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Last weekend, Robert Butler of the Ashden Directory, in associaton with Charlie Kronick of Greenpeace and writer Caspar Henderson  invited 15 academics, writers and activists to explore the issue of how we create narratives around climate change. RSA Arts & Ecology blogger Caleb Klaces returned enthused by the debate and the possiblities discussed:

Last Saturday  I attended a meeting organised by Robert Butler, Caspar Henderson and Charlie Kronick as part of the 2 Degrees art festival, which brought together people working in diverse disciplines to discuss ‘narratives of displacement and migration’ within the broad topic of "climate change stories".

Journalist Dan Box has just come back from a trip to the Carteret Islands funded by the Royal Geographical Society. While there he watched the first ship of evacuees depart from their disappearing island to a new mainland home. He told me that just before he arrived the islanders had placed a ban on foreign journalists coming to visit. The 15 or so journalists that had been to investigate have fitted the Carteret islands into a “metanarrative” (Joe Smith talked about journalists “enrolling a body of victims” for stories) of climate change, and Dan said that every islander he spoke to also said that climate change was the reason they were being flooded. The problem the islanders had with journalists was that writing the story as part of this larger issue did not seem to be helping them in their urgent need for a new home.

This mismatch between overarching and local narratives is one of a number of factors, including poverty and poor governance, which makes their successful relocation a huge challenge. (Although it must also be mentioned that Dan suspects the Carteret chief was being canny by emphasising climate change in his community’s plight – because he knew it would gain greater international attention.)

Rhidian Brook spoke about his nine-month journey through the HIV/Aids pandemic and the personal stories he encountered, which again and again connected environmental with social issues – complicating the “information, condoms and money” solution narrative of AIDS.

Benjamin Morris from Cambridge University talked about the “Katrina diaspora”, and how, when volunteering for the Red Cross in the wake of the hurricane, he was told not to refer to the displaced people as “refugees or evacuees”; they had to be “clients”. The more emotive nomenclature would make the Red Cross legally bound to act in ways which they weren’t prepared to.

The Red Cross was particularly concerned with nouns, but Leo Mellor (also from Cambridge University) suggested that his students working at using climate change as a starting point for fiction struggled with adjectives and adverbs – and that these parts of speech are particularly difficult, but necessary to find, now. This new literature might contribute to large and local narratives by offering a new descriptive language. But there is also another role for art, which can help make space by being disruptive of language and norms (there might be a not-too-tenuous analogy here with advertising and behaviour-change practitioners, who talk of communications which will “unfreeze” people from “bad” behaviours, then “refreeze” them with “good” behaviours – see Futerra in particular). It was interesting to hear Charlie Kronick from Greenpeace call the charity’s early disruptive interventions “DaDa”. He went on to note a dismay with the emergence of a technocratic and market-based metanarrative of climate change.

Joe Smith was more optimistic about the level of artist’s response to climate change, especially at the crossover between art and engagement (an example might be Oxfam’s new Blue in the Face video ) – and described his involvement with the impressive BBC and Open University’s ten-year Creative Climate project. It “aims to generate a groundbreaking longitudinal record of how societies learn about, respond to, and learn to live with global environmental change” through the collection of people’s stories.

Part of the importance of the Creative Climate project is offering a shared space and context for narratives to be recorded and emerge. The emotional impact, usefulness or even validity of a narrative can be dependent on its context.

Caleb Klaces is a poet,and founder and Editor-in-chief of, a website which pairs up established and new poets to create new poetic conversations. He is a guest blogger at the RSA Arts & Ecology Blog, recently contributing this review of The End of The Line.


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