by Adam Corner
The climate movement has long been invested in the power of stories. Whether as vehicles for campaign asks, or strategies for translating scientific reports into human narratives, they are powerful ways of conveying climate messages.
But what if the stories themselves took centre stage?
All around the country, slowly but surely, the transition towards net zero is now underway. The Local Storytelling Exchange is a new initiative that aims to connect these local stories to the issues driving the national climate debate.
The stories feature people, communities and businesses who in different ways embody the green transition: households benefiting from better insulation; tradespeople retraining to meet the demand for low-carbon technologies; neighbours finding common cause in community energy projects.
The power of these stories is in the social proof they provide of positive changes already underway and the sense of agency this can build among audiences who do not yet see themselves reflected in the transition.
The stories can’t be an exercise in ‘brightsiding’. There must be space to acknowledge the challenges, trade offs, inequalities and risks that are yet to be resolved as the transition gathers pace. But they also need to be action-based, signposting solutions and demonstrating ways forward, not dwelling on the pitfalls ahead.
There’s a growing realisation that concerns about fairness are at the heart of the transition to net zero. A just transition is paramount, but there’s no single definition of ‘fairness’ that everyone agrees on. Diverse, authentic stories of people ‘like me’ making progress and moving forward can help to overcome this by showing ‘this is what a fair transition looks like’.
Working initially in the Tees Valley, Cornwall and the West Midlands (regions of England that are all in different ways important for the national transition), three Local Storytellers are amplifying stories of the green transition surfacing in diverse communities into the local ecosystem.
There’s a Cornish pensioner who has used her modest income and government grants to insulate her cottage and install a heat pump. There are solar installers across the Tees Valley finding that demand for their trade is booming. And there are British-Asian families in some of the poorest areas of Birmingham who could stand to benefit from cost-saving retrofitting supported by local community groups.
These stories are finding a home in local media outlets where, in some cases, there is very little climate-related coverage to speak of otherwise.
Wherever possible, the stories are landing at moments that make sense nationally — the Cornish heat pump installation on the day the government’s Boiler Upgrade Scheme was launched, the solar installers in response to the Chancellor’s VAT cut on domestic PV, and the Birmingham retrofit story in the midst of a punishing cost of living crisis.
Sometimes, the pioneering people these stories belong to are finding a voice at a national level, too. ITV came to film at the retrofitted cottage, and the i paper included a solar spokesperson in their own story on the surge in demand for renewable energy in the wake of the gas price crisis. The BBC presenter Simon Reeve tweeted the story of a Cornish food waste project the Storytelling Exchange had promoted locally.
The idea of using stories to drive campaigns is not new. Right across the movement, from the community-led work of Possible, to the political narratives of IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission, people-focused stories play a key role. Research from Climate Outreach, the Climate Action Unit and On Road Media emphasises how important diverse human stories are for climate communication. The Local Storytelling Exchange is a source of stories and spokespeople that helps to open up cultural and political space for campaigns and other efforts to succeed.
Stories are a renewable fuel that will only get more potent as the transition gathers momentum. Social proof is powerful: this is what the transition looks like.
Adam Corner is a writer and researcher specialising in climate communication and culture/climate collaborations. In previous roles Adam worked at Cardiff University, then as Research Director at Climate Outreach, and helped to established the centre for Climate Change & Social Transformations (CAST) as a founding co-Director. Now operating operating as Climate//Communication//Culture, Adam is currently Strategic Lead for the Local Storytelling Exchange initiative.
This is what the transition looks like: introducing the Local Storytelling Exchange was originally published in Reset Narratives on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.