explain. Here is an edited version of the conversation that ensued over burgers and beers**.


CW: You told me climate change is the anti-story. What did you mean by that?

SW: Are you sure I said exactly that?

CW: Yes!

SW: Ok. First, we should talk about what I mean by “story.” I mean it has some arc. There are changes in mood or emotion. Something happens. It lands somewhere. It could be a character that needs something and then gets that thing. Or maybe it’s an idea that is out of favor and then it’s in favor.

Radiolab really likes to have a story that is connected to an idea. The story makes you ask a question or gives you some insight, or the idea comes first and the story is evidence for the idea. It’s got to be a tight intimate relationship. Let’s be clear: All of this should be about whether Radiolab would want to do a climate change story. I think there are plenty of outlets that should, could have awesome climate change stories.

CW: Are you going to answer the question now?

SW: Yeah. Stories are better when they’re concrete, direct, immediate, and you can have a vicarious experience. But climate, by definition, is weather spread out over time and over space. So weather is what happened here today. And climate is the average of what happened in the last 200 years across the whole globe. So with the very definition of climate you’ve taken away all of your chance of drama and directness and made it diffuse. I think that’s what makes climate change so hard, or the anti-story.

CW: I don’t buy that. Radiolab finds ways to tell stories about abstract ideas all the time. I don’t see climate as being terribly different from any of the other broad scientific concepts you’ve discussed in the past.

SW: Usually those broad abstract stories have some specific instance. Weather should be that thing for climate. There are some great stories about dudes who fly their planes into the eye of the hurricane to take measurements. But there’s a huge gap between stories that have to do with weather and climate change writ large. People can climb in and be skeptical about whether that’s really climate change or not. They can always disconnect your story from the idea that you’re trying to get across.

When you say, “do a story on climate change,” you mean do a story that communicates the idea that the climate is changing globally because of human actions. I can’t find a story that can get you all the way to that idea compellingly without some gap, like the gap between weather and climate. Someone could jump in and say, “that’s not really a trend.” And if I want to say, “yes, it is,” then I have to go back to the math and the stats, things that have no emotions.

CW: Do you think that Radiolab has some obligation to get that message across?

SW: We don’t have an educational mission. We do documentary news. It’s journalism that doesn’t specifically pursue the “important” social issues of our day. It’s harder to connect with audiences in the way that we want to if the reason we’re doing something is because it is socially important. The reason we do something is because we find it interesting.

CW: So the problem is that climate change isn’t interesting?

SW: No. It’s interesting. I want to do a story on climate change. If it weren’t interesting I would have no desire. It’s a frustrating struggle. We have a particular brand of thing that we do. Our shtick is curiosity and wonder and awe and finding some surprising insight about all of us inside a tiny example. It just happens to be really hard to fit climate change into that model. Where is the awe?

CW: The “awe” is that a single species has consumed enough fossil fuels in just a couple of centuries to irreparably alter the climate of this enormous fucking planet. 

SW: I’ll give you that.

But I want to be surprised. If you’re going to write a climate change story, I know already what you’re going to tell me. You can’t surprise me. As a reporter, I prefer to be in a position where I’m asking an honest question, an authentic question that I don’t know the answer to. I might then surprise the listener by what I find. Climate change – I believe in it. So what am I going to do? Go out and shore up my own beliefs in front of people? That doesn’t seem to have emotional power.

Maybe it was wrong of me to say it’s the anti-story, to make some kind of declaration that there would never be a story that could communicate the “global trend caused by humans” idea. But I have not been able to find one.

CW: Isn’t the denialism a story?

You’re on the right track. One way to do a story about climate change is to do a story about why people don’t believe it. Or to do a story where you go deep with a denialist and really try to understand them. And maybe if you’re lucky you lead them through a set of experiences that gets them to, if not totally change their minds, at least question what’s going on.

I’m also interested in the business side of climate change. Is the Arctic melting going to open up new oil drilling possibilities or a new shipping route? McKenzie Funk has a book out called Windfall that looks at the business side. The amazing thing is that once you’re interested in making money, truth trumps politics. The business side gives climate change an interesting reality that can be really surprising. At least right now it feels unexpected.

CW: I’m sure you’ll figure something out. You’re so talented. I find it hard to believe that you can’t find a way to talk about climate change.

SW: It’s unfortunate that in a transcript no one will pick up the sarcasm*** in your voice.

* These days my beat is largely health and medicine, so I rarely write about climate change. But I used towhen I was on staff at Earth Magazine.

** Conflicts: I am married to the interviewee, and he paid for my burger, fries, and beer. Actually I guess you could make the argument that Radiolab paid for it.

*** I sound sarcastic even when I don’t mean to. He really IS very talented.



17 Responses to “Climate. Is it the Anti-Story?”

  1. davefinnigan Says:

    You want a story? I just got off three months accompanying the Great March for Climate Action. There are right now 35 heroes and “sheroes,” ranging in age from 18 to 76, walking every step of the way across the US from the Pacific ocean to Washington DC for the climate. You can find out about the march at That is a story worth telling. Where is Radio Lab when you need them? Check out the Marchers and Virtual Marchers Facebook page for photos and comments

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    Interesting insights from the Wheelers. We have a long row to hoe.

    Which brings me back to the contention that we need to adopt the techniques of the deniers—-lie just a bit more and scare a lot more. Knock off the “no single extreme weather event can be attributed to AGW but…” BS, and instead say “Dang, but AGW SURELY IS causing all these floods, wildfires. tornadoes, droughts, and typhoons—98% of all scientists think so, and one or the other will be coming to your neighborhood soon—duck and cover”.

    Expose the paid deniers for what they are—they have no trouble using the “government grant seeking” BS against climate scientists—everyone should know that the fossil fuel interests are behind the deniers. Dateline should report on the the bribery and intellectual prostitution that goes on around AGW denialism rather than the same old crap about murders.

    • jimbills Says:

      But that wouldn’t help their business model, so why would they do it?

      I’m sure you’ve read the Powell Memo, but it’s fascinating to see how much the American media has changed since the memo was sent to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce:

      Back story:

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Can’t remember if I ever read the Powell memo back when, but I own a copy of Winner Take All Politics and have read the comments on it there. Powell was quite prophetic, and we have used much of his blueprint as we progress down the road to corporate fascism.

        • jimbills Says:

          In regards to the media, Powell suggested that corporate pressure should be applied to the media outlets to always provide a ‘balanced’ perspective (i.e. a pro-corporate interest perspective).

          “The national television networks should be monitored in the same way that textbooks should be kept under constant surveillance. This applies not merely to so-called educational programs (such as “Selling of the Pentagon”), but to the daily “news analysis” which so often includes the most insidious type of criticism of the enterprise system. Whether this criticism results from hostility or economic ignorance, the result is the gradual erosion of confidence in “business” and free enterprise.

          This monitoring, to be effective, would require constant examination of the texts of adequate samples of programs. Complaints — to the media and to the Federal Communications Commission — should be made promptly and strongly when programs are unfair or inaccurate.

          Equal time should be demanded when appropriate. Effort should be made to see that the forum-type programs (the Today Show, Meet the Press, etc.) afford at least as much opportunity for supporters of the American system to participate as these programs do for those who attack it.”

          The memo also suggested the creation of groups of pro-corporate scholars – which would become the thinks tanks of today. These think tanks have basically taken on the exact game plan of the Powell memo, and they do the very things listed above.

          The result is that we can’t dream of ever having a documentary like ‘The Selling of the Pentagon’ ( ) ever again. The pressure from the think tanks, backed by the advertising dollars of corporations (many of which have merged with the very same media outlets), would scream for ‘fair’ treatment – and they’d get it. Program and newspaper editors all know this from experience, and they cut the complaints in the bud, before they can even happen.

          We wonder why there is always a denier or pro-corporate stance on reports about environmental issues as they relate to business. It’s not a surprise, really.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Thanks, but if you said all that for me, I should have told you that I read the entire memo on the link you provided and thereby saved you the time.

            I will add that I heard some Twilight Zone music as I read the original memo.

          • jimbills Says:

            Yeah, sometimes I comment just in general for others, not just one person. This was the case here.

            The Powell Memo seems like conspiracy stuff, but it’s really important in U.S. history. Powell was a corporate lawyer who later become a Supreme Court justice. He also wrote the majority opinion for ‘First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti’, which became a foundation for the Citizens United ruling.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            It doesn’t just SEEM like conspiracy stuff, it IS conspiracy stuff.

            Throw in Jack Abramoff, Grover Norquist, Tom Delay, Ronald Reagan, and all the maneuvering of the Reagan era leading to the conservative think tanks and the rise of lobbyist—-and the Twilight Zone music just gets louder—-it all leads to Citizens United and the impending corporate fascism. There really IS a gremlin riding on the wing.

    • redskylite Says:

      Some more thoughts on tactics:

      “Most of us simply don’t see ourselves in the melting ice, and the hockey-stick graphs – we need a way of thinking and speaking about the changing climate”

  3. ubrew12 Says:

    “I can’t find a story that can get you all the way to that idea compellingly without some gap, like the gap between weather and climate… Maybe it was wrong of me to say it’s the anti-story…”

    Maybe its better to just sell it as the back-story, the context within which the story plays out. For example, the story could be about horrible fires burning in Southern California. Tragedy, loss, horror. All the things people tune in for. And while emotions are high, point out that those fires are related to the CA drought. Not CAUSED by the drought: if you let the viewer make his own linkage, that linkage will be stronger in him. Finally, show the viewer what Western precipitation patterns are expected to look like as this century plays out:

    Again, you introduce the back-story. You don’t need to claim a connection, let the viewer make that claim.

    So, without ever really leaving the immediate weather-related human-interest story, you plugged in some context related to climate conditions, and some further context related to how CC is going to change those conditions. Let the viewer make his own linkage as to what that means, viscerally, to those poor homeowners he just saw fearfully fleeing for their lives, or to that farmer kicking at the dry stubble that used to be his livelihood.

    Basically, weather can have negative consequences: that’s the story. The backstory to weather can suggest that, in the future, those consequences will only get more negative. Without ever really leaving the twister-wreckage in front of you, you have pointed to worse storms on the horizon, and let the viewer herself imagine which way those storms are blowing.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Good thinking, but why does it have to be a back-story? We here in the DC area are bombarded by TV and newspaper ads from the American Petroleum Institute and the gas and coal folks saying that oil, natural gas, fracking, exporting fossil fuels, fighting regulation of CO2, Keystone XKL, and fighting laws that promote renewables are good for individuals and the country. More jobs, a stronger economy, an improved trade balance, cheaper energy, lower taxes, whiter teeth, and more appeal to the apposite sex are all promised. They lie without batting an eye.

      Our side needs to make this the “front story” and use the same tactics as the deniers. Too many Americans are too ignorant and complacent—-I say “In their face” with the truth.

      • ubrew12 Says:

        We would make it the front story if we had the money, but the real money is trying to keep it from even becoming the back story. “If it bleeds, it leads” journalism means our media HAS to cover tragic weather events, or viewers will turn the channel. And, to THOSE stories, there is a backstory…

  4. jimbills Says:

    Humans believe what they want to believe. It’s a much better story to sell to humans that everything is hunky-dory. It’s more surprising to me that so many people DON’T have a problem with AGW theory.

    The real problem is the resistance in thinking to prioritize the long-term over the short-term. Climate change will affect one’s grandchildren more than it will affect them, and right now there are bills to pay. This is why there is far more concern over the day-to-day state of the economy instead of AGW.

    OT recent news:

    • dumboldguy Says:

      I will ask again on behalf of the deniers—-“What have future generations ever done for us”?

      RE: The OT piece about plastic particles trapped in the arctic ice in significant quantities? No surprise, considering the extent to which plastic is found in all the oceans. It will be interesting to see how this develops, but anyone going to the link should be aware that it is a gross misstatement of fact to say “plastic is inert”, and therefore we shouldn’t be concerned.

      It is more correct to say “plastic is SEEMINGLY inert over long periods on the HUMAN time scale”, and plastics ingested by living things ARE being shown to be dangerous once they are subjected to the biochemistry of food digestion. We simply don’t know enough yet to be sure, but there’s a reason they don’t put specks of plastic in your breakfast cereal.

  5. rpauli Says:

    Metaphors work for me.

    We are all in an ongoing car crash that news media is not much covering. But the car is off the road. bouncing and crashing down the mountain. Inside, we are scrambling to hook up our seatbelts and find the brakes, and even look ahead at trees and rocks and mud disappearing from view as we get jerked around violently.

    Instead, most news sources are providing update coverage of the current type of Monty Python Dead Parrot Skit – lets interview climate change denialists, and even though 1000 bird scientists say it is dead, lets all go over that again, in a live shot. Interview the merchant some more. “How will he fare with the proposed dead climate tax?” Then cut to commercial.

    Nobody knows what else to do or say. Media is just a form of communication. Mass media is what the masses might want to know. But the imbalance of a media corporation talking to millions or billions of people is totally nuts.

    In an ongoing crashing car, if you get a second, turn off that distracting radio.

  6. Earl Mardle Says:

    This piece nails exactly the problem that I have been stuck with in climate discussions for a couple of years.

    Weather is physics, climate is statistics and there is little more boring, nor more easily manipulated, than statistics. His point that climate is 200 years of data contains a possible key; climate assumes that the past is in some relevant way predictive of the future. But climate can no longer predict the future because we are disconnecting from the repetitions that make the concept of climate useful.

    As a way to try and get people’s attention focused in the right place I now refuse to talk about climate “change”, in fact I refuse to talk about climate at all; I now talk about being in a post-climate world and suggest that we wont HAVE a climate until we can build up a new set of data that starts to show some reliable patterns. That may not happen again for 1,000 years.

    In the meantime, all we have is random weather generated by an increasingly chaotic set of drivers. As to how to turn that into a “story”, beats me. If we can’t learn to understand the world without being fed stories like a 5-year-old, then we will keep behaving like children and thinking like children and dying like children, confused and terrified by an incomprehensible world.

    One that we created for ourselves.

Leave a Reply to dumboldguy Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: