How is storytelling helping young islanders define their carbon neutral futures?


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Humans have a unique capacity for storytelling. Our perspectives are shaped by the stories we tell about ourselves and the world around us. In an era of global crises such as climate change, we are often bombarded with doomsday media narratives which can leave us feeling paralysed by fear and helplessness. With greenhouse gas emissions ever increasing, and large fossil fuel companies and the governments who support them continuing to pursue business as usual, these apocalyptic narratives are not necessarily inaccurate. Recently, however, attention has turned to what storytelling can do to help reshape our visions of the future by creating emotional connections to the possibility of a carbon neutral world. 

Islands and islanders are among the first to be experiencing the effects of climate change. Described by former US President Barack Obama during COP26 as ‘canaries in the coal mine’, entire islands are already being lost to sea-level rise and coastal erosion. The loss (and anticipatory loss) of land and ties to island places creates a huge emotional burden for islanders, who already face unique challenges from climate change based on their varying remoteness and lack of resources.

In Scotland, young islanders are imagining ways in which they can reclaim agency in the face of climate change by telling their own stories of a carbon neutral future. The Climate Change Message in a Bottle project, funded by the Scottish Government and based at the Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance, is gathering stories and artwork from young islanders representing their hopes for sustainable island life in the year 2040. In 2021, the project brought messages from island schoolchildren around Scotland and the world to COP26 in Glasgow. Island Innovation continues to host these messages on the Climate Change Message in a Bottle online map

Many of Scotland’s islands are already beginning to suffer from the effects of climate change. With increased storm frequency and intensity in winter, ferries (which most Scottish islands rely on for resources and transport) may be cancelled more regularly, and coastal erosion is damaging sea-level housing, heritage sites and roads. In fact, it is predicted that £1.2bn of coastal infrastructure in Scotland may be at risk of inundation by 2050. Island biodiversity is declining, including the loss of seabird colonies in archipelagos like the Shetland Islands. Low lying isles such as Tiree, Uist and Orkney are particularly at risk of sea-level rise. 

2022 has been designated Scotland’s Year of Stories. Scotland is home to diverse cultures of storytelling going back generations, especially within the oral traditions of Gaelic and Scots languages. While stories of the past may shape how we understand the present, stories of the future create space for thinking in new ways and reclaiming a sense of control over the rapidly changing circumstances that climate change brings to islands. Everyone has an inner narrator, and by encouraging young islanders to imagine what life might be like in the year 2040, Climate Change Message in a Bottle is helping to close the gap between now and what lies ahead. In thinking through what their lives might be like in the future, participating students can imagine alternate post-climate change realities, help to generate community engagement, and put themselves in other people’s shoes, including those of their future selves. 

Climate Change Message in a Bottle is closely linked with the Carbon Neutral Islands project, a 2021 programme for government commitment, according to which the Scottish Government is aiming to support up to six Scottish islands in becoming fully carbon neutral by 2040. Through Climate Change Message in a Bottle, young islanders’ stories and perspectives will be acknowledged in the Carbon Neutral Islands progress report, to be released in Summer 2022, and one piece of artwork will be selected by public vote to be included on its front cover. Furthermore, their stories will help to inform the future agenda of Youth Scotland’s newly established Young Islanders Network, which aims to help young people offer contributions to the delivery of the National Islands Plan, as well as to benefit from training opportunities and implement changes in their own communities. 

While island futures remain uncertain in an era of climate change, storytelling allows young people – the first of the not-so-distant future generations – to make a carbon neutral future seem real, attainable, and possible. The arts are a powerful tool for forging narratives on the climate crisis, and young people’s and islanders’ voices must be given a central position in decision making. 

To stay up to date with the Climate Change Message in a Bottle project and read the young islanders’ stories, click here, or follow @cop26messagebottle on Instagram and @SCELG on Twitter. Climate Change Message in a Bottle is grateful for funding and support from the Scottish Government, and collaborations with Island Innovation, Youth Scotland and Scottish Islands Federation.

Article written by Bethany Walsh, Knowledge Exchange Assistant at Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance (SCELG)


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