A Novel approach to climate communication

You guys aren’t popular. Maybe your medicine’s too bitter. Or you’re not selling to us. Maybe you’re writing us off, thinking we won’t get it....

Just a few reasons, as articulated by the protagonist of Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, why scientists who step up to talk about the facts on climate change are so often ignored.

The novel, Flight Behaviour, covers an incredible amount of territory in four-hundred and thirty-three pages. The ICCP has come up with 40 narratives about climate-affected world, but Kingsolver focuses on just one - and it is not set in the future, but in a fictional town that feels very much in the present.

The story’s single event is a blip among many in the new-cycle, a great opportunity for a reporter adept at crafting a story the tv-news audience will love, and a major teachable-moment for the book’s main character, Dellarobia Turnbow. She embraces the chance to learn, and with a whole new world opened up to her, she can’t turn back. Too bad her new world, shaped by learning and science, means accepting hard truths and a future for her children which is both brighter and severely compromised.

I suspect the reason so few novelists take climate change on as a subject is that its hard not to come off sounding preachy. But among her talents as an author, Kingsolver has a knack for telling the story from different perspectives, and its clear that she respects the differences. What are the differences, so clear and well articulated in Flight Behaviour?

...teams get picked, and then the beliefs get handed around. Team camo, we get the right to bear arms and John Deere and the canning jars and tough love and taking care of our own. The other side wears I don’t know what, something expensive. They get recycling and population control and lattes and as many second chances as anybody wants. Students e-mailing to tell you they deserve their A’s.

Kingsolver takes on the task of imagining how these two worlds might meet - and hold a productive conversation. Coming to a place of understanding is a long, arduous and emotional process, fraught with potential derailments. The climate-science side can’t make itself understood in a news clip, or even a three minute feature. In the story, the news media certainly takes a beating, but not so much for the length of its segments but for caring enough to tell the story as it actually matters.

I’ve just scratched the surface of what this novel says about climate change and its accompanying communication gap, not to mention its tip-of-the-hat to climate-despair. There’s a lot to learn from  Flight Behaviour, including sound, extensive and comprehensible scientific explanations. (Prior to  becoming an author at the age of 33, Kingsolver worked as a biologist.)

The book is also great motivation to look at other, fictional, narratives about climate change. As noted by Adam Trexler:

What the [IPCC] emissions scenarios struggle to incorporate is a deeper level of complexity: the interrelated personal, aesthetic, social, and political choices people make as they react to changes in the climate around them. Novels typically explore this very range, tracing the interactions between personal perspectives and the larger forces of society, politics, and environment.

Or, as Kingsolver herself puts it, in a novel:

... you can introduce ideas to people in a non-threatening way. You can introduce science to people who didn't know they were interested in science. You can also talk about how people come to their truths, which was really a big part of this novel ultimately... A novel has to be about people.

A great novel is a conversation in itself, and hopefully they can inform how we can make our own conversations more productive.

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