Telling stories: A multi-disciplinary co-production device

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Dianne Scott and Chris Jack (co-authored)

What are narratives? Narratives are really just an academic way of talking about stories. Narratives, or stories, have a number of important elements. They describe different actors that can be people, institutions, environments, species, etc. Some actors may be villains, others may be victims, yet others may be saviours. Narratives also describe relationships between actors. Finally, they have a time component in that they describe the evolution of the actors and their relationships through time.

So what have narratives got to do with climate change research? Well telling stories is probably the most elemental means by which humans deal with complexity. Humans are remarkably effective at turning vast amounts of information into stories that make some sense of that information. Whether the resultant stories are accurate reflections of reality is another question of course! Not only are stories necessarily simplifications of reality but we also have a tendency to seek out or focus on evidence that supports our existing beliefs and narratives. This tendency is commonly called confirmation bias and is a real challenge to those producing new information to inform people and decisions, particularly if that new information contradicts existing narratives.

We’ll see below that various types of narratives already exist implicitly and explicitly in policies, debates, and other decision-making processes around climate change (as well as many other issues). Integrating climate science into decision making requires engaging with a vast array of data, some of which is very complex and/or contradictory. Perhaps, if narratives are a natural way of dealing with complex information, and policies already contain narratives, constructing new narratives can be a useful means of integrating climate science into decision making?

In the FRACTAL project, narratives are being considered from two different angles:

Narrative Analysis

In the communication of climate change, ‘stories’ have increasingly been used to present particular messages about climate change and these serve to shape opinions and ultimately influence decision-making at the city level (Fløttum et al, 2013a). For example, an article in the Huffington Post reported that a number of climate narratives about climate change were apparent at the Paris COP, namely, the ‘official optimist narrative; the ‘protestor narrative’; the ‘North vs. South narrative’; the ‘denier narrative’; the ‘doomsday narrative’ and the ‘’hard change’ narrative’ (Flottum, 2014; Flottum and Gjerstad, 2013a, 2013b, 2017). More generally there are widely visible narratives such as the “polar bear” narrative, and the “climate justice” narrative with their respective villains and victims. In other bodies of literature, these climate change narratives have alternatively been termed discourse.

A recent innovative idea from political scientists is to conceptualise climate change policies as narratives. They argue that narratives provide a storyline for communicating why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible for it, what should be done about it, and the ‘moral responsibilities’ of various actors. A story always has actors so the analysis of the narrative includes looking at the various actors in the story, the hero, the villains and the victims. The narrative analysis approach being explored in FRACTAL is used to identify the story that is evident in a specific text or talk (debate) with a storyline]. Analysing the narrative involves undertaking a textual analysis or listening in on a debate or conversation between actors. It is claimed that that policies produced by political actors and bureaucrats are narratives and have the same structure, or story-telling sequence as do all narratives, namely:

  1. The initial situation (the intrigue, and tension between different actors and events, and conditions which determine the initial situation)
  2. The complication (some kind of problem or complication is presented in the narrative with many different actors, e.g. society, nature, individuals)
  3. Reactions (this is a sequence of events detailing explicitly or implicitly a range of recommendations or possible responses to the problem – here ethical factors may be advanced as reasons for particular responses)
  4. Resolution (the decision to propose a particular response to the problem)
  5. Final situation (an argument showing the outcomes of making such a chosen response to the problem).

Policy narratives do not have to consist of all five stages, but stages two, three and four are essential as they form the core of the narrative.

An interesting example of the analysis of a climate narrative is an analysis of the South African National Climate Change Response White Paper published in 2011 in order to understand to what extent social justice and poverty are part of the ‘story’ presented in the policy. Their findings show that although South Africa is a developing country and the poor are the most likely to suffer and the least able to adapt to climate change, there is very little in the narrative referring to social justice and poverty in the White Paper.

This example shows that a narrative analysis can be very useful alternative way of understanding a policy or any other piece of information informing decisions. Better understanding the underlying narratives within urban decision making could help us better understand why certain decisions are made and how to promote more informed decisions being made in the future.

Climate Risk Narratives

The second part of the engagement with narratives in the FRACTAL project involves developing new climate risk narratives for the case study cities. These narratives are being produced to communicate complex and uncertain climate science evidence to decision makers. Building on the understanding that people naturally use narratives as a means of comprehending complex and diverse information, the idea of climate risk narratives is to support or encourage people to construct scientifically defensible narratives. Over many years of experience presenting climate science evidence to non-climate scientists (and even in some case other climate scientists), it has become apparent to researchers in CSAG that people rapidly construct simplified narratives based partly on interpretations of the new evidence, and partly on prior beliefs or evidence. This is a very natural response and occurs within climate science itself where, for example, simplified narrative explanations of complex phenomena are frequently cited in discussions even though the scientific evidence is extremely complex and uncertain. Explicit development of climate risk narratives informed by the scientific evidence, but through a co-production approach with decision makers, has the potential to result in scientifically defensible and robust climate risk narratives replacing poorly informed and indefensible climate risk narratives resulting from miscommunication or misinterpretation of subsets of the scientific evidence.

The climate risk narratives are initially being developed in order to present in the Learning labs of each of the Tier 1 cities (Lusaka, Maputo and Windhoek) and there is a plan to provide these as a form of climate communication to the Tier 2 cities (Gaberone, Harare and Lilongwe). In addition, climate narratives have also been prepared for the City of Cape Town, a self-funded partner, at their request. These efforts of CSAG are part of their communication efforts which have shifted from a ‘transmission approach’ of providing information to co-exploring which information is needed with stakeholders (Steynor et al,2016) . Chris Jack, a climate scientist, in his concept note on Climate Risk Narratives argues that risk narratives are tools designed to “better communicate complex climate analyses as well as support the refinement of the questions asked or description of risks relevant in a particular context “ and as such should be used as ‘conversation starters’ with city partners in the Learning Lab engagement processes.

Narratives as inter-disciplinary knowledge generation

Finally, what we would like to raise in this blog is the possibility of considering narratives, both the analysis of and the construction of, as a useful inter-disciplinary knowledge generation device. The analysis of policy narratives and other narratives through a multi-disciplinary lens has the potential to add real depth to the understanding of policy. Equally, the construction of climate risk narratives through a co-production, multi-disciplinary, iterative approach, as proposed in FRACTAL, allows multiple knowledge holders to participate and contribute to the narratives. Combining these two, the understanding of existing narratives and the construction of new narratives, has the potential to significantly alter the way climate research integrates into ongoing policy development and decision making informed by policies and climate information. Climate risk narratives arguably need to relate to existing narratives whether that relationship is supportive or critical. Likewise, future policy developments need to be responsive to scientifically defensible and evidence-based climate risk narratives.

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