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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