Social Change is not linear

Social Change is not linear

One of the most important things when talking about climate change with people is realizing that we tell stories. As humans, it’s the stories we tell each other about ourselves that create the narrative of who we are. We tell these stories over and over again – family folklore and running jokes at Thanksgiving or Christmas, the story of closest friendships, of how you met someone, of what you said you wanted to be when you grew up.

As we get older, we realize the story we told about what we were going to be when we grew up and the order in which it was going to happen, is not actually how it goes. Looking back in hindsight it can seem orderly, but as the internet meme says, that’s not how it really looks.

This is what social change also looks like. In hindsight and in our history books, change looks orderly and inevitable, but when you’re living the tipping point of change there’s so many moving parts it can be hard to see the signal from the noise.

We are living one of those points in climate history right now. It is inevitable that we will act decisively on climate change in the near term. We must stop burning fossil fuels and leave a majority of fossil fuel reserves in the ground to preserve a livable climate in our lifetimes.

There has been so much good news on climate recently across the globe – both Australia and Canada got rid of their climate change denying Prime Ministers, U.S. President Obama vetoed the Keystone XL pipeline and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has committed to vetoing the Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to the British Columbia coast. The oil-rich province of Alberta voted in a progressive Government who just announced a comprehensive climate package including a price on carbon, meaning that soon the majority of Canadians will have a price on carbon where they live.

However, the story we tell ourselves about this huge shift is difficult while it’s still happening. Which bit will be pivotal? Which event will we look back on and say it was the tipping point towards change? We don’t know yet.

With the Paris UN negotiations of COP 21 happening this week, many people will be tempted to hang the fate of the world on this one meeting of bureaucrats, leaders and negotiators. Maybe the 21st time around we’ll finally get it right. Not only is this a risky strategy, it’s forgetting the meme from above; which part of the spaghetti mess is Paris?

No matter what happens in Paris at the negotiations, change is happening all around us, and the best way we can harness that momentum is to tell a story about change that resonates with people’s values. Whether that be talking about climate adaptation using the preparation frame, communicating about the risk of inaction or the health impacts of climate change, Climate Access has tips and tools to help.

Just like climate change, social change has tipping points, beyond which things that were politically or socially impossible yesterday are suddenly common sense. We don’t know yet if the glaciers have reached their tipping points, but we can definitely frame our conversations to create momentum towards social tipping points so that we can look back from the future and say ‘remember when we used to burn fossil fuels?’


image via flickr user Pim Geerts (cc)