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1 December 2017

Telling stories about cities and climate change: Innovative approaches to communicating climate change information in African cities

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ICLEI Africa is partnering with the University of Cape Town and others to bring climate scientists and city stakeholders together to explore what climate change means for Southern African cities, and to co-develop ways to tackle its impacts. This work occurs as part of the Future Resilience for African CiTies and Lands (FRACTAL) project.

Climate risk narratives are an innovative mechanism being pioneered by the Climate System Analysis Group (CSAG) at the University of Cape Town. In early 2017, Dianne Scott and Chris Jack from CSAG wrote a blog post (originally posted on 22 February 2017) that has been paraphrased and summarised below, to describe this mechanism and its potential:

What are narratives? Narratives are really just an academic way of talking about stories. They describe relationships between actors, and have a time component in that they describe the evolution of the actors and their relationships through time.

So what have narratives got to do with climate change research? Telling stories is probably the most elemental means by which humans deal with complexity. Humans are remarkably effective at turning vast amounts of information into stories that make some sense of that information. Whether the resultant stories are accurate reflections of reality is another question of course! Not only are stories simplifications of reality but we also have a tendency to seek out or focus on evidence that supports our existing beliefs. This tendency is commonly called confirmation bias and is a real challenge to those producing new information to inform people and decisions, particularly if that new information contradicts existing narratives.

Various types of narratives already exist implicitly and explicitly in policies, debates, and other decision making processes around climate change (as well as many other issues) (1). Integrating climate science into decision making requires engaging with a vast array of data, some of which is very complex and/or contradictory. Perhaps, if narratives are a natural way of dealing with complex information, and policies already contain narratives, constructing new narratives can be a useful means of integrating climate science into decision making?

In the communication of climate change, ‘stories’ have increasingly been used to present particular messages about climate change and these serve to shape opinions and ultimately influence decision-making at the city level (Fløttum et al, 2013 (2)). Political scientists argue that narratives provide a storyline for communicating why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible for it, what should be done about it, and the ‘moral responsibilities’ of various actors. A story always has actors so the analysis of the narrative includes looking at the various actors in the story; the hero, the villains and the victims.

Climate risk narratives are being developed in FRACTAL to communicate complex and uncertain climate science evidence to decision makers. Building on the understanding that people naturally use narratives as a means of comprehending complex and diverse information, the idea of climate risk narratives is to support or encourage people to construct scientifically defensible narratives. Explicit development of climate risk narratives informed by the scientific evidence, but through a co-production approach with decision makers, has the potential to result in scientifically defensible and robust climate risk narratives. These can then replace poorly informed and indefensible climate risk narratives resulting from miscommunication or misinterpretation of subsets of the scientific evidence.

  1. See:
    Fløttum, K. and Gjerstad, Ø., 2013. Arguing for climate policy through the linguistic construction of Narratives and voices: the case of the South-African green paper “National Climate Change Response”. Climatic Change, 118(2), pp.417-430.
  2. Fløttum, K., 2010. A linguistic and discursive view on climate change discourse. ASp. la revue du GERAS, (58), pp.19-37.
    Fløttum, K. and Gjerstad, Ø., 2013a. Arguing for climate policy through the linguistic construction of Narratives and voices: the case of the South-African green paper “National Climate Change Response”. Climatic Change, 118(2), pp.417-430.
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