Professor Chris Rapley – Climate Change: Why so toxic?

Chris Rapley speaks for only 35 minutes but delivers material which will alter fundamentally your perspective on climate change. Take for instance his experience as Chair of the London Climate Change Partnership. The Environment Agency has prepared a flood protection plan for the London Floodplain designed to keep this immensely valuable area safe until 2100. This will cost approximately £10bn. But ask the EA the question “What is the largest sea level rise that you could protect London against, beyond which it becomes technically impossible?” and the answer is “probably about 5m”. Given the unexpectedly rapid rate of ice melt in the Polar Regions, this degree of sea level rise may occur much sooner than previously predicted. It may be with us in as little as 100 to 200 years. If so, maybe we should not be protecting the London floodplain. Instead we could “let London go” and spend that money elsewhere. And then what about Amsterdam, Rotterdam, New York and other coastal cities across the globe? Given that this is just one example of the threats posed by climate change, we start to appreciate why, in the words of Chris Rapley, it should be regarded as “toxic”.

In this way, the climate change issue raises an emotional reaction in the listener characterised by loss, grief, anxiety or helplessness which can challenge deeply held values, beliefs and issues of identity. This creates a feeling of discomfort, termed cognitive dissonance, in the audience which leads them to seek a narrative to reduce that discomfort e.g. that climate change is due to natural variability, or is a hoax, or is not proven, or is too costly to respond to. Ironically the more effectively a climate scientist conveys the implications of their results, the more discomforted their audience can become. So how should “experts”, or indeed anyone with a good knowledge of the subject, communicate their arguments without provoking an irrational response in their audience?

One approach relies on storytelling which is known to help people make sense of complex information by placing it in a narrative structure. In 2014 Chris Rapley collaborated with a playwright and theatre director to devise a play to express his thoughts and opinions on the climate crisis. The title, 2071, will be the year in which Rapley’s granddaughter will be 67 years old, which was his age when he first performed the piece. It concludes that whilst science has revealed climate change, it cannot address the two moral issues which it raises: What kind of world do we want to live in? What kind of world do we want to create?

Chris Rapley identifies two qualities critical to addressing these challenges; firstly, the ingenuity of humans to invent things; and secondly, our capacity for wisdom and sensitivity in how we organise and conduct ourselves. History shows us that the former is unbounded and could readily be applied to develop new green technologies. We could dismiss the latter as being the responsibility of governments, regulatory authorities and businesses but, as Greta Thunberg has recently demonstrated, an individual can influence people’s values and behaviour through the spoken word alone. So what now? Well, I suggest that you find 35 minutes to watch Chris Rapley’s video, set aside any feelings of helplessness you may be experiencing and take inspiration from it to shape and invigorate your own communications, whatever forms they may take.

Watch Chris Rapley’s SEI talk on YouTube


Read a five-star review of 2071 on the Guardian website

Dr John Maskall
Visiting Teaching Fellow in Environmental Science
University of Plymouth

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