Story telling and policy making – which is the chicken and which is the egg? How social movements can help achieve the Paris Climate Agreement


Many people recognise that climate change has human causes and needs human interventions, but this knowledge hasn’t impacted their own habits and behaviours. Yet we know that achieving warming of less than 2C – the target of the Paris Agreement – requires lifestyle changes by us all. We also need policies to help us make the big changes in our lives and society. So which comes first? Policies or people? 

New centres of power

At the beginning of this week I attended the annual Chatham House Climate conference. The speaker line up was impressive as always, as the great and good of climate policy came together to discuss some of the most pertinent challenges that need addressing and the opportunities that give us cause for optimism in achieving the Paris Agreement commitments. As it’s a Chatham House conference, of course it’s within the Chatham House rule – so I can’t attribute what was said to anyone.

One discussion centred on ‘new centres of power’, including the role of social movements.  As one senior official recognised, we need to influence the behaviour of millions of people, not just thousands of politicians and businesses. Another speaker admitted that changing consumption behaviour is one of the biggest problems within climate to tackle, but his solution was to first get the infrastructure right (including, I am assuming, policies and law), and behaviour change will follow.

However, Tolstoy’s observation in War and Peace begs to differ “more often, the ship of state alters course only because tides are vastly shifting underneath”. History also tells us that the tides often turn because of the emergence of a movement for change, such as the US civil rights movement or the anti-slavery movement. Policies and law were crucial in changing the course of history, but these are more often enacted because of a shift of social and cultural values, rather than in spite of them. Governments change and politicians can’t steer a country in a different course if there isn’t a wide, strong and loud base of people holding them to account. However, I am not suggesting a linear theory of change, change is happening in all differents all the time, and there are counter forces at play too, but a tipping point needs to be reached in social and cultural norms and legislation passed to help secure change.

How to inspire?

So how do we inspire millions to act on climate? As Alex Evans questions in his book ‘The Myth Gap’, what happens when evidence and arguments aren’t enough?” We need to tell myths, or stories. This was briefly mentioned at the Chatham house conference, and in fact, the Fijian government wants to infuse it into their Presidency of the UN climate talks this year. Guilt and fear don’t work, as more often they serve to encourage people to put their head in the sand. NGOs, including us, have been working hard to tell a more positive story in recent years about what life could be like for us as we respond to climate change. We can’t deny sacrifices won’t be necessary but life certainly will be better for us all if we change, now.

We all have differing pressing demands or desire in our lives – we want to fly to see our relatives overseas, we enjoy eating meat every day (or we can’t get our children to eat enough veggies!), we can’t afford to rip out our gas central heating and install a thermal heat pump (whilst also switching to renewable electricity).

So while there is much to be celebrated by 195 countries coming together to agree to limit global emissions through the Paris Agreement a couple of years ago. We also need to see real change at the national and local level – both in policies and laws and in each home all over the world. The UK has just had it’s “greenest summer” to date for energy production, but high emitting countries like the UK have a monumental task to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Our government knows this and that household level change is essential to further ‘green’ Britain. The UK Clean Growth Strategy, out this week, talks of the need for efficiency savings and household behaviour change – but little detail on how to motivate people to do it.

Can resonant storytelling be a game changer on climate change? We believe they can and we’ll be sharing more over the coming year on what we’ve been doing around the world to inspire Christians to step up and act around the world. We can’t wait for lifestyle change to come later – we all have our responsibility to consider our choices now.



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