Climate Stories and a Butterfly Net

“Financial decision makers don’t want stories. They want data to go in to their financial risk models”. So said a speaker at a meeting I attended in Brussels yesterday to launch a set of projects to provide climate services for Europe. I’m sure she’s right. If I’m going to walk in to a betting shop to put money on a horse and I don’t want to lose my stake, I should probably go through the door with a head full of data about the runners and riders rather than a head full of fanciful stories about jockeys and their steeds.

But then, in our over-heated and stuffy conference room as the first snows of winter settled on to the paving slabs of the courtyard outside, another project coordinator showed us why stories matter to the rest of us, at least when we’re not gambling. A French social scientist called Jean-Paul described his project by walking around the room with an imaginary butterfly net catching stories from the air. For the first time that afternoon everybody seemed to be paying full attention. He was rewarded for his efforts with the warmest applause of the afternoon.

Jean-Paul’s presentation helped me think about ways in which our locally sited Climate Stories initiative could have relevance to the wider world. Over in Brussels we heard lots about the need for narratives in public engagement. We were provided with training from public engagement specialists in getting our message across. Yet it was Jean-Paul who for me made the most interesting point of the day. He had designed a project, he told us, whose “procedural benefits” would outweigh any other benefits. For his project, it was capturing the process of bringing personal stories and scientific information together that mattered most, rather than the results of that process themselves.

In Climate Stories, we’re going to put pen to paper, finger to guitar, or hand to print making machine in order to create new stories. It’s a tremendously exciting prospect, not knowing what will happen. At the Climate Stories kick off meeting last week we had a fabulous time thinking about what we were going to do, planning out the road ahead and having fascinating conversations informed by very different disciplinary perspectives. The September 2018 event at which we will showcase the writing, theatre pieces, songs and pictures we’ve made promises to be an exhilarating evening.

Arguably though, it was the tricky issues of evaluation that got us most exercised at our Climate Stories kick off meeting. How do we capture the value of what we will achieve over the next year? How do we measure how we have changed from how we were at the start? How do we evaluate our project without resorting to gathering data that has little actual meaning? These are all questions that we wrestled with as we thought about trying to measure the success of our project.

We have plenty of ideas and our work will be informed by other projects funded under NERC’s Engaging Environments as we try to develop and implement “best practice” in this area of evaluation. But thinking back to that meeting in Brussels, maybe the most important thing we could do in evaluating Climate Stories is simply try to capture what’s happening in whatever ways seem to work for us. That could be the best way to document how artists, scientists and community groups in Devon have worked together to create new stories. We won’t have created data of any use to a financial analyst. But we will have created new narratives, stories about the creation of stories, that might mean something to people outside the county, or even outside the country. Interesting times lie ahead. And I think we’re going to need Jean-Paul’s butterfly net.


Peter Stott

PI of Climate Stories




Dramatizing Climate Stories

Since September of this year, I have been teaching a module on Theatre for a Changing Climate. Faced with cultivating just enough familiarity with scientific terminology to underpin our analyses of a range of contemporary climate plays, in one of our first sessions I showed the group a short video featuring a climate scientist explaining the concept of the Anthropocene. To my initial surprise, a few seconds into the video students were giggling. Then they glazed over. The laughter, they explained, was about the presenter’s animated body language juxtaposed with the “dry” nature of the content – a healthy reminder of the slippages between the stories we tell and the ways we tell them.

Science communication projects are not new within the environmental humanities. When the interdisciplinary journal Environmental Humanities was launched in 2014, its authors argued that this emerging field “must avoid becoming a handmaiden to environmental science, serving up dollops of value while the scientists take care of the real facts,” adding that “[n]or do the environmental sciences need us to do their public relations for them” (268). Communication, we know, is not about one-way traffic from an expert to subject who will absorb facts (rationally), change their ways, and change the world.

Theatre offers one way of synthesising the verbal and performative aspects of storytelling. As a discipline, we are attentive to how bodies and words communicate. There is already a growing body of theatre and performance work telling climate stories. Some theatre seeks to alert audiences to the unevenly distributed consequences of a changing climate, confronting the subject directly. Some offers new stories about how we might live on earth with multispecies companions. Some helps us to understand the world we are in and to imagine a world that we might weather better. Part of the joy of the playwright Chantal Bilodeau’s innovative Climate Change Theatre Action project, for example, is its ability to engage with multifarious complex topics from multiple perspectives in a short space of time, instigating productive conversations and posing complex questions in playful and imaginative ways.

For the initial Climate Stories workshops in theatre, then, my intention is to utilise climate scientists’ work as a springboard to devise short performances and draft “tiny plays” that demonstrate real-world impacts upon human or nonhuman “characters.” What would we not know about the world if we didn’t have this research?  What stories would we not be able to tell? How does the form affect the storytelling? What different dramatic forms might be instigated by scientific research? And how does the presence of the storyteller affect the reception of the story? In the series of restarts and new starts, we will, I hope, make opportunities to try out various performative strategies for telling climate stories in ways that are meaningful to those who tell them and those who encounter them. As Donna Haraway reminds us, “It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories” (2016: 12). And how we tell the stories matters too.

Evelyn O’Malley

University of Exeter Drama Department


Works Cited:


Bergthaller, H, Emmett, R. Johns-Putra, A., Kneitz, A., Lidström, S., McCorristine, S., Pérez Ramos, I., Phillips, D., Rigby, K., Robin, L. (2014) “Mapping Common Ground: Ecocriticism, Environmental History, and the Environmental Humanities.” Environmental Humanities. Vol 5, pp. 261-276.

Haraway, D. (2016) Staying with the Trouble. Durham and London: Duke University Press.


Starting Out

Outside it’s getting windy – really windy. The tailend of Hurricane Ophelia is giving my part of Devon a casual lashing en passant. All of a sudden, my quiet hilltop road has grown noisy with the deep thrumming bass of tropical air giving everything a good shake. There’s so much movement, too: the hopping telephone wires, the trees frantically waving their branches about, and the gulls and crows delighting in some serious wind surfing.

How is it that tailends of hurricanes can reach us here in Devon? How is it that Ireland is having to batten down the hatches in the face of an oncoming tropical storm? Is this normal? Yes of course, say the scientists, it’s normal, freak weather events like these have, paradoxically, been happening for ever. But is it really normal? Perhaps not, say the scientists, our climate is changing, and what was a freak weather occurence may well become -or even already be- the new norm. How to reconcile those two responses?

Scientists investigating the atmospheric wonder that is the weather and its long-term expression, climate, have a really difficult job. Investigating the mind-boggling and chaotic intricacies of our planet’s atmosphere and how it interacts with the land and the oceans is the realm of mathematicians, physicists, geographers, explorers, mariners and an army of weather enthusiasts. Their meticulous approach to the field produces lifetimes of daily temperature measurements in suburban back gardens, adventurous lives in far-flung places, studious lives spent examining datasets of all kinds to tease out the underlying patterns of change in a fundamentally chaotic system that spans the globe. Above all, this tribe of scientific investigators is obsessed with accuracy and specificity, and profoundly indisposed towards any sloppy, undocumented, unverified, or worse, politically motivated approach to the field they love with a deep and abiding passion. And they have uncovered a most urgent problem facing our species: our way of life, with its fossil-fuel addiction, is changing the planet fundamentally and threatening our very survival.

Climate scientists have been banging on about this problem for a long time now – long enough for their predictions of 20 years’ ago to be coming true now. Climate change is no longer a problem for the future: it’s with us now. So why is the message still not coming through? Why have politicians and decision-makers at all levels of public administration across the globe not grasped that action on this is urgent? How is it we are not all voting persistently for governments that promise to make action on climate change a priority? Why are the media across the board still giving airspace and column inches to climate change deniers?

I am an artist with a foot in two art disciplines – music and visual art. Together with my husband, Peter Stott, who leads our Climate Stories project, and Prof Paul Hardaker of the Institute of Physics, I set up a cross-disciplinary project called WAM – Weather Art and Music. We wanted to find new ways of talking about weather and climate change. We wanted to find ways that would open a channel of communication between communities. Nothing top-down, nothing patronising, nothing that suggests that scientists know best. We wanted to find ways of engaging climate scientists in this dialogue, and engage them in finding new ways of communicating the science they love.

Climate scientists have knowledge we all need right now. Everyone needs to know what they are finding out. We need this knowledge because we will all need to take decisions based on that knowledge – now and in the near future. But transmitting this knowledge to people not part of the climate science community is a really knotty problem. By being tasked with transmitting their knowledge to the wider public climate scientists are being asked to do something they never trained for. Learning to write computer code and build a climate model, or studying the mathematics needed to understand the atmosphere does not equip you to talk to a politician, a businessman, a plumber, a care assistant, an artist and explain to them why it is they should care about what’s happening. How can you convey the science you love in ways that reach across multiple divides?

Climate Stories is an attempt to answer that question. We will try and find a way to open new expressive pathways for our climate scientists. They will take on a task that will transform them and their perception of their field. They will learn to talk about their field in a different language – a language no less disciplined and precise than their native scientific language and requiring commitment and a lot of thought, but a language that reaches people across the board effortlessly, because it creates a space for both communicator and listener to engage on equal terms and find common ground. That language is art.

Pierrette Thomet, WAM Director and Climate Stories Arts Co-ordinator