What comes to mind when you hear the phrase ‘climate change’? Chances are it’s a polar bear on a melting glacier – a classic image that seems to have become the face of climate change in the public eye. As sad as the image is, its widespread use is problematic. The polar bear is very hard to relate to and focusing on such far-away victims only distances us from the issue.
This article will explore why communication surrounding climate change is failing to inspire action, and how we can change the way we talk about it for a more positive effect!
Our current use of language doesn't work
While research shows that most climate change information is now scientifically accurate, it is usually presented in written form as complex figures and statistics. Important climate change reports such as those released by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) are littered with academic language that is not only difficult to understand but impossible to relate to; most people don’t have time to translate it into simpler terms. This inaccessibility alienates listeners and decreases their engagement with the subject.
"We're failing to communicate that this is something new and exceptional." - George Marshall
The phrases ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ were first used in a paper by Wallace S. Broecker in 1975, and when you think about how much science has progressed since then, it’s surprising that they still circulate so widely today.
Environmentalist and Climate Outreach founder George Marshall argues that “because they both came from a scientific discourse, with no thought given to whether the language would help our understanding of the issue at hand, they both have weaknesses”. ‘Global warming’ suggests that the only issue is an increase in temperature and is frequently used as a synonym for the other, despite scientific proof that there will be kinds of changes. And ‘climate change’ suggests something “gradual and managed” – it doesn’t communicate the urgency required to reduce its effects.
In 2019, The Guardian announced that it was ditching these old terms in favour of “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” and “global heating”. The editor-in-chief Katharine Viner agrees that the original terms sound “rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity”. But are these terms enough to inspire change?
"When you have an issue of unprecedented crisis, such that you've never had to experience before, putting together these compounds of existing words doesn't really cut it"
Many people believe that we’ll have to create completely new words to describe each stage of climate change as we go through them, which may bring more attention to the issue and (hopefully) a wider understanding that the problems we face are also new, and imminent.
But it’s hard enough to get people to care regardless of language. As an enemy we can’t feel or see, climate change is extremely hard to comprehend, and the situation is too big for anyone to truly fathom. In a report for DW Planet A, Amanda Coulson-Drasner states that “people are speaking about timelines that are either really far in the distant past, or very far in the distant future”. Considering how fast our news cycle is, this is a waste of time – when people repeatedly hear stories that they can’t relate to, they switch off. Climate change-related news is often negative and doesn’t usually present us with actions we can take now, which makes listeners feel powerless and try to avoid the subject altogether.
How can climate communication create a bigger impact?
Climate science must become more accessible and easier to comprehend. Knowledge should be openly available and provide the option of non-academic articles with a simpler user experience in mind. Better interfaces and playful graphic design will increase interest and engagement with the subject, along with the use of pictures and diagrams, which are not only more appealing but will also aid people’s understanding of ideas.
Complicated topics need to be made more relatable – listeners need images they can immediately connect with. By broadcasting stories told from the level of everyday experiences, reporters can highlight that climate change affects everyone, and all our basic physiological needs (air, food, water etc.).
"Caring about climate change means recognizing that climate change affects other things that you care about"
We need to talk about the idea of collective power rather than focusing on individual responsibility. People too easily believe that their personal actions won’t make a difference but will be more easily persuaded by a sense of community (as well as feeling less guilty, which doesn’t help anyone!).
Climate reporting should also be prioritising narratives set in the present and near future – focus should be on the actions we can take now! Discussions should encourage listeners to think about what is possible, rather than what is too late to change, and avoid negativity where possible.
Storytelling will have a massive role in the future of climate change, but the universal good vs evil structure doesn’t really apply in this scenario: we’re all part of the problem and the solution.
"If you depict a friendlier, more pleasant & more liveable future and show the steps towards it, it may just inspire people to go there."
We must create a narrative where we all unite and act to reduce the effects of our changing world.