The argument between the British political parties over energy prices appears, on the face of it, to be another tedious media fuelled battle of words shaped by focus groups. Yet it is more interesting than that: it is proof of the power of cognitive frames and shows how easily the real and overwhelming threat of climate change can be sidelined because of its failure to fit a classic narrative.
Let me explain. Our evolution as a social animal has left us highly attuned to threats posed by visible human enemies with a clear intention to do us harm. Intention is important: in experiments children as young as three respond differently to identical harmful acts depending on whether they regard them as intentional or not intentional. Our brains are wired to interpret the world through stories. As the author Phil Pullman puts it "after nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world."
Put the two together and you have the powerful basic storyline that dominates mythology, fairytales, the Bible, TV and film – consider that the average American teenager has already seen 16,000 murders on the screen- and, of course, politics. It looks like this.
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 September 24th, 2013, Ed Milliband, leader of the UK Labour party applied this model to a well established Labour party enemy- big energy companies. He pledged 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 Milliband came into the counter attack he failed to defend the green levies and remained locked into the same enemy narrative, redefining the enemies as liers 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.
The problem for climate change is that it simply cannot compete against enemy narratives. In climate change the enemy is really everyone, the victims are everyone (although we like to think it is people far away and in the future) and there is no deliberate intention to hurt. What is more, there can be no restoration of the status quo because this is a permanent and worsening condition.
Campaigners try their best to build an enemy narrative, bringing in oil companies, organised denial, the Koch brothers, governments, Jeremy Clarkson as their set piece villains. Maybe, as Bill McKibben argues, you cannot have a movement without an enemy. But 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.