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Vaclav Smil’s latest book, “Numbers Don’t Lie: 71 Things you need to know about the world”, reveals that French wine consumption is today only a third of what it was a hundred years ago, challenging the conventional prejudice that the French national identity is mainly shaped by the consumption of wine. This statistic is a nice reminder that while data can give you useful cues about the world, you need the story behind the number to truly understand an issue.

Numbers will feature prominently in the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which kicks off in Glasgow this week. Climate scientists have expressed concern that numbers like the 1.5oC are becoming politicised talking points, rather than unarguable representations of fact.

The outcry, while understandable, masks a deeper problem: The climate story hasn’t always been told in a way that is intuitive or that resonates with our lives. “Many of us are simply not aware of the situation we face. Or rather, we have not been made aware” observes Greta Thunberg, in her foreword to the new Johan Rockström book, Breaking Boundaries. How can this be done?

Let’s come back to the French wine story:

Consider that in 1926 French people drank an average of 126 l of wine each year. This is a number that immediately invites us to tell a story about it. But a global increase of 1.5 oC versus 2 oC or 3 oC is hard to relate to. The numbers are simply not intuitively scary. And many of my friends and colleagues were bitterly complaining about the far too cold and rainy summer this year. Two additional degrees would have actually been nice!

The point is that while the climate statistics aren’t wrong, the stories behind them are very difficult to tell and often require a lengthy and not always obvious explanation. Moreover, it’s hard for us to internalise what scary global predictions might actually mean for our individual lives. And our political leaders know this, of course, and use it as an excuse to be as flexible as possible in terms of how they address climate change.

Why do they get away with it?

The truth is that when it comes to changing behaviour, more is needed than global numbers and stories about what happens to our planetary boundaries. As Senator John Thune, R-South Dakota puts it, “The only thing American people are worried about is not what’s happening in Glasgow but what’s happening in terms of gas prices”.

We need, in other words, more emphasis on relating climate change to our everyday experiences. Having a more localised approach to climate data might help. Many of today’s climate models can be localised to areas as small as one square kilometre but this is rarely done, as it is quite costly and requires expertise. Yet investing in this type of knowledge is critical as it can help us to visualise, in a very real way, the effects of climate change. And it can help local authorities better adapt to climate change by, say, investing in flood defences or bolstering supply chains in anticipation of droughts. It’s no accident that cities that are at the forefront of climate action are also the ones that have invested the most in localising data.

Take Mexico City, one of the cities expected to fare the worst in a +3oC world. Persistent water supply shortages, heavy pollution and subsistence all threaten the long-term survival of the city of nine million. Yet the city has leveraged municipal-level data to make its transportation more sustainable, better manage its waste, and reducing emissions.

The current landscape of climate change data, even at the country-level, is often fragmented, uncoordinated, and under-resourced, especially among low- and middle-income countries. While much attention has been paid to weather effects such as rising temperatures or the frequency of heat waves, data on resilience and adaptation to these effects is often missing. We clearly need a broader understanding of climate change data from the perspective of an ecosystem, comprising public and private actors (data producers, users, and regulators), a governance structure that balances data privacy concerns with public data needs, and proper funding.

More broadly, we need a new approach to data that focuses less on the broad environmental impacts and more on the impacts on the everyday lives of people at the community level. These are the issues that matter to people.

And data driven evidence is, of course, only one part of the equation. It’s time to realise that facts alone are not enough to change individual behaviour. Facts need to come with emotions as well, told at the local level, in order to bring the abstraction of climate change and its impacts into focus. Research show the power of storytelling as a pathway to driving change is undervalued, and that this can be one of the best ways to change minds.

History is not without precedent. In the US, the 1962 classic by Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, ignited a firestorm among the public imagination that led to far-reaching and lasting changes in terms of pesticide use and launched the modern environmental movement.

Although the path to avert catastrophic climate change is becoming more difficult, it is the right one to take. While localising data and telling the right stories aren’t a magic bullet, they may help us to see this more clearly.

A great example is the Netflix documentary, “Breaking Boundaries”, where David Attenborough and Johan Rockström discuss the current climate and biodiversity challenges and ways to address them. “The greatest assets humans have is our ability to co-operate”, concludes Johan in the book that forms the basis for the film. The numbers and stories together can form the basis for a collective action for the transformation of a net zero world before it is too late.


This blog post was written by Johannes Jütting, Executive Head of PARIS21.


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