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  • Writer's pictureKatie Duffy

The Language of Climate Crisis: How Words Shape Attitudes and Drive Action

One of the biggest milestones in a baby's life is uttering their first word. No matter what that small gurgle may be, it brings a sense of joy and marks the start of their journey to communicate. One may wonder, "Why is this so important?"

It's because it signifies so much more. This small earthling is now making sense of the world and trying to convey it to those around them. The proverbial cogs in its soft little skull are beginning to whirl into life. The ability to communicate is one of the most important skills one can learn, using a variety of mediums, languages, and levels. We make sense of the world through language and description, crafting social fabric from these clumsy vowels and consonants.

We construct and share narratives about the world, interwoven through communities and cultures. We use these narratives to rationalize the world around us. Among many other wonderful mediums, we utilize language in various forms to convey the messages we want to be heard. And the language we use is hugely important. The inability to cohesively communicate is frustrating at its simplest level and dangerous at its highest. And how do we communicate? Through language.

When it comes to the climate crisis, the language we use is paramount. It can be informative or studded with incomprehensible jargon. It can be alarmist or passive, and most striking of all, it can be politically motivated. These political influences have the power, through language, to muddle the waters surrounding resounding scientific evidence.

In 1975, scientist Wallace Broecker included "global warming" in the title of one of his papers, introducing the term to the public consciousness. This brought a small hint of alarm and public debate surrounding the possibility of adverse anthropocentric impacts on the climate. During the Bush administration, Frank Luntz, an infamous political language specialist, recommended rephrasing "global warming" to "climate change" in favor of a less alarmist use of language.

The term "climate change" was less offensive and uncomfortable, seeming more natural. It was quickly adopted by the media and the public. However, it had already quietly altered the discourse, and its repercussions are still felt today. Neutral language like this allows room for nuance and skepticism. There are ongoing debates about whether framing climate evidence in an alarmist fashion holds any value. But at what point does sounding the alarm become pigeonholed into unnecessary alarmism?

In 2016, the UN began using the term "climate emergency" to invoke a sense of danger and spark a call to action. Subsequently, over 2,329 jurisdictions in 40 countries have declared climate emergencies, reflecting a conscious push towards urgent language. In addition, Oxford Dictionaries named "climate emergency" the word of 2019, with its usage soaring to an incredible 10,796. The shortlist that year also included "climate crisis," "climate action," "climate denial," and "global heating."

This reflects a rising awareness in the public consciousness of the urgency needed to convey decision-making in line with the severity of the climate crisis. Behavioral linguistics, the science-based use of language to persuade, plays a significant role in how people view and react to this crisis. As the crisis has intensified, and its current and future impacts have become more profound, more emotive and strategic language has become commonplace.

However, research from Yale University discovered that despite people being able to grasp the realities of the science behind the climate crisis, they still tend to feel antipathetic towards it. This phenomenon is known as implicatory denial, where people may believe in the climate crisis, but their behaviour doesn't reflect it as the idea is too large to comprehend. Denial serves as a coping mechanism.

In 2019, the globally renowned leftist behemoth, the Guardian, made the decision to no longer use passive language in their writing about climate, aiming to reflect the urgency of the predicament we find ourselves in. Climate change would now be referred to as "climate emergency" and "climate crisis," while "climate science denier" would replace "climate skeptic" to convey urgency and indicate the role of climate change denialism in disputing scientific facts.

This rejection of passivity in favor of invoking a sense of urgency was hailed by grassroots and community activists worldwide as a small win and a small step for those fighting to make a difference. Word choice, seemingly unimportant, is part of a much broader set of communicative challenges that have the ability to hinder political will. Words have the power to shape perspectives and attitudes towards issues and, in an oxymoronic fashion, they can be the best tool in our arsenal but also our greatest enemy. The languages of mobilization and support can be undercut by those of denial and disinformation.

In 2022, an investigation was conducted into the role of fossil fuels in exacerbating the climate crisis, based on documents obtained from Shell, BP, ExxonMobil, and Chevron. This investigation, part of a congressional hearing in Washington DC, revealed that the industry was aware of the implications of their operations on the planet but chose to downplay and deny the impacts to the general public.

This investigation was supported by studies on the use of language and propaganda by oil companies like ExxonMobil. Researchers Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran found that the fossil fuel industry employed subtle micro-politics within language to downplay its role in causing the climate crisis. They continued using these tactics to undermine climate policy on an international scale. By publishing external documents that expressed doubt about climate science and consensus on the impact of fossil fuels, they constructed misleading public narratives, creating the impression of a splintered debate rather than a wealth of scientific evidence pointing to the fossil fuel industry as a purveyor of climate breakdown.

Climate change has been posed as a risk rather than a very real reality, with a hyper-focus on consumer energy demand as a façade for continuing operations. The transition of climate change from a physical phenomenon to a politically charged, social, and communicative issue reflects the role of political ideology in everyday discourse. As the realities of climate change seep more into the public consciousness, raising alarm and pushback, deflection is favoured to safeguard vested interests and shift blame.

The climate crisis is difficult for many to understand as it appears as such a monstrous, intangible concept with no end in sight and no everyday repercussions. But it doesn't have to be the case, nor a death sentence.

Accessible, unbiased, and properly weighted language has the ability to enable and inform the way people debate, act, and mobilize. The sentiments we attach to wording are important and can transform the political will needed for climate action, advocating for policies strong enough to combat this crisis. The climate crisis is already impacting the lives of billions of people, and we need to effectively communicate about this issue, which is not only the issue of our generation but potentially the issue for many generations to come.

Language can bring us together, but it can also tear us apart. It can be catastrophizing or empowering. Our language can invoke action and emotion, or it can stifle voices of concern and scientific facts. Language constructs reality, influencing attitudes, behaviour, and political will. Inaction and denialism stem from an inability to engage with this seemingly far-off and future issue. The only remedy to this is open communication, alongside properly weighed terminology backed by succinct scientific facts and accessible, inclusive policymaking.

As with the first words of a small child, we can continue to grow and become better. We can challenge obtuse forces and bear responsibility for our impact on this planet, and to all those who inhabit it. We can communicate better and stand in solidarity with those who are being disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis. We can teach our children better and we can relearn ourselves. Just as humanity took its first steps all those years ago, we can relearn how to walk - and then how to run.

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