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What We Talk About When We Talk About Climate Change

By: Shivani Milanmody

Language is one of the most beautiful ways of connecting with people. To be able to encapsulate a shared emotion, a vivid image or a particular way of thinking into a string of words that can be understood by the person opposite you is an experience we often take for granted. While language possesses the power to bring people together, to invoke memories, and to facilitate communication; language also has the terrifying ability to divide. Language can actively be used to confuse, obfuscate, and deny access.

climate change
Image Source: Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

When we talk about climate change, it is important to recognize whether the language we use has the potential of alienating people. The discourse around climate change is often limited to certain groups of people, such as activists, scientists and policy-makers; which makes it difficult for larger sections of society to engage with its nuances.

Especially in developing countries, where the language is often extrapolated from developed countries (along with ideologies, fashion, and other trends), the alienating effect is multiplied. To change the world, we need to change the way people think, which can only be done by changing the way we talk. There is a need to understand the ways in which current language around climate change is limited and to develop tools for a more inclusive language for communicating.

Potential Barriers

1. Echo Chambers

Did you know when Instagram tracks your algorithm to give you a personalized feed, it creates ‘filter bubbles’ to ensure that you only see content that you would approve of?

Humans too sometimes create personalized algorithms to form groups of people that share similar beliefs, which leads to the formation of echo chambers. Echo chambers are where ideas go to die. There is a reinforcement of what one believes in without any engagement with alternate ways of thinking. The discourse around climate change is often highly concentrated in the urban, educated elite population in developed countries.

Data analysis from the University of Kansas shows that not only political and media involvement is heavily inclined towards developed countries. Online conversation is also dominated by NGOs from rich countries, especially the global north and Oceania. This is dangerous as it leaves countries from the global south out of the conversation and limits their access to policymakers who might be able to make a difference.

Activists from poorer nations, tend to innately have access to limited resources, and excluding them from conversations leaves them doubly disadvantaged. The other group that engages with climate change is politicians and big corporates. Industrial lobby groups often fund political campaigns that covertly or overtly deny the scientific basis of climate change.

A list of the top climate change deniers exposes institutes and individuals who use confusing speeches and misinformation campaigns to delay substantial government policy initiatives. Most of these receive contributions from major fossil fuel companies.

Thus, a risk of discourse is limited to two echo chambers – that of climate change activists and climate change deniers. The lack of engagement as well as communication gaps between the two groups leaves in the general public to navigate complex mathematical graphs and incomprehensible scientific jargon in order to decode the realities of climate change.

2. Lost in Translation

Susan Joy Hassol, a climate change communicator and analyst, points out that there is a fundamental barrier between traditionally scientific language and its audience. As mentioned earlier the use of jargon and heavily scientific terms often make people such as policymakers, journalists, and the general public to feel lost and overwhelmed. While active reading and engagement can help people understand the language of lengthy academic papers dealing with climate change, not everyone is willing or able to go that extra mile.

Data and numbers are too abstract and distant for people to understand their real-world impacts and intensities. A farmer in a small village in a country that hasn’t established a robust public distribution system isn’t going to care much about rising sea levels unless you are able to demonstrate how it affects his annual crop

Secondly, a lot of words used by scientists are used in a context that does not align with their normal usage. Phrases such as positive feedback are assumed to be a good thing and error margins are labeled bad. While scientifically, positive feedbacks are a vicious climate change cycle and error bars are simply a range of possibilities around a particular projection.

What is lost in translation are the very real harms about climate change caused by our current unsustainable lifestyles.

3. Euphemisms and Hyperboles

When we talk about climate change, often two approaches are taken. There is sometimes an effort to undermine the effect of words by using a language that is less jarring. Alternatively, some predictions over-estimate and exaggerate the realities of the damage caused due to climate change.

An overly optimistic viewpoint can reduce the awareness of environmental damage and allow for various atrocities towards the climate to go unnoticed. On the other hand, an overly pessimistic view can lead to people dismissing the proclaimers as alarmists. It can also imbibe is a sense of helplessness within the public that may lead to inaction.

Oliver Houck, a professor of law at Tulane University, compiled a list of important euphemisms that are used in environmental law. He claims that the vocabulary developed to understand environmental law violations, is not accidental but rather designed to lessen the perceived intensity of such crimes.

There is consequentially a blurring of the negative bearing of corporate activities such as strip mining, waste dumping, clearcutting, and so on. On the contrary, there is the use of hyperboles by climate change alarmists who often resort to scaremongering and presenting the worse case scenarios. Often headlines are designed to be clickbait.

An article in the New York Post analyses how multiple media claims leave out moderating factors while asserting predictions about climate change. Their estimates are based on an assumption that absolutely no one would adapt to climate change over the next century. The language used by alarmists has adverse effects on mental health leading to climate anxiety and so on.

Doomerism is as dangerous as climate change denial as it paralyzes people and often leads to expenditure that is not smartly targeted. There is a need to communicate real and possible impacts of the middle-of-the-road estimates for the end of the century, lest we are overcome by a wave of nihilism that causes us to lose faith in the importance of our actions.

One -Size Fits All Environmentalism

Pretty infographics and color-coded pamphlets often advocate environmentalism that is based almost entirely on product substitution and minor adjustments to the daily routine.

While these might serve their purpose in a limited sense, the truth is that environmentally friendly products are nor easily available nor are they budget-friendly. While the suggestions to replace plastic toothbrushes with bamboo toothbrushes come from a good place, they often ignore the lived realities of people in developing countries.

Apart from being impractical, these solutions are also often irrelevant in certain contexts. The campaign to stop consumption of fast fashion, to us public transport, to eat locally, and to opt line-drying clothes instead of using dryers are inadvertently followed by a large population in developing countries. Solutions to reduce carbon footprint cannot be tone-deaf and need to be tailored according to context and lifestyles.

Towards a More Holistic Language

After having understood the key barriers that limit the accessibility of climate change conversations, it is important to develop solutions that would encourage a move towards more inclusive and holistic language. Since developing countries are most often left out of the conversation, they become key stakeholders while considering a revamped climate change language.

The Disproportionate Burden of Climate Change

In order to develop a unique climate change language for developing countries, it is important to acknowledge the disproportionate burden that these countries face. The historical concentration of wealth and industry in developed countries meant that they are responsible for 79% of emissions from 1850 to 2011.

The major challenge for poor countries is to continue developing under the planetary carbon limits that have been already pushed by richer countries. Further, developing countries are the most vulnerable to climate change and the least equipped to deal with its effect. Understanding this unfair burden can help create a more compassionate way of talking about climate change.

Humanize the Issue

Complicated scientific jargon will be unable to penetrate in areas with lower rates of literacy and limited access to resources such as the internet. To reach people who might otherwise be unable to understand the implications of climate change, it is important to tell a story rather than presenting graphs and statistics.

Framing the issue in the context of human health problems and economic sustainability instead of a purely environmental issue will make people more responsive to climate change policies.

It is easier to tap into the audience’s deeply hierarchical priorities by appealing to their survival instincts and portraying immediate personal loss linked to climate change. Research has demonstrated that citizens who view climate change as being harmful to people are significantly more likely to support climate policy responses. Thus, bringing the issue closer to home, by using a background of ethics based on the human impact of climate change can lead to more effective communication.

Localizing the Risks

It easy to understand climate change as something that is geographically and temporarily distant. Images of polar bears losing habitat in the Antarctic or wild forest fires in the Amazon are used to drive home messages of environmental degradations. However, these stock photos help people to physically imagine themselves as separate from the effects of climate change.

Replacing this with issues that are closer to home, creates a more proximate and immediate mental association of risk within people’s minds. Focusing media attention on local issues and news of environmental issues in regional contexts would help increase empathy as well as concern. This will enhance public engagement and lead to the sustained meaningful discourse around policy-development.

Tailor-Made Solutions

Solutions need to be engineered keeping in mind the communities it is aimed at. Personalizing a response to climate change can also facilitate a win-win situation for local groups. A lot of steps taken to reduce emissions of heat-trapping pollutants have the added benefit of improving health and lifestyle.

In more urban set-ups, government plans can help increase the availability of public transport which serves the dual purpose of reducing pollution and also easing movement in the city. Similarly, in agriculture intensive communities, a move towards ecological farming can lead to more sustainable use of land while also yielding healthy and safer crops for consumption.

Revamping Curriculums

An essential element of promoting change is through advocacy. Inculcating climate conscientious at an early age encourages a change in attitude while also promoting informed decision-making. Adding relevant portions regarding environmental education and climate change as compulsory parts of the syllabus would equip an entire generation to deal with the crisis.

It would allow for the development of adjustment as well as mitigation strategies at an early change which would eventually translate into policy decisions. The younger generation is one of the biggest stakeholders in the climate change debate as they will be left to live in the reality of the currently dying world. Increasing awareness and communicating threats will ensure that the conversation remains inclusive. Tapping into one
of the most potentially passionate sub-sections of society could be achieved through activism being inculcated at a universal school level.

Climate change is a global threat, but it does not manifest itself in a globally uniform way. The effects and causes of various threats to the climate are unique to specific regions and nations.

Thus, policy development and response should be adjusted given the same. To achieve this there is an immediate need to develop a language that is specific to time, context, and place of the discourse while also being sensitive to the audience. Unless climate change communication in inclusive, the movement will remain limited and run the threat of becoming stagnant.

(The Final Stand is a student run law and policy initiative focussing on climate change and environmental issues. Their Instagram and Twitter)

(The views expressed in the article are the author’s own. Let Me Breathe neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

Shivani Milanmody

Shivani Milanmody

Shivani Mody is a third-year law student studying at Jindal Global Law School. She has a keen interest in environmental law and gender studies.

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