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Should we retire the climate villain narrative?
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Should we retire the climate villain narrative?

Simple stories pack a persuasive punch, but they might be stifling our climate creativity
November 9, 2023

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The illustration for a Guardian story from 2021 epitomizes the view of many environmentalists: a smiling businessman smokes a cigar and counts his money while looming over a world in flames. “Meet America’s top climate villains,” the article promises, listing twelve CEOs, bankers, politicians, and media tycoons who, it says, “have an unimaginable sway over the fate of humanity.” And not in a good way—this cabal twirls their mustaches while cheerfully clear-cutting the rainforests

But the real world isn’t a fairytale. Putting the blame for our climate mess in the boardroom ignores the role that governments have played in perpetuating fossil fuels, and the technological challenges in equitably transitioning to a low-carbon economy.

So we’re now faced with a dilemma. On one hand, people naturally gravitate toward stories with villains and heroes. And that emotional punch is clearly politically potent. On the other hand, in the multi-generational struggle against climate change, an adversarial narrative might be getting in the way of positive change.

• • •

Villains Can Spur Positive Change

1.  Climate villains are real. Facts are facts. The oil and gas industry knew about the likelihood of dramatic global warming since at least the 1950s, news magnate Rupert Murdoch grew rich on spreading disinformation, and Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta has accepted millions of dollars for advertisements to spread false claims on the climate. Textbook villainy.

2.  Anger is more productive than hope. If the end result is what matters, it’s far more important to get mad than to cross your fingers, Norwegian researchers found. A recent study of over 2,000 people in Norway found that the link between climate activism and anger was seven times stronger than it was for hope. The source of people’s frustration was often human actors, such as politicians. Similarly, research from the London School of Economics shows that action-oriented stories about climate change can produce real-world behavior change

3.  Humanity needs villains. Researchers Kai Gehring from Heidelberg University and Matteo Grigoletto of the University of Bern analyzed over two million tweets about the climate between 2010 and 2021. In this fascinating piece of research from May, they found that narratives depicting villains, those involving human characters, and simpler stores were more likely to go viraI. These story types became more prevalent during the Trump presidency, “which appeared to shift the narrative focus from potential solutions to climate change, towards the villain role of human characters,” they write. Villain stories, however inaccurate, are just what humans respond to during uncertain times.

Photo by Alisdare Hickson via Flickr

• • •

Insults Don’t Reduce Atmospheric Carbon  

1.  Name innovators instead of shaming laggards. Not so fast, writes Alex Trembath at the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental non-profit. He points out that until recently, many low-carbon alternatives were radically expensive, and their high cost had less to do with Big Oil’s nefarious influence than basic resource availability and engineering. That makes it understandable (and not at all villainous) for developing countries to struggle to decarbonize. Singling out big business “misidentifies the cause of one of the central problems facing humanity and misdirects those seeking solutions towards a tempting but ultimately counterproductive target,” he writes. “There are no villains in climate change.”

2.  Not villains but anti-heroes. Oil companies are some of the largest corporations the world has ever seen, and aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. This illuminating piece by Murray Shearer, a professor of hydrogen and alternative energy at CQ University in Australia, lays out how Big Oil’s infrastructure and expertise might be essential in any future transition to green hydrogen. If today’s climate villains can change direction, they might just follow a classic redemption arc. 

3.  The problem with climate click bait. Pro-climate Republican political strategist Mary Anna Mancuso writes that angry protests, such as throwing pies at villainous airline CEOs, “may capture attention in the short term, but they can also alienate the very people who need to be engaged in the fight against climate change. They are the climate action equivalent of click bait.” Writing in The Hill, she suggests, “Instead of demanding perfection in our climate solutions, we should encourage a process where everyone, even imperfectly, actively contributes to the solutions.”

• • •

What To Keep An Eye On

1.  Taxing the bad guys. If someone is widely perceived as a villain, punishing them becomes not just acceptable but required. France, the UK and India have all applied windfall taxes to oil and gas companies enjoying record profits on the back of supply uncertainties from the war in Ukraine. The billions such taxes raise could go to helping the global south, suggests former UK Prime Minister Gorden Brown.

2.  The Democrats driving anti-climate action? Political scientists Eric Merkley and Dominik Stecula read thousands of news stories from the past three decades, and trace the roots of today’s Republican climate denial to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth film in 2006. Having such a prominent Democrat promoting the climate inevitably polarized Republicans against it, they argue. And the more Democrats call out Republican villains for lack of climate action now, they say, the harder red states will fight against it. Instead, they recommend getting eco-minded conservatives to push win-win pro-climate measures like energy independence.

3.  Efforts to break up Big Oil. Activist group Polluter’s Out aim to abolish or nationalize the biggest climate villains might seem utterly unrealistic, but the fact that it’s even getting mainstream attention suggests there’s something to the movement – and remember that Obama briefly nationalized GM and Chrysler during the 2008 financial crisis. Writing in Prospect, Robert Pullen makes the case for the US government to nationalize ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips.

Top image: © Anthropocene Magazine

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