…and other reasons why, if we want the public to engage in the conversation about a changing climate, the first thing we need to do is change our language.
The BBC has asked whether there’s a danger to environmental jargon. I think there is.
Ask people if they accept that the climate is changing, and I suspect most will agree it is. But I think they’ll mostly also expect it to continue changing too regardless of what humans get up to.
Why? Well, because right back to our early school years when we first heard about dinosaurs, we’ve been taught that our planet and its atmosphere has undergone massive change in the last 4.6 billion years. It’s just logical to assume that it will keep on changing and I think that’s how the majority of people will see it.
So there’s the first problem. Referring to climate change as “man-made” is a mistake. Climate change itself is not man-made, it is simply a natural phenomenon.
Explaining our role
That the climate will always be in a state of flux is a given.
The bit that needs communicating much better is the role people now have that we didn’t previously:
In the last 200 years, human activity has grown significantly and changed in ways that means we are more than likely influencing climate change in a variety of ways.
There are billions more of us around the globe, consuming resources and making changes to the natural world around us. It’s obvious that we’re bound to have some effect.
Although burning fossil fuels is implicated in climate change because it releases carbon dioxide that was otherwise sequestered away in trees or underground, that’s not the only human activity linked to a changing atmosphere and climate: deforestation, agriculture, dairy farming, peat extraction and landfilling of waste all play a part too, and all have grown in size and scale in the last couple of hundred years.
So, there’s the second challenge: making it clear that, through a range of activities (that have all improved our existence in one way or another, it must be said) we are more likely than not to be influencing changes in our climate.
Owning up to ambiguities
The influence of human activity means we could be speeding-up climate change, or we could be could be altering natural patterns of climate variation, or we could be contributing to long-lasting changes that will be irreversible (perhaps not in geologic time, but certainly in the timescales we humans tend to think about) or would could be doing all those things and more besides.
But we’ve only been studying it for a comparatively short time, so we don’t fully understand it yet.
Yes, it’s emerged lately that Exxon Mobil scientists were researching climate change in the 1970s, but that’s still only fifty years of studying a climate that’s been in flux for billions of years. And we’re typically looking at post-Industrial Revolution changes – a 200 year window in the last 4.6 billion years, or 0.000004347826087% of the Earth’s history.
Furthermore, most of the predictions of what the future might hold are based on models. The thing about models is that, whilst scientists and researchers do what they can to factor in the “known unknowns”, they’re still capable of producing erroneous results because of the “unknown unknowns” – the variables we just don’t even recognise yet, let alone understand the interplay between them.
The continued effort to portray climate science as “settled” is a mistake. There’s too much of a tendency to talk in certainties, when there’s still much to learn and a lot of remaining ambiguity.
We need to “market” climate change better
When it comes to marketing stuff, it’s often said that bad news and sex sell – which is presumably why tabloid newspapers delight so much in bad news about sex!
It’s pretty unlikely that we’re ever going to make climate change sexy, but that doesn’t mean we have to constantly focus on it as a bad news story.
In fact, the more extreme predictions of what it might one day mean for our planet probably turn people off.
For instance, if I take my car to have the brakes looked at, and the technician sucks air in through his teeth an tells me it’s a “death trap” because the brakes are so worn, I’d be far less likely to get him to fix them than if he’d just given me an honest appraisal of the facts without the alarmist language to boot.
Any salesperson worth their salt will tell you that, in selling anything, it’s important to articulate the “features, advantages and benefits.” Focusing on the shortcomings of your rivals’ offering rarely wins you the sale. Returning to my point about getting my brakes fixed, an air sucking technician would definitely see that back of me if, rather than tell me how good they are at fixing cars, she spent her time telling me how bad the local competition is.
Another problem with framing climate change as a certain “catastrophe” is that a lot of people will start to think there’s no point trying to prevent it.
With this in mind, we need to consider carefully about how we “market” climate change to a public that could easily be dissuaded from thinking about it if we’re seen to be fixated on doom-laden messaging.
Our tendency to “tune out”
Before the advent of 24 hour news channels and social media, we were genuinely shocked when we saw images of conflict, or famine, or terrorist atrocities or major accidents.
Nowadays, we’re exposed to these stories and images to such an extent that they seem to affect us less and less. It’s like we’ve become desensitised to the horror they portray, and we find it easy to tune them out.
Too much emphasis on the more extreme potential impacts of climate change, and attempts by some sections of the media to try and link even the most tenuous of events to it, could also be damaging our ability to connect with the public on such a defining issue of our time.
I’m not claiming to have all the answers, but in the run up to climate talks in Paris, I think there’s a pressing need to examine the way climate change is expressed.
We definitely need to stop calling it man-made but better explain our role in it and all the activities that contribute (not just burning fossil fuels); we need to be more accepting of the ambiguities and gaps in our knowledge that exist; and we need to re-think the constant focus on climate extremes that are so often articulated with alarmist language.
If we don’t, we just won’t get the masses to buy-in at the levels required to drive meaningful behaviour changes.
What do you think? Do we need a better narrative to tell the climate change story? Let me know your views in the comments or over on Twitter where I’m @_environmentor