Problem With Using Narratives in Climate Policy Discourse
Using narratives and storytelling improves communication but dilutes the complexities of problems and solutions
I was reading a paper on circular economy in which the authors used a method called discourse analysis to understand the political aspects of the circular food economy in France. Reading the paper again reminded me that such discourses and narratives play an important role in influencing public support and formulating sustainable development policies. It implies that subjective beliefs, and not objective evidence, often drive all environmental policies. Such subjective narratives influence, either “enable or constrain”, our thinking and hinder effective response to sustainable development. I am not talking about climate denialism but rather typical public policies for a cleaner environment.
What is discourse analysis?
The term ‘discourse’ can be defined as:
An ensemble of ideas, concepts and categories through which meaning is given to social and physical phenomena, and which is produced and reproduced through an identifiable set of practices.
So, basically, it is how we interpret the world around us and express it in our own words.
Discourse analysis is a qualitative research method to understand, for example, how environmental problems and their solutions are identified by society. The approach assumes that we live in multiple socially constructed realities rather than a reality governed by natural, physical laws, and in such realities, language has an enormous influence on how we see the world. So, the method focuses not on a societal problem itself but on how we communicate and make sense of the problem. Simply speaking, people often use stories (combined with humor) to reflect and distill ideas. Discourse analysis studies how these stories (or language) — created by us — affect everything around us, including how we see problems, do costs/benefits analyses, make choices, and take action.
Relevance for climate change
While narratives are also important to muster political capital to advocate change, I feel that over time they get abused a lot for political gains. They often fail to solve societal problems and never produce meaningful social well-being. For example, the circular economy has officially become a part of government policies for promoting sustainable development. However, researchers feel that its benefits have been greatly oversold.
Recently, the book “Impossibilities of Circular Economy” raised the point that many claims of circular economy are empty rhetoric, have been exaggerated, and therefore, are misleading. I would highly recommend reading the humorous and satirical comic based on the book that captures the difficulties that researchers face in highlighting the problems with the circular economy narrative. These difficulties involve constraints originating from limited resources (materials, energy), laws of thermodynamics, logistics, scaling, and the list goes on.
But why do most people rarely hear about these problems with Green Deal or circular economy? Because everyone — media, politicians, CEOs, managers — feels good about supporting and promoting the promise of maintaining unlimited growth and high standards of living without simultaneously destroying the environment.
These narratives of saving the world by closing the material loop and running everything on renewables are often a result of social constructions. The circular economy narratives have evolved over decades of misunderstanding — intentional or unintentional — of how things work in reality. The narratives embed simplistic — not simple — language to convey the complexities of climate problems to the point that they no longer use scientifically valid evidence. Yet they continue to remain popular and influence public policies because they feel good.
A former governor of the Indian Central Bank once said “…evidence finds it so hard to prevail in the public debate, not just in India but elsewhere in the world”. His comments pertained to economic and monetary policies, but these lines echo the discourse across all types of public policies.
In my old blog post comparing individuals or institutions for driving changes, I advocated for creating new institutions to govern society. Creating institutions and embedding certain rules and regulations in their functioning mitigates the importance of narratives, and hence, social subjectivity, in formulating effective public policies.
We need legally empowered, dedicated institutions that can use expertise and evidence to answer questions such as i) what/why is the problem? ii) how do we know it is a problem? iii) how severe is the problem and what are the consequences of inaction? iv) what are possible solutions? and so on. It would be more manageable and productive to hold such institutions accountable. Relying too much on politicians will continue to push us into narrative or storytelling traps even for urgent societal problems such as climate change.