To Communicate Climate Risk We Need More Stories, Not Fewer

A few days ago I listened to a recording of Andy Revkin talking to Joel Makower about the need for more story-telling when it comes to climate change. Later the same day, I read a post by Revkin in his DotEarth blog that criticized recent media postings that seemed to jump on the idea, recently put forth by Richard Heede, that just a few companies and nations are largely responsible for historical GHG emissions. Revkin is right on both counts. We need more stories, and it’s not intuitively clear that it makes sense to blame a few entities for GHG emissions. That said, you never know what story might be able to influence a key decision-maker at a particular time, or how different pieces of information could be combined and re-combined to put that story together.  So it’s hard to know in advance what pieces of information might be important.

This is where I come back to Richard Heede’s interesting new paper.  Heede’s organization, the Climate Accountability Institute, is looking for innovative ways to think about accountability when it comes to climate change. Coming up with new ways to look at GHG emissions is important, since it’s hard to figure out the right accountability story if no one is analyzing the information. I’m not sure exactly what Heede’s paper implies in terms of “next steps,” but I do think it contains building blocks for influential stories, especially if we combine those building blocks with others recently in the news.

#1. There’s been a great deal of discussion on the topic of the 1 trillion ton 2oC carbon budget and its implications for the perceived urgency of addressing GHG emissions in the context of climate change. Most of the media coverage of the 2oC carbon budget has lauded it as demonstrating the urgency of climate policy, but some coverage has suggested it provides an excuse for delay (if we can still emit hundreds of billions of tons of CO2, where’s the emergency?).

© Lars Boelen – stormglas.wordpress.com

#2. A couple of weeks ago, Lars Boelen, an independent Dutch blogger who writes about oil-related issues, blogged on the generational implications of the 2oC carbon budget, visually allocating emissions past and present in terms of you and me, our parents, and our kids. It’s a fascinating way to think about what that 2oC budget means. And yes, our kids would seem to have every right to be pissed, not to mention the rest of future mankind.

Source: Carbon Tracker Initiative, Unburnable Carbon (2012).

#3. Then there’s the extensive recent discussion around the whole issue of stranded carbon and stranded investments (a la the Carbon Tracker Initiative) which seems to be gathering some steam with investors. I haven’t seen any of the discussion reflected in actual buy and sell recommendations for oil company stocks, or in Warren Buffett’s recent substantial expansion of his stake in Exxon, but baby steps! It’s certainly getting a lot more press and investment community attention recently.

#4.  And then there’s Heede’s new paper, which argues that we can trace a very substantial fraction of global emissions to a pretty small number of private, public, and national players. He places Chevron at #1 with 3.52% of total historical CO2 and CH4; Exxon is #2 with 3.22% of total historical CO2 and CH4.  On the coal side, Peabody and Consol come in at #12 and #18 respectively.

Source: R. Heede, Climatic Change (22 Nov 2013), doi:10.1007/s10584-013-0986-y.

I don’t know for sure how these four separate ways of thinking about fossil fuel emissions past, present, and future can be combined into effective stories that might influence public and private decision-making. But it does strike me that there are some good stories there, and they’re worth finding.  How do Heede’s 90 “majors” relate to future reserves that can’t be burned according to Carbon Tracker? How much climate change is associated with burning the “unburnable carbon” that Carbon Tracker talks about, and how does that relate to emissions accountability as discussed in Richard’s paper? How does Lars’ 2oC carbon budget per generation fit into the communications mix?

If nothing else, these different perspectives can be mixed and matched in ways that can help bookend the climate policy risks that private-sector decision-makers need to think about. But I’m pretty sure there’s an interesting infographic in there somewhere that could also help inform public and private-sector risk-based decision-making.

Addressing climate change is like trying to assemble a 1,000,000 jigsaw puzzle. We are likely move much farther down the path toward success 5-10 years from now if we work on lots of different pieces at the same time, rather than just hammering on one piece that doesn’t seem to want to fall into place. It’s a lot easier to tweet potential story-pieces “up” or “down” in isolation than it is to think about how they might be productively combined. But if we want to make progress in communicating climate change, we need to be a lot more thoughtful about story telling.

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