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Could telling better stories about climate change save the planet?

In Sweden, one man is helping cities reach net zero using one of humanity’s oldest tools: telling stories. He believes it’s time to change the narrative on climate change.

It might be the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, but when it comes to stories about climate change, many people simply switch off. 

Well, what if there was a way to engage the public with climate change by telling a different kind of story? In Sweden, that’s exactly what the government is banking on. 

Several years ago, the government funded a large innovation project, Viable Cities, to help 23 Swedish cities reach carbon neutrality by 2030. 

While most employees on the programme are focusing on strategy, implementation and other standard functions, there’s one role that’s totally unique in the organisation, and possibly the world: Chief storyteller.

The role is currently held by Per Grankvist, a journalist and climate change expert whose philosophy contradicts decades of received wisdom that simply presenting people with the facts will change their minds.

“When it comes to climate change, storytelling is much more important than transmission of facts. Just bombarding people with facts doesn’t work, and neither does shaming people,” he explains. 

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In a clear indication that Boris Johnson’s “partygate” antics have had international cut-through, he illustrates this with an example: 

“Even when people know it’s a lockdown, they still want to have a garden party”. 

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Where we have told stories about climate change, Grankvist says, we’ve relied too heavily on narratives that are unrelatable and unengaging. 

“When we tell stories about climate change in the future there’s the utopian view and the dystopian view – or there’s the “reverse history” method where you start in the future and point out where everything went wrong.

“The problem is, none of these work [at motivating change] because you can’t relate to them. You might understand them, but you don’t relate to them on an emotional level,” he explains.

As chief storyteller, Grankvist’s task is to devise a “method” for storytelling that makes a carbon-neutral future feel real, relatable and achievable to his audience, bridging the gap between 2022 and 2030. 

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The final product will be a collection of stories, presented to decision-makers and politicians, to help them connect emotionally with the future and – it’s hoped – steer policy and the public in the right direction.

If you’re thinking such grand aims have been attempted before, you’d be right – so what makes Grankvist’s stories so different?

“Well, the stories are pretty boring,” he says, only half-joking. “Because our lives are boring”. 

So far, Viable Cities has created several different stories, each following a person throughout the day as they work, sleep, socialise and eat in different Swedish cities in 2030. 

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Grantkvist is right when he says the stories won’t be in line for the next Pulitzer – but the mundanity, and more importantly, the everyday friction built into the stories, is precisely the point. 

In one story, a woman in Malmö takes her bike to work before it’s stolen halfway through the day. In another, a man gets too drunk to take his bike home from a bar, and has to hire an autonomous car to get home. One woman is so tired and frustrated at the end of her day that she gorges on junk food. 

“Whenever we describe the future usually, it’s in rosy optimistic terms – there’ll be flying cars, everything will be clean and everyone will vote for the Green Party – but for some people that’s a dystopia,” Grantkvist says. 

Instead, Grantkvist’s stories incorporate the everyday realities of being human that plague us now and will still plague us in the future – missed appointments, inconveniences, illness and pain. 

“You can relate to all these feelings of annoyance. That’s why in some stories there’s smoking and drinking, there’s people being angry and people living on really poor diets.” 

Presented in a Powerpoint, the stories also break down, frame-by-frame, how each decision was made possible, whether by government interventions, personal choice or private funding. 

Broadly positive, yet realistic, Grankvist says this method of storytelling helps to avoid  evoking feelings of loss often associated with stories about sustainable futures.

“Whenever we talk about climate change, people think it means they’ll have their car taken away, never eat meat again and never fly to Spain. That’s a frightening future for many people. 

“The key message is that yes our life will change, but our quality of life won’t be diminished,” he says. 

Most importantly, Grankvist’s stories aim to bridge the gap between being told change needs to occur, and the change actually happening. 

“If you just tell people to change without showing them how that change will actually look, people will instantly say ‘oh sure, I’ll change, but you go first,” he says.

Grankvist’s hope is that the stories will encourage politicians to “be brave”, and look beyond their short-term concerns about re-election to take bolder action on climate change now. In time, it could shake up policy around the world. 

“We all have a storyteller in us – we use it privately when we’re telling someone what happened at that wedding or why we were late to that meeting,” he says.

“The issue is that when it comes to climate change we get so serious. We don’t appreciate the power of the arts enough – we don’t appreciate that we can be playful and urgent at the same time.

“Climate change has serious solutions, but this is about tackling it in a different way.”

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