Resources  -  18.07.2023

How stories work

Multiple studies have shown that stories consistently outperformed factual narratives for encouraging action-taking in all audiences, even controlling for pre-disposition. Fictional storytelling that reaches mainstream audiences has the power to change cultural narratives, to influence social norms and change the debate. The climate community has not yet begun to tap into this enormous potential for engaging new audiences. This is Climate Spring’s focus.


The Problem: We need to shift from communicating the facts to inspiring people with the solutions.

80% of individuals globally believe that they have a personal responsibility not to destroy the planet, and yet that is what we continue to do. [2] The majority of people globally think that climate change is a serious threat, and that governments are not doing enough to combat it.

This failure to change is not to do with a lack of technology, or even finance, it is now a cultural challenge. Scientists have demonstrated the many ways we could be reducing our emissions, from renewable energy and tree planting through to reduction of meat consumption and air travel. [4]

Governments in democracies take their cues from their electorate.. Governments have been allowed to fail to take climate change sufficiently seriously because they do not have a sufficiently clear public mandate for solutions. They know citizens care about climate change, but not whether they will they support policies to reduce meat consumption and change travel habits. . For an effective and democratic approach to climate change, all of society needs to engage. [5]

Limits of fact based campaigning to motivate the public

Campaigners focused on changing individual behaviours and perspectives have for the most part taken approaches based on the ‘information deficit model – the idea that individuals are ‘empty vessels’ waiting to be filled with virtuous knowledge, who will see the error of their ways and change their behaviour. Science communicators believed that by giving people better information, this would reduce scepticism, bolster public opinion and mobilise action. Through public information campaigns, documentaries, protests and speeches, the tactics of environmental campaigners were founded on this idea. [7] This has worked to inform the public of the facts of climate, but is the wrong approach for the cultural and social shifts that need to happen at an unprecedented speed and scale. In fact there is some evidence this is starting to cause despondency; 50% of individuals in the UK feel hopeless about the issue, and feel they can do little about it.

Efficacy belief is the measure of people’s confidence that they can exert personal control on an issue. [8] Individuals who believe they cannot do anything about climate change, won’t do anything about climate change. Low efficacy beliefs compounded by high levels of risk – such as the collapse of civilization – can result in people implementing denial-based coping strategies to reduce their fear and stress levels. [9]

Climate change communications has tended to focus on convincing the general public about the existential threat facing them with factual information. While they have managed to convince the majority of the public that climate change is an all too real threat, they have not convinced them that they can do anything about it. Indeed, some studies have shown that individuals who receive informational narratives perform fewer pro-environmental behaviours than those who did not receive any information. [10]

Traditional science communication has underestimated the complexity of learning and behaviour change. While educational interventions may help fill gaps in knowledge, there are limits as to what information can achieve in changing attitudes and behaviour in respect of climate change, and it can at times be actively damaging.

A recent report from the Garfield Weston Foundation highlighted that the British public is struggling to grasp the immediate need to take action on the environment, and that environmental charities are struggling to raise funds despite considering themselves well equipped to do so. [11] They highlighted the need for compelling storytelling to improve to facilitate fundraising by environmental organisations, and increase public engagement.

The power of fiction and storytelling

The English language has an unfortunate lack of words to talk about stories. We use it to describe everything from a news article to thousand-page literary epics, but it is important to differentiate between narratives and stories. Fundamentally, while a narrative is a sequence of events with a beginning, middle, and end, and could be used to describe everything from ‘Fred went to the shop and bought an orange’, to a history of the United States or War and Peace, a story has more specific set of characteristics:

  • Character
    Stories need a viewpoint character to give you perspective
  • Intent
    What the characters are after, and why.
  • Actions/narrative
    What the characters do to achieve the goals.
  • Struggles
    The actions the characters take in the face of risk or danger to achieve their goals.
  • Details
    Details about the character, settings, actions, events and objections that enable you to create the mental imagery to envisage the story.

Why we use stories

As a species, we have been telling stories for over a 100,000 years. Logical and argumentative forms of information structures only emerged 5,000 years ago, and that 95,000 year head start has wired story structure into our brains from birth. [12] Researchers studying the mental processes of babies have confirmed that we are born programmed to search for and to create meaning from story elements. We use these hard wired concepts to predict what the world will be like and so to act on it effectively. [13] Childhood reinforces this predisposition through heavy use of stories. Our earliest encounter with explanation comes in the form of stories told to us by our parents. From the beginning of our language acquisition, we must learn to construct our own story fragments in response to our parents questioning of our actions. [14]

What stories do to us individually

We have all had the experience of being moved by a story. A good story has the power to engage us, take us out of our surroundings and entirely alter how we feel. It has the power to make us laugh, cry and everything in between. How is it that a story about characters we know are fictional and events that never happened, manages to engage us as if we were in the story ourselves?

When you begin to engage with a story, your brain releases oxytocin. Oxytocin is a peptide hormone which plays a key role in social bonding and reproduction. Oxytocin encourages you to act positively towards other people, and is released when people act positively towards you. Oxytocin is the hormonal mechanism that enables humans to maintain themselves as part of social groups. When we begin to engage with a story, oxytocin is released giving us empathetic feelings towards the characters in the story – if you do not emphasise, then oxytocin is not released. As the story engages us, we continue to release oxytocin, and are increasingly transported into the fictional world.

Information received during narrative transportation is received very differently from when information is presented to us in a logical framework. When we undergo narrative transportation, the mind becomes focused on the events of the story, and reality fades into the background. In contrast, when we are consciously processing information, our brains still access pre-existing ideas, experience and opinions, and we can engage critically with the information. Narrative transportation, stimulated by the release of oxytocin, prevents you from that critical engagement.[15] Because if this, stories have a greater power to make you engage with novel ideas or opinions than information presented in another structure.

When the story has finished and we are safely transported back to reality, the ideas and emotions that were imparted to us during the journey remain. We are more likely to make decisions which are story-consistent, such as donating to a street sleeper after watching a film about a homeless person. These effects have been demonstrated to last for six weeks, if not longer.[16]

Stories which end happily or sadly have a different level of impact on story-receivers. Studies indicate that we allocate more attention to negative messages as an adaptive survival response.[17] This would imply that stories with a tragic ending would illicit more of a story-consistent response in the aftermath. However, for us to act in this way after consuming a story, we must believe that we can have an impact. This is essential to ensure that we do not feel paralysed by the enormity of a problem.

Multiple studies have shown that stories consistently outperformed factual narratives for encouraging action-taking in all audiences, even controlling for pre-disposition. Strikingly, in a study concerning climate change, those participants who received an informational narrative performed fewer pro-environmental behaviours than even the control group who received no information at all. [18] This demonstrates that those who do not see climate change as a priority are unlikely to be converted by more information based campaigns, as individuals interpret claims about climate change based on their existing beliefs – those who are already predisposed to believe become more concerned but those predisposed to be sceptical were even more dismissive. [19]

Film and TV for social and cultural change

Stories have power. They are how we understand the world and our place in it. The last hundred years have seen the creation of the most efficient storytelling tools ever devised – film and television. These tools of mass communication reach across the globe, and deliver an accessible, replicable experience to billions of people. They can create debate, political pressure, motivate pro-social behaviours, and even change minds.

Film and television content with a social agenda is not a new phenomenona. Hundreds of documentaries are created every year, some wildly successful, such as Blue Planet II which had a broadcast audience of 14 million [20], but for most climate content the audience is in the hundreds. More often then not, their audiences are self-selecting, people who are already interested in the topic of the documentary. Marketing campaigns for this content, made easier by the advent of targeted advertising, focus on engaging with the audience who have already converted.

To give a sense of scale, in 2019 the total UK box office revenue was approximately £1.25bn for 176m tickets, but for all documentary films was just £7.8m for approximately 1.1m tickets. [21] Documentary films do not have the box office pull to bring in a larger audience, and so film distributors, who market them, do not try and sell them more widely.

With some exceptions, documentaries do not use stories. This is sometimes a stylistic choice where the expository ‘voice of god’ is better for the subject matter. But frequently, it is because creating stories from verbatim real life events is incredibly difficult.

There is recognition within the documentary sphere of its limitations as a force for social change. Attempts have been made, both systematically and individually, by documentary producers to adapt their material into a fictional story for film or television. However, primarily due to the insular nature of the film and television industries, these efforts have been unsuccessful. Film and television producers have no responsibility to produce content about climate change and respond only to the market, which is risk-averse. To encourage content makers to try something new, they need to be additionally incentivised and given the room to explore.

So far, most ‘climate storytelling’ on screens is apocalyptic and dystopian - The Handmaid’s Tale or The Road. If we are to create cultural shifts towards net zero, we need to mobilise and inspire - we need multiple versions of Martin Luther King’s dream for climate change, to inspire the collective consciousness for what might be possible.

The fossil fuel industry has been investing in cultural influence for decades because they know it works - from product placement of cars and plastic, to commissioning film and pop music that place fossil fuels at the heart of what the American Dream. We need to deploy this tactic, to make the ‘solutions’ to climate change, from regenerative agriculture, to cycling and clean energy, mainstream and desirable rather than fringe/alternative.

‘World building’ in drama deploys experts to analyze the latest technology and social developments to create visions of possible new worlds. World builders can have extraordinary impact. The world builder for the sci-fi drama Minority Report has been credited with inspiring the original iPhone, autonomous cars and surveillance drones. [22] We will harness this skill to create visions of possible low carbon worlds, as the backdrop to human drama.

Climate change is one of the most complex, pressing and dangerous crises we have ever had to face as a species. It is not a problem that can be solved by a few people doing extraordinary things, but by every single person doing something. In order to stimulate people to act, we need to convince them that they can do something about climate change.

Climate Spring is a new organisation to help inform, inspire and incentivise mainstream content makers to explore climate change stories in a more impactful and positive way.

A successful scripted television show, such as The Night Manager, can reach over 5 million viewers at broadcast, with double or triple that watching over all.[23] Similarly, successful British films such as The King’s Speech can reach a similar number at box office, and many times that through other mediums.[24] The Day After Tomorrow, a disaster film about a catastrophic climate event, sold an estimated 30 million tickets in the US alone, and generated hundreds of articles in media coverage. Studies demonstrated that the film had significant impact on viewers, and were more likely to give money to environmental charities, buy a more fuel-efficient car and publicly express their opinions about climate change.[25]

Film and television are the ideal mechanisms for engaging a huge, diverse audience with complex subjects, but we need to see climate fiction to show us inspirational futures, rather than dystopia and apocalypse.


[1] Rebecca Lindsey, “Climate Change: Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide”, August 2020. doi:

[2] Kelly Beaver, “Majority of people expect government to make environment a priority in post COVID-19 recovery“, June 2020. doi:

[3] Stuart Capstick et al., “International trends in public perceptions of climate change over the past quarter century”, WIREs Clim Change 2015, 6:35–61. doi: 10.1002/wcc.321

[4] Charities Aid Foundation, “CAF UK Giving 2019”, May 2019, doi:[5] Lorraine Whitmarsh, “Public engagement with climate change: What do we know and where do we go from here?”, International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics, Vol. 9, 1:7-25(19), doi:[6] Jack Lewis, "The Birth of EPA", EPA Journal, Vol. 11, 9, November 1985, doi:[7] Ibid 5.[8] Ashley Bienieck-Tobasco et al., “Communicating climate change through documentary film: imagery, emotion and efficacy”, Climatic Change, 154:1-18, April 2019,[9] Lorenzoni I, Nicholson-Cole S, Whitmarsh L, “Barriers perceived to engaging with climate change among the UK public and their policy implications”, Glob Environ Chang 17(3–4):445–459, 2007[10] Brandi S. Morris, “Stories vs. facts: triggering emotion and action-taking on climate change”, Climatic Change, 154:19-36, 2019.[11]Garfield Weston Foundation, “Prioritising our planet”, October 2020. doi:[12] Kendall Haven, Story Proof, Westport, Connecticut: Libraries Unlimited, 2007, p.24[13] A Gopnik, et al. The Scientist in the Crib, New York: Harper Perennial, 1999.[14] M Johnson, The Body in the Mind, Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1987.[15] Ibid 10.[16] Paul J. Zak, “Why inspiring stories make us react: The Neuroscience of Narrative”, Cerebrum, 2, Jan 2015. doi:[17] PJ Shoemaker, “Hardwired for news: using biological and cultural evolution to explain the surveillanceFunction”. J Commun 46(3):32–47, 1996[18] Ibid 10.[19] D Kahan, “Fixing the Communications Failure", Nature, 463, 296-297. 13, 2010.[20] Graham Riddick, “Blue Planet II is this year’s most watch show”, The Guardian, 6th November 2017.[21] BFI, BFI Statistical Yearbook, 2019.[22] Brian Merchant, ‘Nike and Boeing Are Paying Sci-Fi Writers to Predict Their Futures’, OneZero, 28th November 2018[23] Nancy Tartaglione, “The Night Manager registers £5.14m viewers in BBC One debut”, Deadline, 22nd February 2016.[24] “The King’s Speech”, European Audiovisual Observatory: LUMIERE, extracted 28th January 2021.[25] Anthony A. Leiserowitz, “Surveying the Impact of The Day After Tomorrow”, Environment, Vol. 49:9, 2004.

Pitch to us

With a panel of experts working across feature
film and TV, live action and animation, we’re
interested in stories in any genre and for any
age-group. Find out more about requirements
and how to pitch your idea to us.