Climate change, storytelling, and the subversive power of imagination

Deborah Dutta

I write this under the gloomy shadow of cloudy skies that burst into spells of rain like a child throwing a tantrum. In this case though, perhaps I am the one acting like a sulky teenager, getting angry at the clouds for being, well-clouds. The irritation has a deeper cause, nevertheless. It is the shallow end of an existential worry plaguing countless people in various forms. I am amongst the lucky people for whom such things are not much more than minor inconveniences unless one knows the full arc of causal relationships. For others, losing their livelihood, home, and even their lives, are ever-present dangers. Cyclone Michaung recently swept through Chennai, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Such extreme events are occurring with increasing frequency. A common denominator of climate change (CC) embeds these events; a metronome pacing of unfolding disasters. The recently held 28th United Nations Climate Change conference (COP 28), renewed the commitments of nations to curb CC, even as the choice of the presiding president and venue for the event was rife with controversy*. After decades of attempts to devise and deploy CC-based solutions, of which there are many, why have countries failed to implement any significant changes? Depends on who you ask. An economist would probably describe the costs of implementing available solutions and how fossil fuels still mean more profit (after externalizing everything that sustains our life, of course). Governments may point to the risks of angering voters if any radical change were to be proposed. Engineers worry about the scale of implementation required. However, the psychological and cognitive challenges of CC are not discussed as much, even though these challenges are common across all stakeholders and decision-makers.

Simply put, CC is a prime example of ‘wicked problems’ because it is hard to define the range of issues it encompasses. The causal relationships and scales are not easy to understand, let alone empathize. A burning house nearby will most likely elicit in us a more urgent action, as opposed to information about a 1.5°C rise at a planetary level, even though the latter will cause much more disruption. Why so? Because a burning house is so much more real, tangible and likely to impact us immediately. Our minds and bodies are best equipped to handle such situations. Long-term, seemingly abstract effects? Not so much.

Political scientist Manjana Milkoreit rightly argues that the failure to engage with CC issues isn’t due to a lack of action, but of imagination. She elegantly explains how our imagination is largely bound to the systems we live in. The rise of social media and cultural memes even threatens to erase contextual ideas and preferences in favour of homogenizing trends (like the ‘naan and paneer masala-fying’ of the entire range of Indian cuisines). We draw ideas from what we know and what already exists in our surroundings. So, thinking of radically different futures that are bound to result due to the unfolding climate dynamics presents an unprecedented challenge. Beyond funds, technology, and political will, we desperately need minds skilled at envisioning alternate forms of economy, society, and culture. How does one learn to imagine? More importantly, can it be taught?

Illustration: Sunil Chawdiker

Fortunately, we have done this before. In fact, one may argue it is the cornerstone of civilization: our ability to listen and tell stories. With a focus on climate fiction, Milkoreit writes,
“Cli-fi stories invite readers to see themselves – in their humanness – in future, imagined conditions. Cli-fi thus draws upon the full range of emotional, intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual capacities rather than appearing simply as a set of data points. This humanization allows us to feel, taste, smell, and think about climate change more personally, creating meaning, relevance, and potentially the urgency currently absent from many political conversations.”

From a process-oriented approach, imagination requires actively adapting and reconfiguring familiar perspectives and events into novel situations. The ability to ask the perennial ‘What if’. The malleability of conceptual categories is highest in children. As adults, many ideas and concepts are internalized to the extent that they are also more resistant to change. In other words, we must nurture the literal open-mindedness of children to explore future possibilities and engage in serious conversations about their anticipations and anxieties. Following this line of inquiry, a project titled The Earth Authors for Climate Change (EACC) undertaken by Cogitation Club in partnership with the Youth Conservation Action Network (YouCAN) in Chennai is a critical exploration of facilitating authentic perspectives through stories authored by children.

Following a series of carefully curated exploratory visits to vulnerable and endangered ecosystems in Chennai and discussions with field experts, activists, and conservationists, a group of teenagers enrolled in two alternative schools were guided to author CC stories based on their understanding and interest. The resulting stories^ offer a rich insight into the emotions and dilemmas felt by the authors as they found ways to express their new discoveries and realizations about the spaces they visited. Many stories, interestingly, featured non-human protagonists in the form of a bus, a carbon dioxide molecule, a tree, and a field amongst others. The stories also show children’s willingness to engage with complex questions without seeking simplistic ‘good vs bad’ solutions. Most of the children commented on how they independently researched specific topics to write their story following the initial hook of interest fostered through the field visits and conversations with experts. Their emotional connection allowed them to parse information in ways that mattered to them thereby allowing them to actively imagine various possibilities instead of being passive recipients of abstract facts.

A meaningful engagement with contextual issues is crucial to feel invested in future scenarios. In moving out of their comfort zones to understand the conditions of the marginalized and vulnerable, these children are better positioned to relate to the dilemmas and injustice associated with climate change. For instance, who can/should speak for the fisherfolk facing the brunt of ‘development projects’ along the coast? What will the coasts look like 50 years from now? What would it mean to live in a city where the air has become too toxic to breathe? Children’s voices indicate that they are keen to participate in such discussions. This is where we unwittingly fail them as educators – by prioritizing familiarity with facts over fostering the motivation to learn and imagine. It doesn’t have to be this way.

As we enter the uncharted waters of an uncertain world, we have a responsibility to equip children with the skills to imagine, adapt, and engage with the social, political, technological, and ethical aspects of their future lives in connection with CC. Encouraging reading and writing of stories can provide a creative anchor for these explorations.

In his book ‘Future Shock’, futurist Alvin Toffler argued, “If we view it (Science Fiction) as a kind of sociology of the future, rather than as literature, science fiction has immense value as a mind-stretching force for the creation of the habit of anticipation… they can lead young minds through an imaginative exploration of the jungle of political, social, psychological, and ethical issues that will confront these children as adults.”

It is heartening to see a growing collection of stories~ on environmental issues in India, with a focus on local contexts, and more-than-human voices becoming popular and accessible. These can form critical resources for educators to encourage children to articulate their own perspectives and actively contribute to a collective vision of ecological wellbeing. As their life stories unfold in the coming decades, they can give themselves a fighting chance to develop and choose the possibilities of living well.

• Milkoreit, Manjana. “The promise of climate fiction: imagination, storytelling, and the politics of the future.” In Reimagining climate change, pp. 171-191. Routledge, 2016.
• Jamal, Aneesa, Abubakr Jamal, SanitahMohd Yusof, and Corrienna Abdul Talib. “Not Fair! Impact of PBL & critical pedagogy based climate change teaching module on Indian children’s meaning making.” 2023. URL:
• Toffler, Alvin. Future shock. Bantam, 1984.




The author is a researcher working in the field of education and sustainability transitions, with a focus on community-based approaches such as urban farming. She enjoys collecting and sharing stories, seeds, and recipes. Find more about her literary rambles at She can be reached at

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