The Opportunity of Climate Change: How Faith Leaders Can Tell Its Story

A good story can transform the world.

Since the beginning of civilization, stories have shaped the human experience, highlighting deeper meaning in the world around us through expressions of faith and tradition. Scriptural narrative acts as a conduit for moral guidance that resonates and reforms over time, finding new application with every retelling. Prolific writer Robert McKee proclaimed that "storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world," reverberating long after their account is complete. Stories not only teach us something about ourselves but how to approach the decisive issues of our era by drawing on the experiences of our past.

In the faith and climate world, stories are paramount to raising awareness surrounding the urgency in forging climate solutions, as well as navigating how we discuss those issues. Stories replace the abstract and impersonal nature of climate statistics with relatable anecdotes that resonate with our audience. Ed Maibach, famed climate communicator and ecoAmerica Research Council member, shared, “Numbers numb, stories sell. We don’t deal well with numbers — it tends to suspend our sense of emotion — but we respond very well to stories. Individual stories will almost always trump a litany of statistics.”

While drawing on your audience's emotional state is a major factor in storytelling, it’s far from its only compelling characteristic. Citing the Passover Haggadah as a prime example, Joe Romm proclaims, “Moses tells the Jews to tell the story year after year after year: “You shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.'” In this sense, it is the retelling of a story that brands the Exodus deep within us, ingraining its moral message in our soul – highlighting something new with every retelling.

Oral and written transmissions of a moral story have led people of faith for millennia, incorporating elements of dance, art, and ritual praxis. For Jewish communities around the world, the retelling of the Haggadah involves more than liturgical reading. Aspects of the Exodus are at times physically replicated, calling the listener to live the migration through symbolic acts. This interactive aspect of the story, along with the compelling nature of mass migration is not only emotional but relevant, finding innovative employment with every new year. Varied applications of scriptural narrative and storytelling are abundant, and many climate leaders are finding new applications every day.

From Canadian “peer-reviewed climate rappers” to stunning visuals that capture the abstract and elusive impact of oil fracking, methods of storytelling and the positioning of ideas have reached new heights with compelling narrative arcs and the interactive tracking of our global accounts. What's unique about the current climate story is that we are collectively telling it, weaving narratives together from continent to continent through online media and global outreach. Advanced technologies enable us to emphasize the need to act on climate in new ways, using stories that are unfolding in real time. The Climate Listening Project, for example, has employed the help of faith communities and leaders including Anna Jane Joyner of Purpose, Here Now; Rev. Sally Bingham of Interfaith Power and Light; and Scott Hardin-Nieri of Creation Care Alliance of WNC to harness the power of personal climate stories.

Through the strength of narrative, The Climate Listening Project allows users to watch and hear accounts from the people who are being impacted by climate change now. As ecoAmerica's report Connecting on Climate found, when climate change is framed in a way that “brings climate impacts close to home” by “highlighting personal experiences,” we more effectively connect people to climate solutions.

While these advanced applications of climate communications have mobilized innovative technologies and art, they simultaneously harken back to a tradition which faith leaders are uniquely positioned to implement. Faith leaders are by vocation storytellers, adapting the parables of Jesus, the sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), and the poetic Jātaka tales of the Buddha. Drawing on these stories to parallel our current discourse on climate is perhaps one of the most engaging methods of climate communicating, offering means to not only spark discussion but guidelines for how to discuss it.

As Blessed Tomorrow Leader Rev. Dr. Jim Antal displays in his new video series for the Massachusetts Conference United Church of Christ, stories play a significant role in overcoming the mistakenly partisan discussion of climate change. Troubled by a survey that revealed the majority of Americans to believe that the climate is changing but find it too political to discuss in public, Rev. Antal evokes the parables of Jesus. "Almost every parable Jesus told was a political story," shared Rev. Antal, who is calling on people of faith to discuss climate issues that “advocate for laws to protect creation” in their faith communities. Quoting Bill Mckibben, Rev. Antal declared that, “Climate change is an opportunity for which the church was born.” For leaders like Rev. Antal, Churches, Mosques and Synagogues are safe spaces to shuck the partisan stigma associated with climate. Watch how skilled communicator Rev. Antal uses storytelling to empower climate leadership in this short video.

Ryan Smith is a writer at Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside. Click here to email Ryan.

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