Can words wake us up?

Language for the fight against climate change
Mike Reed
by Mike Reed

UN Secretary-General António Gutteres recently announced that the “era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived”. The situation is, as he put it more straightforwardly, “terrifying”.

It is – but we’re not behaving as if we’re terrified. In part, this is down to the awful paradox of climate change: it’s a screamingly urgent crisis that’s arrived slowly, and which even now maybe doesn’t seem so bad – at least, not to those in the relatively comfortable global north, where most of the power is.

Even wildfires chasing tourists out of Greek hotels, or the air turning toxic orange in New York City, still have a freakish aspect: awful for those affected, but broadly aberrant and bearable – like an earthquake or tornado.

The Secretary-General’s somewhat strained language of “global boiling” is just the latest attempt to find language that might pierce this complacency and inspire real action. It reminded me of this recent piece by Jonathan Freedland, about the importance (or possibly impotence) of language in times like these.

Forest fires

Bushfires below Stacks Bluff, Tasmania, Australia. Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash.

The truth is not enough

As Freedland points out, in a crisis so extreme, it’s easy to assume “the facts will speak for themselves”. When the fire is literally at your door, isn’t that enough?

Unfortunately, no: humans are just not that rational. But also, this is not new information. For decades, people have been smoking cigarettes from packs printed with lines like SMOKING KILLS. I used to do it myself, God help me. Almost everyone did – all the time, and everywhere. When action was finally taken to stop us knowingly poisoning ourselves and those around us, we sulked and even protested.

Looking back at those days, we appear insane. The same way we did when we refused to wear seatbelts. It’s not insanity, though – it’s human nature. We’re irrational, emotional beings, generally terrible at prioritising safety over pleasure or convenience. Especially when the danger is slow-moving or erratic enough for us to do the ‘it won’t happen to me’ thing.

We’re not behaving as if we’re terrified. In part, this is down to the awful paradox of climate change: it’s a screamingly urgent crisis that’s arrived slowly.

No planet B

Climate protestors in Union Square, San Francisco, United States. Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash.

Unfortunately, there will be no looking back with wiser eyes at the demise of humanity. So is there any way to talk about this crisis in a way that truly ‘lands’ – in other words, that inspires meaningful action?

Freedland quotes David Fenton, a PR specialist, advocating metaphors like “a blanket of pollution trapping heat on Earth”: words everyone understands, rather than abstract or technical terms.

I’m all for everyday language, but the blanket analogy – while a potentially useful explainer – isn’t much of a rallying cry. Also, ‘pollution’ feels a bit old-fashioned – like a problem we’ve largely dealt with, or at least can live with. And ‘blanket’ sounds rather nice and protective – indeed, NASA use it that way in this article about the greenhouse effect.

We certainly need to be using words like ‘crisis’ and ‘emergency’ far more consistently. Kate Raworth, visionary author of Doughnut Economics, tends to talk about “climate breakdown”, which has the benefit of being more descriptive: it conjures imagery better than the more abstract words, I’d say. This more urgent language feels right. But can we do more?

Get personal

I’m always arguing for language to be specific and precise. Whether it’s selling beans or campaigning for climate action, we need to get away from the abstract and speak to the specifics that affect us personally.

One of the best-known copywriting mantras is ‘benefits, not features’. In this case, maybe we need to think ‘threats, not features’. It’s not about retreating sea ice or increasing wildfires (features). It’s about the end of humanity (threat).

That idea is all too easy to turn away from – just as a smoker blocks out the reality that SMOKING KILLS. After all, what’s more fun: contemplating a future where our children fight over Earth’s last scraps of habitable land, or looking at cats on Instagram? Climate messaging doesn’t just have to persuade – it has to overcome that desire not to think about the issue at all. No mean feat.

Rebel For Life min 1

Extinction Rebellion poster. Photo by Paulina Milde-Jachowska on Unsplash.

It's not about the planet

Extinction Rebellion is a good reference here, I think. It’s a brilliant name, because ‘extinction’ is the real issue – not ‘climate change’. Talk of protecting the planet or saving the environment is accurate but misses the point – and perhaps even distracts from it.

I’ll never forget the girl at school who said, “Oh, the environment. I don’t want to live there anyway.” It might sound laughable, but how much do we – even as adults – really connect concepts like ‘environment’ to our daily lives, or think of them ahead of our own trials and tribulations?

My hunch is that we shouldn’t focus on the planet, or even climate. The planet will be fine. Its only serious existential threat is the death of the sun, which won’t become urgent for a few million years. Likewise, the climate can change all it likes. It did so for aeons before we arrived, and will keep doing so long after we have, quite possibly, erased ourselves from Earth. It’s humanity we need to worry about. Us. That’s where I’d focus my messaging.

Climate justice placard

Strike for climate protest in Nuremberg, Germany. Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

Lessons from COVID?

The pandemic surely has things to teach here. It came on fast, unlike the climate crisis, and started affecting us all pretty immediately. There was a killer on the loose, moving through communities like – well, like wildfire.

So we acted – as individuals and, most importantly, as nations. Not fast enough, sure, and no doubt imperfectly. But we made changes, committed resources, and innovated at a level no one would have thought possible even weeks before. As populations (if not Prime Ministers), we agreed to live under restrictions more extreme than almost anyone could recall.

We did so because the threat was immediate and personal. It wasn’t about bees or polar bears, but about us. Effective climate messaging should accept that we are self-interested creatures (as all creatures are) and speak to that.

So what's the answer?

Having read this far, you may quite reasonably be waiting for me to unveil my own brilliant phrase that solves the problem. I don’t have one. Sorry. But I do think it’s worth trying to find one. (Or more than one: if the climate were a client, we’d be creating a set of messaging that could meet different moments.)

Whatever it is, it should be specific, dramatic, and personal. ‘Global boiling’ is still quite abstract – and a bit awkward. Again, it’s not about a boiling globe, but the end of humanity. A return to Earth sans Sapiens. (One of the other problems with this crisis is that the truth always sounds like hyperbole.)

So, Human Extinction? That’s fairly provocative. My ears might prick up if the news report said, “Renewables are the key to avoiding human extinction.”

Humanity’s Last Chance? There’s a useful glimmer of hope there, without losing the urgency. “97% of scientists agree that this is humanity’s last chance.”

Lethal Climate? That does something subtle: rather than focus on ‘change’, which is at best a neutral word, it gets to the point: this change will kill us. “We have less than a decade to avoid a lethal climate” sounds pretty motivating to me.

I don’t think I’ve cracked it yet, but I’ll keep thinking, and I’d love to hear any suggestions. Or, indeed, whether you think language has any power here at all. I really hope it does. We need all the help we can get.


This article was originally published in Creative Review.

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