Language: words & phrases

Language: Words and Phrases Download PDF

Whilst ‘getting the language right’ is only one component of a good communication strategy, words and phrases are still very important. A number of recent publications have highlighted the results of focus group research and talk-back tests, culminating in a series of suggestions for framing climate-change communications.

For example, research by Topos Partnership (2009) recommended that communicators should use the term ‘global warming’ rather than ‘climate change’, while Western Strategies & Lake Research Partners (2009) argued that ‘our deteriorating atmosphere’ was a more tangible and evocative term for most people. Other research has identified systematic differences in the way that people interpret the terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’, with ‘global warming’ perceived as more emotionally engaging than ‘climate change’ (Whitmarsh, 2009). Some more recent research has taken the idea that changing single words can have quite far-reaching effects even further. A research team  in America found that Republicans were more likely to endorse the reality of ‘climate change’ than ‘global warming’ (Schuldt et al, 2011).

However, another recent paper looked at small changes in terminology (Villar & Krosnick, 2011) and concluded that:

“Describing the increased costs of climate change mitigation legislation via “higher taxes” instead of via “higher prices” did not reduce popular support for such legislation, contradicting a well-known political strategy memo by the American political strategist Frank Luntz. Thus, word choice may sometimes affect public perceptions of the climate change seriousness or support for mitigation policies, but a single choice of terminology may not influence all people the same way, making strategic language choices difficult to implement.”

This message is important for climate change communicators – on the one hand, it is important to avoid words that are likely to invoke negative reactions from certain audiences. But there is also a limit to the extent that communications can be determined by choices about single words – people are likely to respond differently depending on their political orientation, or degree of scepticism about climate change. It is also worth remembering that the key terms of the climate change debate (climate change/global warming) have now been in the public domain for a long time, so may be hard to influence in a meaningful way.

But beyond debates about which general term is best to introduce the topic of climate change, there is a still a great deal of important work that can be done to shape the way that more specific aspects of the climate change conversation develop in important emerging areas – like the language used to describe populations displaced by climate change. The words that are adopted to describe people displaced by climate change will play a major role in the way that they are perceived by the public and decisions makers – especially given the aggressive politics surrounding migration issues. The phrase most commonly used, ‘climate refugees’, has been widely criticised by human rights and refugee organisations who argue that it is a misuse of a specific legal term. This is a developing area in which the existing terminology can still be challenged and replaced.

There have also been some useful analyses – usually based on the insights of the authors, rather than primary research – of the way in which climate change language and terminology has developed in the media, and in the political domain. Jill Ereaut and Nat Segnit produced two reports for the British think-tank IPPR in 2006 and 2007 that asked ‘How are we telling the story about climate change, and how can we tell it better?’ The ‘Warm Words’ reports were pioneering analyses by two linguistic specialists, and looked at the language used to describe climate change and its solutions in the UK media. The reports identified 10 different storylines ( “linguistic repertoires”) and suggested that these storylines were shaping the way in which public perceptions about climate change were developing.

Although these reports are a few years old – they were written well before the peak and subsequent drop in public interest in climate change around the Copenhagen UN negotiations – they still offer a useful methodology for thinking about climate change language. And new doctoral research by Cardiff University researcher Stuart Capstick shows that the dominant narratives about climate change may not have actually changed as much as public opinion polls suggest over the last ten years. Although public opinion about specific issues may go up and down, there are also many common themes – such as the idea that climate change is ‘natural’ – that come up again and again in focus group research. Understanding recurring narratives about climate change and finding ways of building on them is an important goal for climate change communicators – but something about which relatively little is known.

Another approach to understanding climate change from a linguistic perspective has been developed by Brigitte Nerlich and her team at Nottingham University. In series of publications, Nerlich and her colleagues have described the metaphors and novel terms that have come to define the climate change discourse (Nerlich & Koteyko, 2009; Koteyko, Thelwall & Nerlich, 2010). The team tracked a notable increase in ‘carbon compounds’ such as ‘carbon budget’, ‘carbon footprint’ and ‘carbon offset’, and observed that carbon compounds had shifted from being mostly about lifestyles, science and economics to being more frequently moral in nature (e.g. ‘carbon addiction’ or ‘carbon crusade’). The shift in language would seem to mirror a shift in the way that climate change is discussed more generally, from something scientific and technical to something that has crucial social and moral dimensions.

Word choice is not the only thing that matters in communicating climate change – but paying careful attention to terminology, and avoiding the most inflammatory words, is an important place to start.


Koteyko, N., Thelwall, M., Nerlich, B. (2010). From Carbon Markets to Carbon Morality:: Creative Compounds as Framing Devices in Online Discourses on Climate Change Mitigation. Science Communication, 32(1), 25-54.

Nerlich, B. & Koteyko, N. (2009). Compounds, creativity and complexity in climate change communication: The case of ‘carbon indulgences’. Global Environmental Change, 19(3), 345-353.

Schuldt, J.P., Konrath, S.H. & Schwarz, N. (2011). “Global Warmin” or “Climate Change”? Whether the planet is warming depends on question wording. Public Opinion Quarterly 75 (1) 115–124.

Signit, N. Ereaut, J. (2007). Warm Words II: How the climate story is evolving and the lessons we can learn for encouraging public action. IPPR: London.

Topos Partnership (2009). Climate Crossroads: A Research-based Framing Guide. Topos Partnership.

Villar, A. & Krosnick, J.A. (2011). Global warming vs. climate change, taxes vs. prices: Does word choice matter? Climatic Change 105 (1-2) 1-12.

Western Strategies & Lake Research Partners (2009). Climate and Energy Truths: Our Common Future. Washington, US: EcoAmerica.

Whitmarsh, L. (2009). What’s in a name? Commonalities and differences in public understanding of “climate change” and “global warming.” Public Understanding of Science, 18(4), 401-420.

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