Young climate leaders and the power of stories

By Amy Mount, policy intern at Green Alliance and coalition coordinator for the UK Youth Climate Coalition

“From a young age, I had always wanted to design computer games, but then, aged 17, I had the opportunity to visit the Tibetan Himalayas. There, in the middle of three remote huts, was the power source for an entire village: a black sooty kettle at the focus of a set of battered old parabolic mirrors.

“I was shocked into wondering why, with all the technology available to us, we in the West are unable to power our lives sustainably, yet these people up in the world’s highest mountains can obtain all the energy they need without emitting a single gram of carbon dioxide.

“I put my application to read computer science at university in the recycling bin, and applied to do climate physics at Oxford. I’m now working on my PhD, in a team that recently found we can only burn 0.75 trillion tonnes of carbon if we want a reasonable chance of keeping warming below two degrees and avoiding “dangerous climate change”.

“We are the first generation to know of the threat of climate change, but we’re also the last that can decide to avert it. The three billion youth on this planet, and the generations to come will be affected by the choices made today. Decision-makers must make those difficult choices that will help us move away from the dark days predicted by my climate models, to the future that our children deserve.”

– Abridged speech by Niel Bowerman from the UK Youth Climate Coalition, to the Environment Agency’s national conference in 2009

In praise of stories
In the UK Youth Climate Coalition, we firmly believe in the power of stories to inspire people to take action on climate change. Stories have an ability to connect with people’s cultural values, not just to communicate the facts and figures of climate change, but to awaken our emotions, the gut feelings that stir in our bellies and motivate us to act from our hearts as well as our heads.

All the UKYCC organisers are young people themselves, so we’ve been practising how to put these tools of “public narrative” to good use: from the Environment Agency conference , to the plenary floor of the UN climate negotiations; and from talking to school assemblies, to a addressing a national climate march.

Anyone can learn how to tell a story. UKYCC has been working to train up young people across the UK to be effective communicators on climate change within their respective communities. A year ago, we put on a national event in London called Power Shift, having been fired up by watching similar events take place in the USA and Australia.

We taught the skills of public narrative to 350 budding climate activists and finished up with a funky flashdance in Parliament Square, as Greenpeace protestors sat atop the roofs of Westminster, dangling banners urging politicians to “change the politics, not the climate”.

Public narratives – listen to Obama
We were mentored through this by Marshall Ganz, of Harvard University, who developed the theory of public narrative; this forms the core of one of his teaching modules. He draws on his practical experience as a civil rights organiser in the USA since the ‘60s. More recently, his tools were used to train grassroots activists for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

There are three elements to the art of public narrative: the story of self; the story of us; and the story of now. In Ganz’s words:

A story of self communicates who I am: my values, my experience, why I do what I do. A story of us communicates who we are: our shared values, our shared experience, and why we do what we do. And a story of now articulates the present as a moment of challenge, choice, and hope.”

And importantly, these three elements must connect together to build a convincing and inspiring narrative. In the case of climate change, the narrative might explain why you feel moved to build a clean energy future, why we are called to act with you, and why we are called to act now.

One of the best examples I’ve seen of public narrative in practice is (then Senate candidate) Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, which you can watch here (20 minutes) or read here. During his speech, he moves adeptly through the stages outlined above: first talking about his background, then linking that to his audience’s lives by demonstrating shared values and aspirations, before outlining a case for action – in this case, the need to elect John Kerry as President in the upcoming elections.

Rational argument can only go so far in sparking off action on climate change, or on any other issue. Stories move us to act because they have the power to create emotions within us: hope, anger, urgency, solidarity, and a sense that we can make a difference.

Each of us has a story that can move others. What’s yours?

To arrange a training workshop on public narrative, please contact: Amy Mount amy@ukycc.org +44 (0) 7813 474986

More info:
Marshall Ganz, Harvard Kennedy School of Government http://www.hks.harvard.edu/about/faculty-staff-directory/marshall-ganz

New Organizing Institute – http://www.neworganizing.com Materials adapted for use in this workshop by UKYCC with assistance from Liz Pallatto

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