People do perceive the risks from climate change; how could they not? We’ve seen devastating hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and drought. That commonality of experience doesn’t always translate into approval for government climate actions, however, as the urgency of the problem and the importance of taking action are difficult to communicate to the public. What can be done to help more people translate their climate concerns into approval of more legislative mitigation policies? Well, it might help to start using everyday language rather than complicated legalese or scientific discourse to expose the nuances of the climate crisis.
Average annual GHG emissions during 2010–2019 were higher than in any previous decade. Why aren’t those numbers real and scary to everyone? Is it something about how our brains work — so that we deny terrible realities? How might we better train our brains to mind the climate crisis? How can appropriating everyday language to address facts of the problem help?
In the US, the norm of “balanced reporting” has given more space to the voices of climate skeptics than scientific consensus would justify. In science communication, uncertainty has frequently been concerned with closing knowledge gaps; this means creating more knowledge about climate change and reducing uncertainties. Many people are unaware that there is a substantial difference between public understanding of uncertainty and scientists’ views.
The Metaphors of the Climate Crisis & Everyday Language
What was once constant climate source questioning has dissipated, and now different actors and target groups are necessarily involved in communicating climate change, among them scientists, politicians, industries, activists, and the general public.
In many instances, how climate change is framed through media communication is significant to people’s general, pervasive understandings. Frames are cognitive and cultural models which help us structure our knowledge and understanding. They are triggered by particular words or metaphors, and by prompting particular interpretations of word meanings they can account for multiple understandings of the same situation. It is clear that climate scientists, environmentalists, and climate change deniers — and others — understand humanity’s implication in the ecological crisis quite differently.
Framing climate change can include focusing on:
- Certainty/uncertainty — whether climate change is anthropogenic (i.e. caused by humans)
- Risks — extreme weather events/natural catastrophes
- Business and economic — if climate law exacerbate trade tensions
- Climate security –threats of conflict/war and food and water security
- Mitigation — reducing climate change and its effects
Metaphorical language abounds in discussions of framing climate change. In order to understand climate change and imagine its consequences, we need effective and emotionally impactful metaphors drawn from everyday experiences.
Metaphor discloses new perspectives on the world and is thus central to knowledge production. Generally we think of metaphors as the work of psychology and cognitive linguistics; George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s iconic Metaphors We Live By comes to mind. Metaphors in this sense are part of cognitive cross-domain mapping. If we ask questions about being immersed in nature, extreme weather events, and humanity’s overall impact on the climate, the human response is that of clear affective significance. That is, researchers remind us that climate change can be compared variously and with substantially different effect.
- As an illness afflicting our planet, it creates a conceptual association between vastly different semantic domains—the Earth’s climate and disease in living beings. The earth is not alive and thus cannot be “ill” in a literal way; yet the “sick planet” metaphor sheds light on climate change and its potentially deadly impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. The effect is that language users think about reality in ways that would not be available in purely literal discourse.
- The sublime, when understood ecologically, creates a pathway for realization of a new, more responsible perspective on our relationship with the natural environment.
- Ecological grief presents a deep sense of loss when faced with rapid species extinction or dramatic changes in ecosystems.
- Catastrophic narratives feed into the imagination of natural disaster and contribute to its ideological stakes.
IMF Survey Says Public Support for Climate Legislation Belies a Lack of Understanding
At the UN Climate Change Conference in late 2022, world leaders reaffirmed the 1.5 C goal of carbon reductions that’s been accepted as necessary to mitigate the climate crisis. Climate scenarios do point a way toward a less hot global future, and the scenarios can help show us what needs to be done — and what we can still do. Failing to get emissions on the correct course by 2030 may lock global warming above 2 degrees and risk a catastrophic tipping point at which climate change becomes self-perpetuating.
A recent IMF survey shows that providing even small amounts of information on policy efficacy and benefits — including co-benefits, such as improved air quality and better health — can engender greater support for climate legislation. This support, however, may also be short-lived if policy tradeoffs are not made explicit, highlighting the importance of ensuring the public understands the relative costs and benefits of available policy options.
The survey points to broader support for collective action and larger common ground for crafting international agreements than expected. A majority of respondents across all countries think that climate change policy will only be effective if most countries adopt measures to reduce carbon emissions through consensus-building. Yet knowledge of climate mitigation policies remains patchy, and many people still have no opinion when it comes to supporting or opposing climate policy actions in their country.
As a result of the survey, the IMF has some suggestions how governments can better support the urgent need for green transitions:
- Educate the public about the causes and consequences of climate change and the costs of inaction
- Talk about the costs of inaction, such as pollution, and the benefits of addressing these, like improvements for air quality, health, and protection of low-income households
- Emphasize that the policies work, so the trade-offs are worth it
- Underscore the shared spirit of solidarity and need for strong climate policies in a broad range of economies
Approaching the Climate Crisis as a Multidimensional Problem
Two biology educators in England outline in an editorial that biological education has great value in the context of climate change and sustainability education, and they list 3 ways that the language and pedagogy that educators use intensely enhances to young people’s ecological literacy.
- Everyday language and images used to describe challenges the globe faces in relation to environmental sustainability frequently foreground rapid climate change, such as “climate emergency” and “climate crisis.” Foregrounding rapid climate change in this way, the authors say, can mean that the simultaneous ecological emergency, including the irreparable loss of biodiversity, can be overlooked as it is elided and subsumed as a facet of climate change.
- Teaching and learning can enable children and young people to establish and maintain a greater connection to nature. This matters because nature connectedness is central to pro-environmental behaviors and pro-nature conservation actions.
- Children’s wellbeing can be supported through arts and participatory nature-based interventions that develop children’s eco-capabilities including autonomy; bodily integrity and safety; individuality; mental and emotional wellbeing; relationality: human/nonhuman relations; senses and imagination; and spirituality. These can lead towards more affective and holistic contribution to environmental sustainability education.
How people think and talk about our steadily warming world has a lot to do with the language we embrace to describe it. Climate change, greenhouse gases, carbon emissions — these terms tend to be used interchangeably. Climate activists are altering the language they employ to describe our quickly warming world, and the term “climate pollution” has started to shift the way that the public ascribes responsibility for the existential crisis that surrounds us.
Unfortunately, despite global efforts to reduce GHGs and maintain global temperature level increases well below 2°C, disingenuous climate commitments and greenwashing taint efforts toward a zero emissions world by 2050. Some editorialists are stepping up to point out the gaps in climate legislation across the globe, which is one way to educate the public.
It’s a start. But it’s even more important to phrase climate narratives of all kinds in everyday language to help the public understand the very serious options that face communities the world over.
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