By Kate Monson

Theatre land’s latest offering to the cli­mate change con­ver­sa­tion started at the Royal Court last week. Created by Katie Mitchell, of Ten Billion fame, and written in col­lab­or­a­tion with the influ­en­tial cli­mate sci­entist Chris Rapley (former Director of the British Antarctic Survey and, more recently, the Science Museum), 2071 is described as “a new piece of theatre…where the sci­ence is centre stage.”


And centre stage the sci­ence – and the sci­entist – cer­tainly are, in a pro­duc­tion that is more suited to a lec­ture theatre than a play­house. Rapley, grey suited, in a blue shirt but no tie, sits almost static throughout the pro­duc­tion in the type of chair you’re likely to find in a doctor’s waiting room, only pausing in his impressive, meth­od­ical, 70-minute mono­logue to take the occa­sional sip of water. Behind him dance epic mono­chrome graphics – maps of the Antarctic, swirling weather sys­tems and stylish illus­tra­tions of what hap­pens when gla­ciers melt. Monochrome that is, until the 2oC “guard rail”, as Rapley terms it, is depicted graph­ic­ally in alarmist red, warning us of exactly where we’re going wrong.

Rapley and the team at the Royal Court should cer­tainly be applauded for attempting to bring sci­ence and storytelling closer together. Few other sci­ent­ists have ven­tured out­side the aca­demic sphere to speak out on this issue. It’s a vital task if we are to find new ways of enga­ging people with cli­mate change and encourage pos­itive action as our report Science & Stories: Bringing the IPCC to Life pro­duced this summer illustrates.


But I’d also like to unpack the pro­duc­tion a little more carefully…here we are presented with a sci­entist of the most reput­able kind (the pro­duc­tion begins with Rapley run­ning through his impressive CV) but also the most typ­ical in pro­file (age, gender, race and class), if not in prac­tice. He delivers a very meas­ured and inof­fensive lec­ture (in a tone he him­self describes as “dis­pas­sionate and objective”) on how the most com­plex nat­ural system on earth, the global cli­mate, works and how humans are chan­ging it. It’s a story of sorts, cer­tainly. But is it the type of story that will inspire those who aren’t already involved to help change its ending…?

This feels unlikely. 2071’s story isn’t wrong or inef­fective, it’s just lim­ited – most likely appealing to people who are already engaged with cli­mate change and hope to leave the theatre better armed with the facts.

Much of the social sci­ence and psy­cho­logy research indic­ates that the cli­mate change con­ver­sa­tion needs to be broadened beyond these ‘usual sus­pects’. And fur­ther, that doing this requires new nar­rat­ives and new ways of presenting inform­a­tion. Our co-founder, George Marshall, recently wrote a book – Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change – dis­cussing some of these ques­tions too. You can see a video of last week’s launch here.

Chris Rapley under­stands the import­ance of this better than most, having headed up a sig­ni­ficant report on sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion earlier this year – Time for Change? Climate Science Reconsidered – with the aim of helping cli­mate sci­ent­ists get their mes­sage across. It’s essen­tial reading for everyone who works in cli­mate sci­ence and anyone who is inter­ested in the com­mu­nic­a­tion and the psy­cho­logy of cli­mate change. Attempts at fol­lowing these report recom­mend­a­tions are undeni­ably evident in 2071. However, writer Duncan Macmillan just doesn’t take them far enough to be suc­cessful for the non-converted.

For example, Time for Change calls for cli­mate sci­ent­ists to “employ the ele­ments of suc­cessful nar­rative including per­son­al­izing their story, drawing on emo­tions and expressing their opin­ions”; and recog­nises that, “the public dis­cus­sion of cli­mate sci­ence is as much about what sort of world we wish to live in, and hence about ethics and values, as it is about material risks to human well-being.” It also spe­cific­ally encour­ages cli­mate sci­ent­ists to col­lab­orate with those who have exper­i­ence in public nar­rat­ives, such as the arts and museum community.

To the first point on ‘per­son­al­ising the story’: as men­tioned above, Miller’s script sees Rapley stating early on in his 2071 mono­logue that, as a sci­entist his role is to be “dis­pas­sionate and objective”, not emo­tional and opin­ion­ated. And while the production’s title does offer a per­sonal touch – 2071 is the year Rapley’s eldest grand­daughter will be the age he is now – it is one of only a few such ref­er­ences in the play, and is as vul­ner­able to sub­mer­sion by the ocean of inform­a­tion presented as South Pacific archipelagos are to rising sea levels. Further, the year 2071 also lies well beyond the scope of the average human being’s tem­poral under­standing – when pressed people struggle to envi­sion a time 20–30 years in the future, let alone 40−50…

As for the second point, refer­ring to what sort of world we wish to live in: again the pro­duc­tion makes a nod to this, with Rapley restating this sen­ti­ment almost ver­batim from the report near the end of the per­form­ance. Under the weight of all the graphs and maps, how­ever, there has been so little build up to a com­ment on ethics and values that one could be for­given for missing it completely.

And finally, to cli­mate sci­ent­ists col­lab­or­ating with the arts com­munity: there is no doubt that 2071 is a product of this, at least in the sense that it was con­ceived by a theatre dir­ector, a scriptwriter and a cli­mate sci­entist. But pla­cing a sci­ence lec­ture – albeit with unchar­ac­ter­ist­ic­ally stylish graphics – in a theatre doesn’t feel like a par­tic­u­larly ambi­tious real­isa­tion of this type of part­ner­ship. I would have expected the out­come to be some­thing unusual, some­thing that sheds light on new ways of thinking and acting. A focus, to put it more poet­ic­ally, on a respons–ability to cli­mate change, rather than a respons-iblity.

Despite a dif­ferent set­ting and some attempts to break out of the mould, 2071 appears to fall squarely into science’s per­sistent safety net – ‘the inform­a­tion deficit model’. Traditionally hailed as the holy grail of cli­mate change com­mu­nic­a­tion, it has now been well and truly debunked. People are com­plex and often per­verse beasts. Simply offering up more of the ‘right’ inform­a­tion does not mean we will make more of the ‘right’ decisions. In fact, it often has the opposite effect for the uncon­vinced. Instead, mes­sages need to be linked to what’s mean­ingful for the audi­ence. Finding out how the people you’re speaking to think and focusing on what they care about will take you far closer to telling a suc­cessful story than ensuring you’re well-versed in cli­mate sci­ence. That’s not to say that a cogent and com­pre­hensive under­standing of the sci­ence isn’t important; it’s just not enough.

As I men­tioned above, bringing the sci­entific and artistic com­munity closer together is vital if we are to take on the chal­lenge of cli­mate change with any real vigour. This pro­ject is clearly attempting to do this and Rapley needs to be cred­ited, along with a growing number of cre­ative people focusing their energy and ingenuity on this endeavour. One recent result is the Culture and Climate Change: Narratives report pub­lished by the Open University’s Open Space Research Centre. The group behind the pro­ject believe cli­mate change requires mul­tiple fram­ings and per­spect­ives, and that these need to be pro­vi­sional and evolving. “Only some voices have so far had the chance to speak” they con­tinue “and the stories that have been told rep­resent only a frac­tion of the ones that might be avail­able to us.”


We’ve also teamed up with the Royal Society of Arts on an innov­ative pro­ject to explore this. It develops the idea that the cli­mate change chal­lenge is not only (or even mostly) about ‘saving the envir­on­ment’ and all the clichéd ideas that come with it. Instead, it should be viewed as a multi-faceted chal­lenge with seven main dimen­sions, all of which speak to a dif­ferent aspect of human exist­ence: sci­ence, tech­no­logy, law, eco­nomy, demo­cracy, cul­ture and beha­viour. It’s this type of thinking that pushes Climate Outreach into new and exciting areas, such as our latest work withyoung people and, pre­vi­ously, the centre-right. And it’s this type of thinking that we need much, much more of if we are to suc­ceed in Rapley’s call for “the greatest col­lective action in history.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *