How Storytelling Helps Combat the Climate Crisis

A Conversation with PBS, WHYY and PCSSM about Solutions-Driven Climate Storytelling

Vanessa Schipani

Vanessa Schipani is a PhD Candidate in Philosophy at Penn and prior to the PhD was a journalist for over 10 years, including for

If someone were to ask you – what tools do we need to combat climate change? – a few things might first come to mind. We undoubtedly need laws aimed at reducing fossil fuel emissions, such as a tax on carbon. We also need innovative, scalable technologies for building more efficient electric cars and pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.

But in a democracy, there’s another tool that is at least as essential as these to overcoming climate change: effective solutions-driven storytelling. Promoting and studying this form of communication is central to the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media’s (PCSSM) mission. In conversation with filmmakers, journalists and leaders at Penn, PBS and WHYY, Philadelphia’s local PBS station, it was the topic of discussion at a recent panel event organized by the center held on September 12.

“As we continue to witness devastating climate disasters that now play out on a seemingly daily basis, the mission to communicate the science and its implications to the public and policymakers has become ever more essential,” said Dr. Michael Mann, PCSSM Director and Presidential Distinguished Professor at Penn. “Effective communication means connecting with not just people’s heads, but also their hearts. Compelling narratives and storytelling are essential in that effort. I can think of no organization that does a better job of that than PBS.” 

Bill Gardner, Vice President of Multiplatform Programming and Head of Development at PBS, moderated the first of two panels. He posed one of his first questions to Dr. Shane Campbell-Staton, a biologist and the host of PBS’s Human Footprint series: “How do your roles as both a television host and scientist interact when telling stories?”

Campbell-Staton said that he’s gone into a lot of episodes thinking he was the expert, but after talking with “people who are intimately connected with the subject, he’ll often find himself admitting he “didn’t really know all that much.” The show then follows him on that journey of experiencing different cultures and places and takes the audience along for the ride.

No matter where you come from or your political background, “the thing that everyone loves universally is a story,” added Campbell-Staton. “It’s easy to dismiss an idea, but it’s a lot harder to dismiss a person,” he said, which means that “telling people’s stories” must be central to communicating the climate crisis.

Fay Yu, the Executive Producer of PBS’s America Outdoors series, agreed with Campbell-Staton that person-centered stories are key. America Outdoors isn’t explicitly about climate change, she said, it’s about people’s connection, either through work or play, to the outdoors. But “you can’t have a show about people’s experience with the outdoors without facing the climate problem every single episode,” she said. “These are just people telling honest stories with no agenda,” which “reflects back on the audience because they’ve probably had similar experiences in their own lives.”

Social media can also be an important tool for directly engaging with audiences, said Maribel Lopez, Head of PBS Digital Studios. “We use our audience to inform the types of programs we’re going to create. We can simply ask them on social media, and, once we start to see themes, we know we need to do an episode on that subject,” she said. “There’s nothing more powerful than that because we want to help tell their stories, especially for younger audiences.”

When it comes to climate storytelling, especially for the youth, members of our own community here in Philly are also taking part. That includes Dr. Bethany Wiggin, Director of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, who discussed her project, My Climate Story, with local schools. “In a moment of despair, I thought, ‘what can I do?’ I’m a literature professor and an environmentalist, so working with my students here at Penn I’ve grown a curriculum that helps people tell their own climate story,” she said. “We share those stories as a resource for teachers,” who then use it to help their students tell their own climate stories.

Susan Phillips, Senior Reporter and Editor for WHYY News Climate Desk, moderated the second panel, asking Mann, “how can we both tell effective solution-driven stories and also hold the powerful accountable?” Sometimes stories themselves can hold those in power to account, Mann responded, especially youth stories, citing a recent court case in Montana that resulted in the state now having to take concerted action to deal with climate change.

“Our youth have legal standing because their future is threatened,” he said. “What won the Montana case were the powerful stories that young folks told on the witness stand about how their lives were impacted by the climate crisis. It was so compelling that all of the fossil fuel money in all the world wasn’t able to compete with the moral authority of those children’s stories.” Now that precedent is set, he added, and youth in other states can take similar action.

What about journalists? Given their commitment to fair reporting, journalists can’t engage in advocacy, which raised the question during the event of how they can contribute to telling solutions-driven climate stories. Phillips and Sarah Glover, the Vice President of WHYY News and Civic Dialogue, discussed a good example.

“An education reporter teamed up with a climate reporter at WHYY and did a story about how kids in Philly are going to school in un-airconditioned buildings built in the 1930s, when no one would have thought that in September it would be 98 degrees,” said Philips. But WHYY did more than just report the facts – they also examined the costs to local businesses if they potentially stepped up and helped schools.

“We’re not saying to businesses – you need to do this. We’re saying – what would the result be if you did?” added Glover. “A news organization can’t be passive. We can’t just sit back and report the findings of today. We also have to trigger conversations about solutions.” This story is soon to be published.

In short, a central moral of the panel event was this – much like all other tools for fighting the climate crisis, solutions-driven storytelling is and must be a team effort. Journalists, professors, filmmakers and citizens themselves must all take part.

Did you miss out on the event? View the recording here.