New narratives for climate change and sustainable energy transformation: A future that doesn’t suck

Joel Pett, USA Today

“The power of aspiration is much greater than the power of desperation”~ Peter Senge

IMAGINE someone is making you wrong about something which either you did not do or may not be aware of doing. How would you feel, pretty bad, right? Well, that’s how mostly we have been communicating the impacts of climate change and unsustainable uses of energy and that’s why we need new narratives for climate change and sustainable energy transformation. I call it a future that doesn’t suck.

The climate change communication we largely have been experiencing thus far accuses humankind for the mess we have created which I’d argue is true but it’s not very empowering for the positive actions to take place? …and another thing is that such messages freak us out and people don’t want to listen, a sort of psychological numbing takes place. It is less likely that this strategy may put us into a meaningful action because it may seem that the problem is so huge that no amount of action would be sufficient.

Scientists say that to avoid extreme climate change outcomes, that means to remain below 2 Degrees Celsius temperature limit, we may require near-total decarbonisation of the world’s energy system by 2050 but there’s another dimension to it — we need twice as much energy as today to support the projected economic and population growth by mid-century while at the same time achieving very deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. This is an unprecedented undertaking.

Scientists are the knowledge producers. However, existing scientific knowledge, the way it is presented, is not enough to turn theory into practice. Decision-makers incline to work holistically and intuitively. On the other hand, scientists generating knowledge use a reductionist approach — they become very good in very small things. So the process generates islands of knowledge in a sea of ignorance. Decision-makers have to traverse the sea.

So, we have the knowledge at our disposal, then what’s the problem — it is that scientists are not good communicators. This scientific knowledge is meant to be implemented by the organizations with the capacity to make change happen such as governments, businesses and civil society. We now know that the messages that scientists have been communicating are not effective. Instead, we need a whole new narrative around sustainable energy and climate change discourse by presenting them as opportunities not challenges.

This new narrative emphasizes multiple benefits of climate action by providing sustainable energy with which everyone can benefit businesses, governments, and communities. The basic premise here is this if our intention is to create a vibrant and prosperous future, we should be talking more of the vibrancy and prosperity that would come from sustainable energy transformation.

However, the shortage seems to be of captivating storytellers who give hope and inspiration, as well as attractive images of a future in which we live with more jobs, higher well-being and lower emissions. If it cannot be imagined, then people will surely not work for it to happen. However few major initiatives such as The New Climate Economy are working to strengthen this narrative with the support of evidence based research that climate change is the biggest opportunity NOT the biggest problem of our time.

Lastly, there’s an urgent need for effective boundary organisations to design and deliver new narratives by acting as intermediaries among scientists, policy-makers and practitioners. We need people and organizations that can translate climate science into clear, relevant information for business leaders and public officials and vice versa.

However, communicating a positive and empowering narrative is only the first step towards bridging the gap between science and policy, knowledge and action, and theory and practice. There are as many nuances as there are organizations therefore we need to work on a case by case basis to make the change happen.

At the end, it is apt to quote Margaret Atwood — Canadian poet and environmental activist here — “I think calling it climate change is rather limiting. I would rather call it the everything change”.

The accompanied slides can be found from here:

Mukesh Gupta

Pursuing sustainability in real-world complex systems

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Originally published at on August 26, 2016.