It is a uniquely human urge to make the invisible visible, the complex digestible, to render abstract ideas tangible. As the philosopher Ian Hacking put it: “Human beings are representers. Not homo faber, I say, but homo depictor. People make representations.”
Much of the widespread anxiety over the climate crisis is directed toward attempts to accurately represent the problem. If the current stories, allegories, novels and films don’t convince everybody that there is a massive problem, clearly we must try and write new ones. Once we change the representation, the argument goes, the represented too will change — and the problem, thus clearer to see, will be easier to address.
Many scientists and climate activists, on the other hand, argue that there is no need to narrativize climate change. Mere facts, they say, like the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the prospect of an ice-free Arctic by 2050 (of which we are well on track) should be more than enough to get everyone on the same page. The truth is the truth, no matter how gut-wrenching, boring or cringe it is to articulate it.
Both sides tend to agree that if only we could find a way to communicate this existential threat, we would be saved. And in fact, the climate stories told in fiction (novels, poems, blockbuster movies) and in scientific reports are more similar than they seem.
Consider one of the first-ever comedies about climate change, Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up,” a film about “two low-level astronomers [who] must go on a giant media tour to warn mankind of an approaching comet that will destroy planet Earth.” In the film, the consequences of not listening to scientists push humanity closer to an imminent catastrophe that we are able to stop but never do. The resemblance of the plot to our collective lack of action on climate change is obvious; less so is the resemblance to the complexity of the problem.
In a key scene of the movie, one of the astronomers is traveling to leak the news of the comet (used as an allegory for climate change) that will hit Earth, but he is anxious because of his lack of communication skills and media training. A NASA scientist tries to reassure him: “Relax, you are telling a story. Keep it simple. No math.” To which the astronomer replies: “But it’s all math!”
Climate science is, indeed, mostly math. But the knowledge it produces is not. Data and measurements and equations alone are not enough to predict what might happen decades from now.
Climate scientists must deal with uncertainty and make predictions to produce plausible pictures of future realities. For instance, the degree to which Arctic permafrost will melt or the ocean acidify in the next few years depends on if and to what level governments will find ways to coordinate with each other and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The most authoritative body on climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), accommodates for the uncertainty of the future by offering numerous possible visions of what it might be like. This popular heuristic is a technique called scenario planning — a series of sketches of multiple, nonexclusive futures. Scenarios are made of two different ingredients: the math and the stories.
Both the math (an index of how much heat reaches the surface of the Earth) and the stories (written descriptions of imagined global social and economic conditions under various atmospheric conditions) contribute to making climate projections — and both need each other for the future to take shape at all. The math has been right since the “Limits to Growth” report came out in the 1970s; we are right on track with the worst-case scenario its authors predicted. But the story was wrong: As the science historian Kevin Baker put it, it did not work to “generate trust, credibility, political organization or political will.”
So what’s wrong with the stories? The truth is there’s very little that’s “alternative” in the IPCC’s projections of “alternative futures of socio-economic development.”
The social and economic aspects of the IPCC’s future scenarios are merely different flavors of extractive capitalism: They all include economic growth, obsolete measurements of “well-being” and undefinable concepts like “sustainability.” Worst of all, they frame climate change within the bounds of some imagined cost-benefit analysis, as if the writers are only going so far as to answer the question: “Until when can we extract and exploit both the planet and workers without threatening our way of life or profits?”
The main reason for this is the institutional nature of the process: The IPCC report must be approved, line by line, by 195 countries. It seems unlikely that some revolutionary socioeconomic configuration (which is indeed what is needed) will emerge when the most powerful nations on the planet need to reach a consensus on what kinds of politics will and should be prominent in the coming decades. As a result, these social and economic pathways end up reproducing a future that’s all too familiar.
There is no such thing as perfectly accurate scientific truth when it comes to climate modeling. But this has often been true of scientific knowledge production in general. The story always matters. As the science historians Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park show in their foundational work “Wonders and the Order of Nature,” the element of wonder in natural phenomena has long driven scientific inquiry, structured politics and social relations, and built worlds.
In “Merchants of Doubt” Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway wrote about the controversy behind a popular paper written by Carl Sagan and others that described a plausible “nuclear winter,” a protracted and devastating cooling of the planet as a result of a large-scale nuclear war. Many conservatives found the paper to be nothing more than unrealistic and apocalyptic left-wing environmentalist propaganda. Right-wing physicists like Russel Seitz wrote extensive responses to the hypothesis, rebranding nuclear winter as a softer, more pleasant nuclear “autumn”: a “barely autumnal inclemency.”
There is no way to produce predictions that are apolitical, agnostic to a certain ideology or economic system. There are the futures that preserve the status quo and the ones that challenge it by building truly different worlds.
The way to get beyond the futures imagined by today’s claustrophobic and conservative climate change scenarios is to reform scenario planning itself. At a basic level, scenarios are born out of wit and grotesque humor, which Hollywood has been perfecting for more than a hundred years. This sensibility is a great resource to dislodge the absurd and profit-driven devastation of the biosphere.
Comedy has always been a powerful way to take a fresh look at reality, even (perhaps especially) in the darkest of times. During the Cold War, for example, comedic looks at some aspects of the thermonuclear world succeeded in making the hydrogen bomb look like an absurd and grotesque caricature of itself. But comedy wasn’t a popular strategy at Cold War-era think tanks — at least until Herman Kahn came along.
To the 1950s American military analysts at RAND Corporation, a think tank that provides research and analysis to the U.S. armed forces, the prospect of a nuclear war was a complex but finite set of probabilities. If only they could find the right game-theoretical approach, then the appropriate strategy would emerge and America could be made safe. They intentionally stayed far away from the frivolous business of storytelling, partly out of fear of tainting the flimsy reputation of scientific objectivity that operations research was trying to project.
But for Kahn, a systems analyst at RAND, relying on war gaming and operation research alone was absurd: The simulations might have been mathematically correct, but they led to paralyzing anxiety instead of purposeful action. He looked for ways to include storytelling and human intuition in the dry science of conflict analysis.
Having no narrative tools at his disposal, Kahn had to make his own. Naturally, he went where worlds are made, destroyed and remade daily: Hollywood. With the help of screenwriters and scripting techniques, he came up with the scenario-planning method.
The word “scenario” was suggested by Leo Rosten, a comedy screenwriter by day and a RAND analyst by night; it came from a genre of Italian theater called commedia dell’arte. The term was obsolete but more dignified than the word “screenplay,” which the eggheads at RAND wouldn’t have taken seriously. Kahn adopted it because he liked that it put emphasis not so much on forecasting, but on creating stories. What he and Rosten recognized was that science and narrative feed off each other.
In contrast to game theory analysis, which posited a discrete set of outcomes, the objective of scenario-planning was, as historian Jenny Andersson makes clear, to think up a potentially unlimited series of probable and improbable futures including, famously, the “unthinkable.” In Kahn’s own words: “Why would one expect a realistic discussion of thermonuclear war not to be disturbing?”
Disturbing indeed. In the 1950s and 60s, rehearsals of the future were brutal, explicit and in-your-face. Kahn famously hypothesized a “Doomsday Machine,” a mechanism designed to destroy all life on Earth if a country launched a nuclear attack by triggering numerous other hydrogen bombs. This would serve as an ultimate deterrent for nuclear war since no one in their right mind would trigger it.
The cinematic grotesque of black comedies was at the very heart of the scenario-planning technique. Play, fun and comedy were essential elements in imagining different worlds. Kahn “masked his stories in the bloodless dialect of probabilistic risk assessment, but they were stories nonetheless,” as the historian Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi writes in a biography of him. He would often say “They are scenarios, these are what the people in Hollywood do” so that he could let go and stop being too precious about things like a nuclear winter or a “megadeath” event.
Kahn was the inspiration for the titular character in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” in which the RAND Corporation is dubbed the BLAND Corporation, a foreshadowing of how diluted and boring scenarios of future security environments would become over the coming decades. By the time the technique arrived at the IPCC in the early 1990s, they had become procedural, uninteresting and conservative — so much so that the IPCC said explicitly that these scenarios were just meant to portray “business as usual” conditions. The panel wasn’t trying to do something extraordinary or revolutionary with them, it was simply trying to provide a picture of how emissions might change according to small variations on current policies.
This approach defeats the purpose of scenarios; it fails to open different worlds and possibilities that are closed to us. Using scenarios as ways to reproduce the present gives us soft, tolerable corporate jargon that turns bad news into media-appropriate “content,” helping people digest tragic and unspeakable terror as “business as usual.”
Scenario language merely reflects what is a much more pervasive culture of taboo around risk. I cannot recall how many times I heard the expression “climate challenge,” which I can only infer comes from a corporate culture of rarely ever calling anything what it is (in this case, a full-blown crisis), and instead to suggest the potential for triumph. A challenge always begs to be overcome.
Scenario planning was meant to open alternative worlds and think the unthinkable. How did it become so conservative? Can comedy help shake up an increasingly flat future?
I am not just advocating for more plays and novels. I don’t think it is our imagination that is in crisis, that if we were to find it again, all would be well. What is needed to get out of the current state of economic and socially conservative institutional climate scenarios is an explicit understanding that stories and numbers are equally important in the making of climate futures.
Comedy and screenwriting techniques can be helpful in dismantling reproductive visions of the future by means of laughter and ridicule. Integrating the comedic grotesque in the scientific process might give us a chance at opening up policy pathways that so far seem to be closed because of the extremely conservative nature of emission scenarios.
In a recent interview, “Don’t Look Up” director Adam McKay said he regrets not having asked Netflix to include different endings to the story — and having them randomly assigned to viewers. Imagine if in one, a planetary-scale coalition for Earth’s defense was quickly assembled and the comet shattered into tiny, inoffensive pieces. Maybe that could have been the beginning of a grander geopolitical strategy to mitigate the effects of other, more subtle, less cinematic — but not less violent — planetary-scale crises.