What role does storytelling play in climate change? 

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How do you translate complex research about climate change so that the general public can understand? Planet Forward is a multimedia project at George Washington University that combines climate change activism and storytelling. On Thursday, April 7, Frank Sesno hosted the 2022 Planet Forward Summit, where environmental activists all over the world discussed the opportunities for students to get involved, actions that can be taken, the importance of environmental journalism and awards for environmental storytellers.  

Scott Wallace, a professor of environmental journalism and Zoey London, an eighth-semester student studying population health, disease and policy hosted a live streaming of the event in Oak Hall.  

“The climate crisis is complicated by so many other crises we know so well,” Sesno said. “Russia, Ukraine, politics and polarization, division and disinformation. But, there are incredible efforts underway — research, inventions, innovation, progress — and those are stories we have to tell as well, to inform and give hope. Planet Forward is a multimedia platform for students from all around the country and all around the world to publish stories that explore some of these inventions and innovations and the problems with the idea of solutions to move the planet forward.” 

“consider who’s in the room with you or who you work with, what voices are represented and who’s missing from those conversations. unfortunately, studies have shown that those vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and the crisis — black communities, indigenous communities, communities of color, low-income communities — are also often not represented in climate change conversations or in rooms like…this and that’s a huge problem.”

Matt Scott

The summit dedicated a feature to Thomas Lovejoy, an ecologist who founded the Amazon Biodiversity Center. Lovejoy also coined the term biological diversity in 1980. Additionally, the summit featured guest speakers like José Andrés, chef and founder of World Central Kitchen, Jocelyn Brown Hall, director of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Arati Kumar-Rao, National Geographic explorer and Matt Scott, manager of storytelling and engagement of Project Drawdown. 

“Consider who’s in the room with you or who you work with, what voices are represented and who’s missing from those conversations,” Scott said. “Unfortunately, studies have shown that those vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and the crisis — Black communities, indigenous communities, communities of color, low-income communities — are also often not represented in climate conversations or in rooms like … this, and that’s a huge problem.” 

Project Drawdown is a non-profit organization based on a book written by Paul Hawkin titled “Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming.” The organization describes solutions to climate change and ways to engage in environmental activism.  

Scott worked on “Passing the Mic,” a documentary focused on underrepresented communities and what they think are some solutions to climate change. Scott interviewed Eli Chen, senior editor of the Overheard podcast at National Geographic. Chen focuses particularly in giving voices to women of color and looking at how climate change has impacted them.  

“I HAVEN’T EVEN EXPLORED JOURNALISM PRIOR TO TAKING THIS CLASS. A HUGE ROLE THAT I HAVE SEEN AT UCONN IS EXPANDING ENVIRONMENTAL JOURNALISM TO ENCOMPASS MORE DISCIPLINES THAN JUST THE ONES TRADITIONALLY THOUGHT OF BEING STORYTELLING-BASED. SO I THINK A LOT OF IT IS JUST ACKNOWLEDGING CLIMATE CHANGE IMPACTS ALL AREAS OF STUDY, NOT JUST THE EARTH-SCIENCE BASED ONES, AND THAT STORYTELLING SHOULD BE TAKING AN ACTIVE ROLE IN BRINGING MORE VOICES TO THE CONVERSATION, NOT JUST THE ONES TRADITIONALLY THOUGHT OF.”

Zoey London

Andrés is currently in Ukraine aiding relief efforts. Kumar-Rao performed a spoken word about the flooding of the Ganges river in India and the effects it can have on local communities.  

“Stories have the power to illuminate the interconnectedness, interdependencies, within a biogeographic region, beyond political boundaries and thus help frame policies that do not undermine the innate resilience of landscape and of its senescence, both human and nonhuman, such that they can combat anything that nature might throw at them,” Kumar-Rao said.  

At UConn, Wallace contributes to Planet Forward’s purpose of environmental storytelling by encouraging students to create their own stories about the climate as well as to write about specific environmental topics in his environmental journalism course at UConn. Students take field trips to farms to learn more about the impacts of agriculture on the environment. Wallace added that he invited Mike Dietz, extension educator at the UConn Connecticut Institute of Water Resources, to talk about UConn’s effort to reduce pollutants that can rise from stormwater. 

London previously took Wallace’s class during the fall 2021 semester and felt that it was impactful to her career. Last year, she published an article for Planet Forward about the anxieties that can come with fighting climate change among adolescents. Another one of her most memorable projects in the class was on the sustainability of dairy farming. But most importantly, she enjoyed learning about how natural scientists can take part in the storytelling aspect of climate change.   

“I haven’t even explored journalism prior to taking this class,” London said. “A huge role that I have seen at UConn is expanding environmental journalism to encompass more disciplines than just the ones traditionally thought of being storytelling-based. So, I think a lot of it is just acknowledging climate change impacts all areas of study, not just the earth science-based ones, and that storytelling should be taking an active role in bringing more voices to the conversation, not just the ones traditionally thought of.” 

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