The overwhelming impacts of the current climate crisis are widely acknowledged by scientists, governments and - more recently - the general public. Despite this common understanding, policies and concrete action have been slow to materialise, and it can be daunting for people to consider how they might help. Policy-makers and researchers can provide technical solutions to reduce the impacts of disasters or to adapt to those impacts. However, the potential for narratives and storytelling to reach a much broader audience is often overlooked. People understand their local community better than anyone else, so why not harness that knowledge and encourage the sharing of narratives to change behaviour? This article describes work carried out as part of the EU Horizon 2020 project PLACARD (Platform for Climate Adaptation and Risk Reduction), in which strategic “narratives” (i.e. stories with a purpose in mind) were explored as “soft” policy tools to facilitate actions, across scales, on climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction, for a climate-resilient future.
The concept of strategic narratives is quite new (and still underestimated) in the domains of climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. However, in other fields, such as international relations, it has proven to be effective and is widely recognised and used.
Scholars in international relations refer to strategic narratives as “soft power in the 21st century”. In the post-Cold War political scene, strategic narratives were used to create the new world order (Roselle et al., 2014). These narratives determine acceptable (or not) actions, legitimised (or not) policies, and building on and attracting shared meanings and values, involving feelings and / or emotions (Nye Jr., 2008; Miskimmon et al., 2013).
Cognitive psychologists and neuropsychologists confirm that that it makes sense to argue this way. As humans, we are exposed to stories from early childhood (e.g. bedtime stories). We understand and produce stories of our own in order to learn and develop social skills. Therefore, it is not surprising that our brain is very used to processing stories, even better than pure explanatory texts or data. According to the new cognitive psychological models, stories can also induce “mental simulations” by experiencing corresponding emotions (Mar 2004), which are considered as particularly effective triggers for action.
Using strategic narratives for prevention and preparedness can potentially facilitate climate adaptation and risk reduction, thereby supporting existing resilience policies. However, constructing such narratives is anything but trivial. A successful strategic narrative must be tailored to the selected Target Group (one size does not fit all) and context. Here the prevailing norms and values of the Target Group, previous experiences, as well as many personal factors such as origin or education need to be appropriately considered. The credibility of the narrator is also decisive for the strategic success of a narrative.
The PLACARD Recipe Book (which is available at the web-link below) provides a compact guide to help you to design effective strategic narratives for disaster preparedness and resilience, and is based on the results of a series of PLACARD workshops involving practitioners and scholars in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction.
Gabriela Michalek and Reimund Schwarze, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), Germany, and Ingrid Coninx, Wageningen University and Research, the Netherlands
For more information:
* Mar, R.A. 2004. The neuropsychology of narrative: story comprehension, story production and their interrelation. Neuropsychologia, Vol. 42 (10). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2003.12.016
* Miskimmon, A. B. O'Loughlin, and L. Roselle. 2013. Strategic Narratives: Communication Power and the New World Order. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-71760-1.
v Nye Jr., J.S. 2008. The Powers to Lead. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-533562-0.
* Roselle, L., A. Miskimmon, and B. O’Loughlin. 2014. Strategic narrative: A new means to understand soft power. Media, War & Conflict, Vol. 7 (10). https://doi.org/10.1177/1750635213516696
CAPTION FOR FIGURE: [ Cartoon by Bertram de Rooij, Wageningen University and Research / PLACARD Project. ]