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Can We Create a Positive, Real-Life Cli-Fi?

Read for your weekend: Gayathri Vaidyanathan’s “Imaging a climate-change future, without the dystopia,” posted by PNAS on their Medium account.

The premise: Narratives about climate change are now overwhelmingly negative — negative to the point of dystopian. (See cli-fi.)

All this negativity induces passivity.

So how do you create positive climate visions and narratives — ones that acknowledge the threats of climate, but draw on human creativity and agency to address it and prepare for its impacts?

One potential answer, as Vaidyanathan details: Put researchers together with urban planners, community representatives and non-profits to create those visions and plans — stretching out to 2080.

Essentially: Start creating positive cli-fi with the people who can make it happen.

The Urban Resilience to Extremes (UREx) Sustainability Research Network is doing just that — and its outputs, Vaidyanathan says, are informing resilience planning in Phoenix, San Juan, Miami and Valdivia, Chile.

Imagining futures allows planners to see climate planning in terms of benefits, not just costs. But the space to create those futures works on a more basic level, according to Timon McPhearson of the Urban Systems Lab at The New School:

“It’s difficult to know where you are going if you don’t have a clear vision of what that future should look like, in particular, a positive vision that you could get excited about and motivated to really make a transformative change.”

The two questions I have after reading Vaidyanathan’s piece:

  1. How would we begin to communicate such work, to amplify it and turn it into an empowering public narrative?
  2. Would such communication ever gain traction, given the climate of climate change communication? Won’t it just be labeled as waving the white flag of adaptation?

I’m thinking about that second question a lot in the light of a new Medium essay by climate change opinion researcher Matthew Nisbet, which says climate change debates aren’t just polarized — they’re demonized.

He cites recent research finding that more than 40 percent of Americans view the political party they don’t identify with as “downright evil.” Nearly one out of five respondents in this research agreed that their political opponents were less than fully human.

Nisbet’s also concerned good vs. evil tribalism is starting to divide climate activists from each other — specifically, supporters of the Green New Deal from others who want climate action…just not Green New Deal-level action. In the GND framework, he says, being a moderate is equivalent to being a climate denier.

Nisbet’s solution? Get off social media, which is designed to foster groupthink and drive us apart. Practice digital minimalism. Recreate space for contemplation, civil civic engagement, and common ground.

Yeah, I know.

But the problem with Nisbet’s argument isn’t just that no one’s renouncing Facebook.

It’s that climate narratives — scientific as well as activist — now rely on a good vs. evil framework.

Don’t act in a maximalist way on climate change, and you’re essentially committing genocide on the future.

The space for talking about and investing the public in positive, real-life cli-fi such as UREx has vanished. For instance, urban climate positive design has stalled.

When you take away hope, you take away engagement and empowerment, as this 2018 survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication shows: