Is the language we use to discuss the climate emergency causing people to become desensitized to fear instead of motivating them? | Roger Harrabin
As the start of Cop28 nears, Bertrand Piccard, a Swiss solar aviator and environmentalist, states that he will have the opportunity to speak at the conference and advocate for a reevaluation of the language we use when discussing climate change. He believes that certain terms related to climate change can cause people to become desensitized and fearful, rather than motivated to take action. He suggests using new terminology that presents our situation as an opportunity rather than a crisis.
“Green economy” is a phrase that inspires environmentalists but turns away those who see it as a threat to their lifestyle or an increase in their expenses. Piccard suggests renaming it the “clean economy” since nobody wants to be associated with something “dirty”. Similarly, he suggests using “clean energy” instead of “green energy”. He has compiled a list of commonly used terms that he believes could benefit from a rebranding.
Language is central to the way we deal with the climate crisis. Wrangling with words is the lifeblood of Cop delegates. Inside the negotiating halls, the US quells talk of “compensation” for nations damaged by climate events they didn’t cause; instead it insists on the more neutral phrase “loss and damage”. In the world outside, definitions have shifted as knowledge has grown. Climate change was initially labelled “the greenhouse effect” or “global warming” – until scientists fully cottoned on to how it could also provoke severe localised cold.
Certain individuals, such as the Guardian but not the BBC, argue that the term “climate change” sounds too mild and have instead labeled it the “climate crisis” or “climate emergency”. Others are concerned that “climate chaos” is the most fitting term to describe the onslaught of extreme events that are currently plaguing both humans and the environment.
However, in my 35 years of reporting on climate change for the BBC, I cannot remember any attempt to create a comprehensive climate terminology – particularly one that is already facing criticism for being biased towards greenwashing and corporate interests.
Piccard’s preliminary suggestion proposes exchanging: “green economy” with “clean economy”; “cost” with “investment”; “crisis” with “opportunity”; “problem” with “solution”; “sacrifice” with “advantage”; “lost jobs” with “new professions”; “ecological” with “logical”; “saving the planet” with “improving quality of life” (or “saving humankind”); “degrowth” with “efficiency”; and “next generation” with “current generation” (although Piccard is still considering this last one).
The majority of the phrases have a favorable and favorable for business connotation, and Piccard is not the pioneer in redefining the climate crisis as an opportunity to generate employment in a thriving economy. The UK’s Labour party has recently avoided using the term “climate” altogether. Instead, they offer the idea of clean job opportunities and financial gains. Similarly, President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act serves as a subsidy program for clean technology.
Some of Piccard’s proposals – such as “ecological|” to “logical” – don’t work for me. And his plan to re-present the current climate crisis as an opportunity must also acknowledge the dangerous state of the Earth. But “green economy” to “clean economy”; “cost” to “investment” and “saving the planet” to “protecting our society” (my suggestion) all seem sensible.
I reached out to influential individuals in the fields of climate and communication for their insights. Jon Alexander, a member of the New Citizenship Project, disagrees with certain suggested changes – such as replacing crisis with opportunity, problem with solution, and sacrifice with advantage. He believes there is merit in acknowledging the reality of the current crisis and recognizing the need for sacrifices to address major issues.
Rachael Orr, CEO of Climate Outreach, a communication specialist, believes that using the term “future generations” can be effective in telling a story, but it lacks the necessary sense of urgency. Therefore, using phrases like “current generation” that bring the time horizon closer can be more impactful.
Positive language is typically beneficial, however, many terms still seem directed towards privileged individuals. For instance, the term “new professions” may not elicit a positive response from steelworkers facing job loss. It is crucial for us to consider who has the power to dictate language. How would those in communities and nations most affected by climate change perceive these terms and language?
Experienced environmental expert Chris Rose suggests that in order for a change in terminology to be effective, it must take into account the varying priorities of the diverse audiences who will be exposed to discussions and messages about climate change.
The author states that environmentalists generally prioritize universal values, while many who oppose or delay action on climate change prioritize individual safety, security, and simplicity. He agrees with the suggestion of conducting further research on climate communication, but expresses caution about bringing in a charismatic and well-connected person like Piccard, who specializes in clean technology, into the discussion. He emphasizes the importance of thoroughly testing ideas before implementing them, as to avoid any potential distractions or delays.
John Marshall, a member of the Potential Energy Coalition, a non-profit organization consisting of media agencies, has spent four years studying and experimenting with climate communication. He proposes avoiding technical jargon and eliminating vague words like “anthropogenic” and “decarbonisation”. Instead, he recommends communicating in a relatable manner, connecting with individuals through their personal encounters with extreme heat, wildfires, and floods.
According to the climate language guide from his group, using localized messages can be more effective. For example, “Save Florida” resonates more with regular people than “Get to Net Zero by 2040.” His motto emphasizes the importance of connecting the issue of climate change to everyday individuals.
The little booklet should be recommended to every delegate to the upcoming Cop, every politician, business leader, teacher – and to journalists round the world like me. Because the need for action on this grave issue becomes more pressing with every climatic outburst.
Roger Harrabin is a previous BBC correspondent and currently serves as a fellow at St Catharine’s College in Cambridge.