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The language that leaves people behind

Jun 18, 2014 by | 2 Comments

This is a guest post by Jeremy Porter, a com­mu­nic­a­tions strategist and writer based in New York. He writes reg­u­larly at his com­mu­nic­a­tions blog where this art­icle first appeared. Jeremy is on Twitter.

In Nebraska, there’s a father thinking about his children’s health and edu­ca­tion. In Oregon there’s a mother thinking about the pres­sures of her job. In Virginia there’s a couple thinking about the bills they will struggle to pay. And when asked if they think global warming or cli­mate change is hap­pening, none of them think it is.

They are not alone. Whether you use “global warming” or “cli­mate change”, 40 per­cent of Americans don’t think it’s hap­pening. That’s the finding in the recent Yale report that cam­paigners, sci­ent­ists, and politi­cians (let’s call them advoc­ates) should be paying atten­tion to.

Instead, com­ment­ators and advoc­ates alike, have focused on one aspect of the report: global warming sounds worse than cli­mate change. What fol­lowed was met­eor­o­lo­gists, reporters, and cam­paigners sug­gesting we stop using ‘cli­mate change’.

It’s as if those two words alone will shift one of the most divisive issues from our time to “job done”. The logic fol­lows that Washington jumps into line and tem­per­at­ures drop.

If only chan­ging two words would do it. It won’t. Why? Because no matter how you ask the ques­tion, the father in Nebraska, the mother in Oregon, and the couple in Virginia do not think it’s hap­pening. “Global warming” is not going to con­vince an unbe­liever in the absence of relevance.

This is some­thing journ­alist Brentin Mock intu­it­ively under­stands when he writes on the issue:

I feel an extra respons­ib­ility to relay this in ways [the com­munity] under­stand. This means linking it to things that touch their lives reg­u­larly: asthma, trans­port­a­tion, racism, hip hop, religion.

We link these issues through plain lan­guage. Words like “pol­lu­tion”, “health”, “cre­ating jobs”, and “extreme weather” work. They’re rel­evant. A person does not have to believe in or under­stand global warming to care about these things.

People under­stand pol­lu­tion. They don’t like it, they think there should be less of it, and they under­stand it’s bad for their health.

Therein lies the key to making global warming rel­evant to people: using plain, simple lan­guage that cen­ters on things that dir­ectly affect them.

When we say “emis­sions” and “green­house gases”, and “carbon” we really mean pol­lu­tion. When we talk about the “impact on the cli­mate” we really mean impact on people. And instead of talking about rising tem­per­at­ures and sea levels, we should be talking about more floods, wild­fires, and hurricanes.

People don’t want a “safe cli­mate” or a “healthy cli­mate”. They want to be safe and healthy.

Ask people on the New Jersey coast­line if they are con­cerned about global warming, or another hurricane.

Ask people in California if they are con­cerned about the cli­mate, or another massive wildfire.

Ask people living near a coal mine if they are con­cerned about cli­mate change or pol­lu­tion. They might say, “I care about my job at the coal mine”. There’s a simple response: cre­ating jobs that don’t des­troy their lungs. Relevance.

Advocates should avoid reacting to the Yale research by using global warming as a crutch. It’s not per­suasive. When people in 49 states saw snow on the ground and the polar vortex gripped the country, it didn’t feel much like global warming. It won’t feel like global warming if we get a cold snap this summer.

Advocates need to build a nar­rative based on rel­evant, simple, and uncon­tro­ver­sial lan­guage. Something not just to fight against, but to fight for: clean air and water, better food, new jobs, and less life-threatening weather events.

Pollution”, “health”, “cre­ating jobs”, and “extreme weather” are words that have been tested by Drew Westen and in various research pro­jects I’ve been involved in. They beat global warming and cli­mate change every time.

People’s scep­ti­cism of global warming or cli­mate change is not what’s stop­ping us fixing this problem. It’s the absence of relevance.

Download: How to talk about the cli­mate — a one-page guide to the lan­guage of global warming and cli­mate change.

2 Comments + Add Comment

  • […] Talking Climate — The lan­guage that leaves people behind […]

  • You’ve missed the point. Anyone who looks into cli­mate change soon finds that cli­ma­to­lo­gists and the media have hyper-exaggerated their sup­pos­i­tions and then heaped nasty names on sci­ent­ists who’re doing the REAL SCIENCE of looking for what could have been missed.

    Quite frankly, cold weather is more dan­gerous than warm weather, and carbon-dioxide is NOT a pol­lutant, it’s plant-food. Why are you trying to avoid good things?

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