Finding a Narrative for Climate Change

One of the hottest political topics in the UK at the minute is the cost to heat a house. Each sequential price hike by the Big Six Energy Suppliers in the UK has been met by claim and counter claim over who to blame. Within the debate, both renewables and green taxes have been pilloried by the right for forcing the poor in general, and pensioners in particular, into fuel poverty.

The left, meanwhile, has been noticeable for its silence in defending the ‘green agenda’. A low carbon policy was originally introduced and supported by all three main parties (from left to right) to mitigate climate change, but almost no-one (there are few brave exceptions) wants to champion this cause any more for fear of having the blood of frozen pensioners on their hands.

George Marshall, the insightful author of the Climate Change Denial blog, has a great post looking at the psychology of the debate. The debate, to him, has unfortunately been fitted into the standard narrative, which looks like this:

1.       Enemy + Intention → Harm to victims

2.      Hero + Intention     →  Defeats enemy and restores status quo

The left narrative has been this:

1.       Enemy (Big Business) + intention (self enrichment) → harm (high energy costs) to victims (vulnerable fuel poor)

2.      Hero (Labour party) + intention (social justice) → defeat (price freeze) and restores status quo (standard of living)

Meanwhile, the editorials of the right-wing press give us this:

1. Enemy (Environmental extremism) + intention (ideological zealotry) → harm (green taxes/suffering) to victims (vulnerable)

And PM David Cameron provides us with this:

2. Hero (Conservative party) + intention (defending freedom) → defeat (roll back taxes) and restores status quo (freedom/standard of living).

As a diversion, my own take on the debate is that the main driver of price rises has little to do  with the predatory pricing of evil capitalists or green taxes. A recent House of Commons Library Statistical Briefing by Paul Bolton gives you most of the numbers you need to understand the back story. The chart below shows the inflation-adjusted (deflated by the retail price index) cost of various fuels (click for larger image):

UK Fuel Prices jpeg

The report specifies the five main components of the fuel bill:

Broadly speaking there are five elements that make up a customer’s energy bill; the wholesale cost of fuel, the costs of supply – transmission, distribution and metering  –  costs of Government/EU policy, VAT and supplier margins.

Ofgem estimates that wholesale fuel costs are the largest single element; 44% of typical dual fuel bills in October 2013. The costs of supply are thought to be next most important; around 25% of a typical electricity and 22% of a typical gas bill in December 2012. Costs of policy are higher for electricity than gas, 11% compared to 6% according to Ofgem, but estimates vary depending on which policies are included. VAT has remained at 5% since 1997. Ofgem’s October 2013 estimate of supplier margins for a dual fuel customer was 5% of their bill and company operating costs around 10%.

And from the Department of Energy and Climate Change latest Quarterly Energy Prices report, we can get this table (click for larger image):

Average Price Paid Energy copy

In short: higher wholesale prices lead to higher retail prices. QED.

But back to the climate change narrative. Even if the principal driver of higher heating costs are the rising prices for oil, natural gas and coal (set far beyond the shores of the UK), aren’t the ‘tree huggers’ making things even worse by diverting scarce resources to expensive renewables (my prediction of how the right-wing narrative will evolve)? And shouldn’t we retreat to coal, which of the three main fuels has seen the smallest price rise (better not to freeze now, even if we bake later, perhaps)?

Meanwhile, as Marshall points out, the climate change campaign camp have cast around for their own narratives, that could be put thus (my words riffing off Marshall’s characterisation of Bill McKibben):

1. Enemy (Big Oil, right-wing libertarian extremism financed by evil billionaires like the Koch brothers) + intention (self-enrichment, ideological zealotry) → harm (climate change impacts) to victims (our children and grandchildren)

At this point, Marshall calls time and says he doesn’t want to play the game of narratives anymore:

The best chance for climate change to beat enemy narratives is to refuse to play this partisan game at all. We are all responsible. We are all involved and we all have a stake in the outcome. We are all struggling to resolve our concern and our responsibility for our contributions. Narratives need to be about co-operation common ground-and solutions need to be presented that can speak to the common concerns and aspirations of all people.

And, while I have been in agreement with almost everything Marshall has said up to now, this is where I part company with him. We are in a ‘partisan narrative’ game whether we like it or not. The mainstream media has always used partisan narratives to sell stories—and always will. As for the social media—well. Once we could dream of dispassionate citizen journalists, each with his or her own particular expertise, imparting the truth to all—(and free to boot); instead, we have the vitriol of a million partisan trolls, more vindictive, violent and foul-mouthed than anything that has ever gone before.

In short, we may decide not to play any more, but the game will go on without us. Tough.

But don’t despair, we have a couple of big advantages in this narrative game: science and economics. The climate will warm and the weather will get more extreme, regardless. The climate change denial movement really does have no clothes. Moreover, non-carbon energy sources are coming down their cost curves, while fossil fuel energy sources are going up their ones. You can argue about when exactly these curves cross: but they will cross. Fossil fuel grows ever more expensive (remember unconventional oil and gas is a euphemism for expensive oil and gas) and solar and such grows ever cheaper.

So the narrative is:

1.       Enemy (Big Fossil Fuel, right-wing extremism) + intention (self enrichment, ideological zealotry) → harm (high energy costs and climate change) to victims (everyone, but especially our children and grandchildren, now and into the future)

2.      Hero (non-fossil fuel energy providers) + intention (replace fossil fuel with lower cost alternatives that doesn’t harm environment) → defeat (energy oligarchy at home and abroad) and improves on former status quo (standard of living, national self-sufficiency, community and individual empowerment)

OK, true, we don’t have much time, but we do have a powerful narrative that has firm, logical, scientific foundations. And we shouldn’t be afraid to push it.

3 responses to “Finding a Narrative for Climate Change

  1. Part of the narrative issue is where to pitch the ‘storm warning’. Those who take an interest in these things rate it as 8 to 10 out of 10 that mankind is in deep trouble; the public scores the risks as 0 to 2 out of ten. Therefore we have to pitch at 5 out of 10 or the public just switch off and filter out us ‘nutters’.

  2. Matthew: That’s true. George Marshall in a previous post looked at these storm warning narratives (

    “Environmental campaigners try to create deadlines in terms of emissions targets, with countdowns towards some supposed atmospheric tipping point. Two recent examples from 2007 and 2008 are a celebrity campaign called Global Cool which announced 10 years to ‘save the planet’ and the London based New Economics Foundation which launched the campaign ’100 months to save our climate’.

    I fear that these deadlines are so coded with environmentalist language about saving and defending things and the threat that ‘if you do not do what we say then this will happen’ that they do little to engage the wider society and, unfortunately, can easily feed an already well fueled prejudice about greens overstating their case.

    These campaigns aim to create a sense of urgency through an impending deadline, but their real weakness is that this deadline feels imposed and artificial. Of course we don’t really blow up in 38 months from today, even though the ticking bomb style countdown on the 100 months to save the planet website implies that metaphorically. The problem is that, come that deadline, it will probably all feel fine, just as we have happily gone through a clutch of previous deadlines. It is not really 100 months to save the world so much as 100 months before the odds shift into a greater likelihood of feedbacks- which is certainly less catchy.”

    The problem is that his proposed alternative narrative of “a new climate starts in 2047” doesn’t get us very far either – too far away for the majority of people to care. I’m increasingly of the view that the only way to change perceptions is to push fossil fuel energy on its coming economic merits not on its social ones.

  3. I disagree that we are stuck with partisan narratives. Divisiveness is the opposite of what we need for a global problem. We’re really all in this together. The old fighting-with-neighboring-tribes approach will only hasten our demise. Climate Justice has to be part of our global strategy. One population can not create a sustainable planet on the backs of others. I see a self-transformation narrative, in which everyone on the planet participates, as our key to survival. See my response at

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