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The Power of Enemies: How the fairy tale narrative of news is effecting the Climate Change debate


Fairy Tale Villains

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Greenpeace, and later the Guardian, recently published an article on the nature of news story telling and the difficulties and risks associated with campaigning Climate Change through it.

The article claims one reason Climate Change has been side lined in the news is that it fails to fit into a classic narrative. It is true that our brains are in some respect wired to interpret the world through stories and for the classic narratives that run through our history in stories, news and religious texts you need three simple things: Heroes, Villains and Victims. Below you can find an example of a classic Villain (or enemy), Hero and Victim structure highlighted by the original Greenpeace article through the story of Energy bills in the news.

So, why can’t the importance of Climate Change be sold in this simple news framework? It is not because there are no villains, no victims and no heroes, it is because we are all villains, all victims and all, we hope, have the potential to be heroes. What’s more Climate Change can’t compete with the deliberate intentions to hurt and the restoration of status quo found throughout our fairy tales and news stories because the intentions to hurt are not deliberate, but a consequence of the lives we lead, and the restoration of status quo has moved beyond our grasp due to the permanent and worsening conditions of Climate Change.

But this doesn’t stop campaigners and activists attempting to build an enemy narrative with all the usual villains and this, argues founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network and writer of the original Greenpeace article George Marshall, is where we could all go wrong:

“I would suggest that this is a dangerous game to play. Climate change will never win with enemy narratives. Once unleashed, they take on a life of their own and come back to bite us and we will find ourselves written in to replace our chosen enemies. As climate impacts intensify there will be a lot of confusion, blame and anger looking for a target and enemy narratives provide the frame for scapegoats.

The best chance for climate change to beat enemy narratives is to refuse to play this partisan game at all. We are all responsible. We are all involved and we all have a stake in the outcome. We are all struggling to resolve our concern and our responsibility for our contributions. Narratives need to be about co-operation common ground-and solutions need to be presented that can speak to the common concerns and aspirations of all people.”

–       George Marshall, Climate Outreach Information Network

There is a question of whether the framework of co-operation and common ground will be listened to in a world led by a mass media framed in the fairy tale narrative but what is clear is that calling a villain a villain could do more harm than good. Leading to retaliation that Climate Change Activists can’t win. Perhaps we need to acknowledge all aspects of those we might call a villain. More cooperative dialogue could allow campaigners and big companies to find a common ground on which to discuss Climate Change.

The Enemy, Hero, Victim Narrative – Energy bills case study

(Taken from the article originally published on Greenpeace’s website)

1. enemy + intention → harms victims

2. hero + intention → defeats enemy and restores status quo

Psychological research has found that this narrative structure is more powerful than any of its constituent parts. If any part is weakened people are people are willing to introduce substitute components even, if necessary, inventing them or using information that they know to be wrong in order to maintain its integrity.

In his conference speech on 24 September 2013, Ed Miliband, leader of the UK Labour party, applied this model to a well-established Labour party enemy – big energy companies. He promised to freeze energy prices to help families and businesses. The companies, he said, “won’ t like it because they have been overcharging people for too long”. Later he called them predatory – a familiar frame for paedophiles. His party energy minster joined in with more energetic language about how “hard-pressed consumers” (victims) being hit and ripped off (harm). Their narrative looked like this:

1. Enemy (big business) + intention (self-enrichment) → harm (high energy costs) to victims (vulnerable)

2. Hero (Labour party) + intention (social justice) → defeat (price freeze) and restores status quo (standard of living)

But then the energy companies responded. As predicted by the research, they maintained the overall narrative structure and simply changed the dramatis personae. The enemy was now environmentalism and the green taxes which had, according to dubious but much quoted figures, added £112 to average fuel bulls. According to Tony Cocker, chief executive of E.On, these were “smeared across everybody’s bill” and were tantamount to a “poll tax”. Right-wing conservatives like Jacob Rees-Mogg joined in, saying that because of the obsession of “the doomsayers of the quasi-religious Green movement” poor people “may die because they can’t afford fuel”. The new enemy looked like this:

1. Enemy (environmental extremism) + intention (ideological zealotry) → harm (green taxes/suffering) to victims (vulnerable)

Then David Cameron, leader of the ruling Conservative party, weighed in with his determination to “roll back some of these green regulations and charges”, thus adding his new hero narrative:

2. Hero (Conservative party) + intention (defending freedom) → defeat (roll back taxes) and restores status quo (freedom/standard of living)

When Miliband came into the counter-attack he failed to defend the green levies and remained locked into the same enemy narrative, redefining the enemies as liars with Cameron as their “PR man”, and arguing that Cameron is no hero because he is “too weak to stand up for the consumer “and has “gone from Rambo to Bambi in four short years“.

Back in September his party speech included something altogether more remarkable about energy: a pledge to take all of the carbon out of our energy (by which he meant electricity) by 2030. This extremely ambitious target for action on a real threat posing overwhelming harm was pushed aside by arguments about enemies and short-term loss. Compelling narratives demand attention and, as he found, the enemy narrative he introduced framed and dominated all subsequent discussion.


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