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Talking story to combat climate change: The 2020 Hawaiʻi Climate Conference

Sometimes climate conferences can seem like “preaching to the choir,” with most participants already thoroughly convinced of the reality of climate change and the need to combat the changes through combined elements of mitigation and adaptation. But the theme for this year’s Hawaiʻi Climate Conference, sponsored by the Hawaiʻi Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission, was all about “preaching.” Sponsored by the Hawaiʻi Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation Commission, with organizational help from Hawaiʻi Sea Grant, the conference had a goal to explore how best to communicate the message of climate change to the broader public while conjuring the necessary urgency to encourage action by more people.

From Governor Ige’s welcome to the keynote address by journalist David Wallace-Wells to the three messaging workshops on day two, the conference swirled around climate communication and the need for all voices to contribute to defining the path forward. The keynote focused on Wallace-Wells’ own awakening to the climate crisis, and thus elements to emphasize to others who need convincing, when he recognized the speed, scope, and severity of the shifts caused by messing with the climate. These changes are coming more quickly than anticipated, will interfere with all aspects of life (economic, agricultural, medical, social, cultural, political), and will affect people from all strata across the globe. Every day that greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed means an increase in the future hostility of the planet to people.

Several images depict scenes of conference attendees listening to talks and in workshops
Conference scenes (clockwise from top left): David Wallace-Wells inspires with his keynote; Roger Sorkin drops interviewer pearls of wisdom at the media workshop; Jaimey Hamilton Faris explains to workshop participants how to employ art in telling a story; Solomon Enos urges using narratives to communicate climate science.

While the urgency and alarming nature of predicted futures can lead to paralysis, Wallace-Wells was sure to define a silver lining, emphasizing that “Action is the antidote to despair.” Presenting us with the bald fact that half of the CO2 added to the atmosphere since the industrial revolution has been emitted in the last 30 years (during a timeframe when society was fully aware of the damage that could be done), he flipped the reality around. He urged us to see this as an empowering statement that we should spread of what we humans could accomplish in a short time if only we made better choices. “We are engineering the climate now. Let’s just choose how to engineer it better.”

Wallace-Wells illustrated the effectiveness of storytelling by relating his own recognition of the crisis, and storytelling as a form of communication was central to other presentations that followed. In the first panel discussion, artist Solomon Enos stressed the importance of using narrative through verbal stories and art to change people’s thoughts, to show where action is happening and where it is needed. Roger Sorkin, a producer/writer/director for the American Resilience Project, specializes in using narrative through films as “a unifying force,” finding common themes and values to grab an audience’s attention and teach them something new about environmental issues that perhaps they did not know, or want to know, before. In his mini-keynote presentation on day two, he discussed how to craft stories based on a given audience and their perspectives on important topics.

From other conference presenters, we heard stories of sea level anomalies, community resilience in the face of flooding disasters, the encroaching EV frontier, the miracle that is breadfruit, and the current picture of climate migration. Guests from California, North Carolina, and Washington spoke of methods their communities employ to tackle the same issues Hawaiʻi faces, rising seas and goals of clean energy transportation, all while seeking the critical input from impacted communities. Interactive workshops took up the theme of storytelling, from using art and “talk story” to translate climate science, to bringing equity to communication and policy-making, to the arcane secrets of effective interviewing.

The conference was two full days aimed at inspiring attendees to share their own stories of climate change broadly and spread the urgency that we must all come together to change our pathway now.