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Telling tales for adaptation


Priestley PhD researcher, Rachel Harcourt, shares insights from her research in narrating climate change impacts and adaptation.

The UK’s weather and climate is changing and this is bringing new risks to communities living here. Experts advise that people should consider taking adaptive actions so as to better protect themselves from climate-related impacts. For example, they might sign up to flood warnings or change their schedule to avoid the hottest part of the day. But research to date finds that while people generally agree that the UK should be preparing for a changing climate, their personal engagement and the likelihood of taking action is low.

Engaging UK residents in why they should be preparing for climate change impacts and how they can do that is a significant communication challenge. As part of my PhD research, I recently led three adaptation storytelling workshops with 12 participants from the greater Leeds area. My objectives were to learn more about what people already know and think about adaptation, and to test the use of stories as a way of engaging with the topic.

Why use stories?

Humans have an inherent tendency to shape their experiences as stories. Stories mirror the way we think about our own lives: they’re set in a specific time and place, include a cast of characters, and are driven by events and emotions. This means that talking about adaptation as a story might make it easier for people to relate to.

Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. In these workshops, participants were first asked to craft a beginning, describing their story-world and a climate related event which disrupts this world in some way. In the middle, they wrote about somebody taking some responsive actions. At the end, the stories described the effect of the response actions and whether their objectives had been achieved or not.

Many stories featured a disruptive event like the Morpeth floods in 2008. Credit: johndal

Participants were asked to think about what changed and what stayed the same during the story in regards to behaviours, values and priorities. The choices that people make as they write their stories can tell us a lot about what is important and meaningful to them when thinking about the topic of adaptation.

Participants’ stories

Many of the stories that emerged in these workshops were based in family or community settings, in towns or cities familiar to the local area. When the disruptive events happened the stories focused on how these affected people’s lives. For example, in one story a previously happy family started to fight after having to move to a hotel when their home was flooded. In another story, a flood destroyed the mine which employed many of the residents, so young families had to move away to find work. And in several of the stories access to good quality, locally grown food became severely limited.

Sometimes the national or local government was in charge of responding, for example, by leading the immediate clean up and issuing legislation to prevent similar future events. In others, action was led by the community and their efforts tended to focus on sustainability, such as planting local crops and installing renewable energy sources.

Stories included positive outcomes like community gardening. Credit: NCVO London

By the end of these stories, many of the communities felt better prepared for similar events that they thought would happen again. In some cases the events initiated a stronger sense of working together and greater commitment to sustainable lifestyles. Even though the initial events were always described as having immediate negative consequences, the endings often described positive outcomes.

Learnings for engagement

The participants found storytelling a useful and enjoyable way to think about adaptation in the UK with one participant saying it was the first story she’d written since she left school 60 years ago! The themes that ran across many of the stories indicate areas of interest or value for people when they think about adaptation. These learnings might be useful for those tasked with engaging people in climate adaptation:

  • Real life context: The stories focused much less on the events themselves than on how they impacted daily life, such as family, jobs, leisure time and food. Often climate change can seem quite abstract and distant. Placing climate change impacts within the context of people’s daily lives can make the topic more approachable and more relevant.
  • Actionable roles: Often the stories focused on actions which might reduce greenhouse gas emissions in efforts to reduce the likelihood of similar or worse future events. While this is a valid and important approach it also suggests a knowledge gap about adaptation actions which could be addressed. Additionally, in some stories people were dependent on the government and other organisations for support. There is an opportunity for communications to present a range of roles that individuals can play in the adaptation story, as family members, community members, political citizens, leaders etc.
  • Avoid doom and gloom: Most stories presented the climate related events as part of a pattern caused by climate change, with the assumption that more would follow. Nevertheless there was an expectation that, while this was a very serious problem, communities would be able to cope with it and even improve in the process. Often climate coverage uses disaster narratives and there’s a tendency to focus on impacts more than adaptation. Targeted communications might make use of the realistic but positive tone common to these stories.

This research has provided an opportunity to explore in depth what a small group of participants know and think about adaptation in the UK. A follow-up survey with a nationally representative sample is now being prepared to understand whether communications developed in line with these learnings increase people’s engagement with adaptation.

Thanks to the Priestley Centre for funding this research.