Why Climate Stories?

Our Thoughts on Climate Stories

Adapted from a paper by a group of Collaborators, including Laura England, Jennie Carlisle, Rebecca Witter, Derek Davidson, Lynette Holman, and Dana Powell entitled Storying Climate Change at Appalachian State University (PDF here), published in Practicing Anthropology's summer 2019  special issue focused on the theme “Storying Climate.” 

The Climate Stories Collaborative uses a broad interpretation of the word “story,” acknowledging that “a story can be many things, if not all things” (Maggio 2014). We encourage three modes of storytelling: 1) representation, emphasizing our capacity to tell climate stories, 2) performance, emphasizing our capacity to embody climate stories, and 3) intervention, emphasizing our capacity to change climate stories (Giannachi 2012). Climate stories allow us to see and to be with climate change. Stories connect people across difference and resonate through time. They call us to care for, respond to, and become responsible to one another. Storying climate change activates empathy, agency, and collective action–skills necessary for responding well to climate change. And we believe in the power of stories to author people; the stories that we foreground, both through our storytelling and story-listening, change us (Maggio 2014).

The enthusiasm and investment that students thus far have demonstrated storying climate—drawn in part from the sense of involvement in a campus-wide Collaborative and indeed, a broader social movement—have far exceeded the weight many of us have given to these assignments. Students are confronting the most challenging issue of our time with passion, creativity, and commitment to meaningful change. As students bring stories—their own and others’—into the classroom, they are engaged “in ongoing material world-forming processes” (McLean 2009). We faculty, in turn, learn how to better tell our own stories and to reaffirm and improve our own engagements in climate action.

Transdisciplinary Insights on Storying Climate Change

Climate change is perhaps the ultimate wicked problem—built on shifting ground and socially complex, it defies straightforward or singular solutions. Communicating about climate change has been an especially thorny problem in the United States, where identity politics often undermine people’s ability to connect with one another. While a growing majority of Americans (70%) acknowledge that global warming is happening and are concerned about the harm it will do to future generations, approximately two-thirds rarely or never discuss it (Leiserowitz et al. 2018). 

For much of the past twenty-five years, climate communication focused on science and policy, and significant gains were made in terms of climate awareness and support for climate policies (Moser 2010). Yet the challenge of transitioning citizens’ awareness into engagement in discourse and action remains. Moser (2016) attributes recent advances in climate communication to developments in the cultural sphere, particularly the rise of storytelling. Storytelling is a powerful mode for shifting the discourse beyond explanations of science towards motivating action (Moser 2016).

The call in climate communication for narrative forms that allow people to see, feel, and be with climate change mirrors similar pleas in contemporary anthropology (Crate and Nutall 2009, Maggio 2014). Among other examples, existential anthropologist Michael Jackson observed that storytelling is a form of social action, a “vital strategy for sustaining a sense of agency in the face of disempowering circumstances. To reconstitute events in a story is… to actively rework them, both in dialogue with each other and within one’s own imagination” (Jackson 2002). 

As with the narrative arts (e.g., fiction and playwriting), the visual arts address key challenges of climate communication. By making problems more immediate and concrete, artists can connect people’s (in)actions to the places and communities where the effects of climate change are most intensely felt (Hawkins and Kanngieser 2017). Artful stories also transport us to another reality, indeed to another person’s reality, in ways that rhetorical communication does not. Thus, experiencing climate change through encounters with art opens minds, deepens understanding, and fosters empathy (Hawkins and Kanngieser 2017), and experiments in psychology suggest that narrative-based belief change may be stronger and more persistent than rhetoric-based belief change (Green and Brock 2000).


Crate, Susan A., and Mark Nuttall, eds. 2016. Anthropology and Climate Change: From Encounters to Action. New York: Routledge.

Giannachi, Gabriella. 2012. Representing, Performing and Mitigating Climate Change in Contemporary Art Practice. Leonardo 45 (2): 124-131.

Hawkins, Harriet, and Anja Kanngieser. 2017. Artful Climate Change Communication: Overcoming Abstractions, Insensibilities, and Distances. WIREs Climate Change 8:e472.

Jackson, Michael. 2002. Politics of Storytelling: Violence, Transgression and Intersubjectivity. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

Leiserowitz, Anthony, Edward Maibach, Connie Roser-Renouf, Seth Rosenthal, Matthew Cutler, and John Kotcher. 2018. Climate Change in the American Mind: March 2018. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Maggio, Rodolfo. 2014. The Anthropology of Storytelling and the Storytelling of Anthropology. Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology 5(2): 89-106.

Moser, Susanne C. 2010. Communicating Climate Change: History, Challenges, Processes and Future Directions. WIREs Climate Change 1: 31-53.

Moser, Susanne C. 2016. Reflections on Climate Change Communication Research and Practice in the Second Decade of the 21st Century: What More is There to Say? WIREs Climate Change 7:345–369