Last month, the World Meteorological Organization announced there is a two-thirds likelihood that the annual average near-surface global temperature between 2023 and 2027 will be more than 1.5°C above preindustrial levels for at least one year.
What goes through your head when you read that? Personally, I get a red, flashing sign that says “BAD” and then, more quickly than I care to admit, I’m back to considering how to turn the wasteland that is my fridge into an acceptable lunch. (For the record, the answer is almost always an omelet.)
I care deeply about the environment. That’s why I do the job I do as director of Leff’s Sustainability Group. But I sometimes struggle to engage on issues that feel too abstract; facts and statistics can only go so far. To really get involved—to make the effort to understand the issues and then act constructively—I need stories.
But the thing with stories is that they affect everyone differently. Our response will depend on a host of factors, including our life experience, priorities, and relationship to the issue under discussion. When Malians hear that deforestation leads to a hotter, drier climate, for example, they may worry about the threat to livestock and increasing desertification. The same story might cause some of my more irresponsible fellow Brits to smugly predict that our sparkling wines may soon edge out Champagne.
For most people that worry about climate change, I suspect that there will have been one trigger story—one issue that began to chip away at their previous unconcern. For me, it was the threat to a much-loved bird.
Many people are not even aware of the existence of swifts, mistaking them for swallows. Doing so is like mistaking a Concorde for a Boeing 747. A swift is a muscle-bound boomerang, faster than any other bird when in level flight. And they live in near constant motion, commonly flying around two million kilometers in their lifetime, which is equivalent to flying around the globe 50 times. They tumble from their nests under the eaves of old buildings and fly straight to Africa, sleeping—and even mating—on the wing. Fledglings may not land again until they build nests of their own. Some may only return to the ground once their heart has stopped beating.
The swift family is an old one. So ancient, in fact, that they once shared the earth with dinosaurs. Yet, despite our long period of cohabitation, we know remarkably little about them. And what we do know is of recent origin. The Ancient Greeks insisted swifts had no legs. Until the 18th century, they were believed to hibernate in the mud at the bottom of ponds. And we still don’t fully understand how they navigate.
But best of all—even better than their unknowability—is their call. I was brought up under a hill in Northern Scotland, which meant that the swifts’ mid-May return from migration would coincide with the very first of the warmer weather. We would hear them before we saw them, and their long, single-note scream—nothing more nor less than liquid joy—would elicit one of my own. They remain the soundtrack of my childhood summers.
There is a real risk, however, that our skies will fall silent. There was a 57 percent drop in the breeding population of Apus Apus, the swift most common in the United Kingdom, between 1995 and 2017. A number of factors have contributed to this decline, but we humans are at the root of all of them: global warming has further complicated their epic migration; pesticide use has decimated the insects they eat; housing development has cut into safe nesting sites; and swift nests are highly sought after for bird’s nest soup.
Ted Hughes wrote of swifts that “They’ve made it again, [w]hich means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s [s]till waking refreshed.” I know exactly what he means. It has taken an astounding, improbable world to permit these astounding, improbable birds to exist, zigzagging across continents over millions of years. And their decline has long been, for me, emblematic of humanity’s unforgiveable failure to understand, respect, and protect our natural environment. I want our skies to again dance with swifts. This desire is a foundational reason—though of course not the only one—that I engage on climate change in the way I do.
This story might not be the right one for you.1 But I’d wager there’s something that makes you feel similar. Perhaps it’s the fate of another species or of a favorite place. Perhaps it’s predictions about the world of your grandchildren. Or perhaps it’s something else entirely. And for many of those who still haven’t been moved to care, it may be that we just haven’t yet found the stories that will resonate.
Collectively, we already know much of what we need to do to fight climate change. We need changes to laws and regulations; we need to scale existing technologies more quickly; and we need more research, development, and innovation. But that won’t be enough. Success will require universal behavior change—and for that, we need better stories.