First Draft #14: a newsletter on public language
Climate special: fear, jargon, Thatcher
Climate communications: to scare or not to scare
In 2017, a New York Magazine article by David Wallace-Wells spelled out in lurid detail the climate change worst case scenario. Headlined “The Uninhabitable Earth”, the piece went viral. It also provoked a debate. In climate communications, how useful is fear?
For a long time, the consensus was: not very. In 2009 Saffron O’Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole studied people’s reactions to images of climate change-induced devastation. Their conclusion: “fear is generally an ineffective tool for motivating genuine personal engagement”. The resulting paper, Fear Won’t Do It, which has over 1,300 citations, is one of the most influential ever published on climate communications.
Their work has since been challenged and refined by those more open to fear as a persuasive tactic. In a recent New Yorker profile, Dr Genevieve Guenther, a Renaissance scholar turned climate activist, invoked “Energia”, a rhetorical principle in Renaissance literature meaning vividness or energy. Bereft of this, she says, climate warnings struggle to change minds, let alone behaviour.
Guenther thinks scaring people isn’t always counterproductive. You just have to do it in the right way. That means connecting fear to a sense of agency. Frightening descriptions, she says, must be partnered with messages that link the causes of climate change to individuals’ “locality and life”. This accords with other research that found despair follows “when individuals perceive low levels of agency or control.”
Interesting as these studies are, we should be wary of reading too much into them. Social scientists infer grand principles from narrow experiments that map imperfectly onto a problem as big as climate change. Sure, people may recoil from scary images. But instant negative reactions reveal little about how information may shape a person’s views and behaviour over a long time. Similarly, fear mixed with a sense of personal agency may unlock your inner Greta, but this may not be true of everybody.
The truth is we lack a firm grasp of how fear interacts with motivation, on climate or anything else. In lieu of such certainty, we should communicate about climate as we would any other issue. Be clear. Be honest. Where appropriate, venture beyond sterile data and stats and into the stirring world of emotion. That is what Wallace-Wells did. He was clear that he was describing the worst case scenario. He didn’t say it was inevitable, or even likely. But he did remind us it is no less likely than the best case scenario, which is where many unthinkingly assume we are headed.
Fear undoubtedly has a paralysing effect on some people. But we lack grounds to expand this into a universal principle. And fear of fear leads to an even more dangerous state: ignorance. Scaring people may risk inaction. Ignorance guarantees it. @AlexDymoke
Jargon buster: Net Zero
Only 37% of the public know what "net zero" means, despite 69% having heard the term (says my all-time favourite poll). Who can blame them? It was only by consulting some lawyers that I can at last tell you what net zero actually means: reducing carbon emissions as much as you can and then offsetting the rest (while “carbon neutrality” demands only that you offset your emissions, not necessarily reduce them). But a precise meaning isn’t enough to save a word from a blast from my jargon buster. Why? Technical terms are valuable only if they are understood. If not, you are simply using them to dazzle, and perhaps distract. If you are using net zero to convey a precise meaning, then give yourself a full sentence to explain what, precisely, you are doing. How much carbon are you cutting? How much will you be left with? How will you offset it? It would be interesting to see how many companies', and countries', "net zero" pledges stand up to just a little more detail than those two words. @Joshuahwilliams
Thatcher, queen of green
More than 30 years ago a politician stood before the Royal Society in London and, quoting George Herbert on man’s symmetry with nature, told the audience that “We must remember our duty to Nature before it is too late”. In 1988, in a speech about the importance of listening to scientific experts, Margaret Thatcher’s concern for the ozone layer and acid rain made her a political pioneer.
She followed the Royal Society address with another, in early November 1990, at the World Climate Conference, in Geneva. The rhetoric of war, which Prince Charles has just echoed in Glasgow, is common in speeches about environmental politics. In Geneva, Mrs Thatcher compared the threat of global warming to the Gulf War, which was then escalating following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Her remarks set the scene for the 1992 Rio summit.
The Royal Society speech was, in part, a political response to the fact that the Green party had just won 15 per cent in the 1989 European elections. But it was also an address by a former research chemist who respected the scientific consensus. The story does not, alas, have an especially happy ending. Mrs Thatcher was kicked out of office by her party shortly after her words in Geneva. Later in life she recanted and became prey to the absurdity that environmental concerns were a conspiracy put about by left-wing pressure groups. Better to remember when she said, as if it were today, “this government espouses the concept of sustainable development”. @PhilipJCollins1
Putting the conservative in conservation
As with so many other issues, climate change polarises America. In a 2021 poll, 75% of Democrats consider it a “critical threat”. Just 21% of Republicans do.
In Britain, we are lucky that the same is not true. In a 2020 poll, 71 per cent of Labour voters considered it a “direct threat”, and so did 63 per cent of Conservative voters.
This might not last. This year, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change published a paper that suggests former Leave voters are less likely to support action than former Remain voters. And the divide is growing.
If climate change is becoming more polarised, climate campaigners must shoulder some of the blame. Consider, for instance, how often they call for “climate justice” now. In the process, social justice – that classically, and divisively, left-wing concern – is bound to climate change. To support action on the latter is to support action on the former.
I am sure “climate justice” gives campaigners a sense of fighting the good fight. How foolish to think this is the prize. Action on climate change will require broad support, not just from the left. So dump “climate justice” and choose an alternative. There is a handy alternative that bridges divides. Conservatives are traditionally rather fond of conserving things, and that includes the planet. @Joshuahwilliams
From “global warming” to “climate change” and back
It is the early 2000s. A new fear is leaping from politics and academia into popular culture. Its name: “global warming”. Use of the phrase “global warming” accelerated throughout the noughties. But then, around 2009, something strange happened. Mentions declined sharply. “Climate change”, meanwhile, continued its ascent.
Some blame a conspiracy. It is true that Republican pollster Frank Luntz coached his charges to adopt “climate change” over “global warming”, writing in a 2001 memo that it suggests a “more controllable and less emotional challenge”. But advice from a single US politico does not fully explain the mysterious disappearance of “global warming”.
The truth, as ever, is more prosaic. As Imperial’s Dr Joeri Rogelj explains, “climate change” gained ground simply because it is capacious enough to accommodate the many - and often contradictory - effects of a warmer world: “Places are also becoming wetter or drier, and… [in some places] it may actually be cooler than we're used to. That's confusing if you just talk about global warming.”
Usefully capacious, perhaps, but is “climate change” too neutral? Recent years have been marked by attempts to reinsert the alarm Luntz once sought to remove. An update from the Oxford English Dictionary suggests these have worked. Climate language is more “emotive” and “urgent” than even a few years ago, reports the OED. Between 2018 and 2020, use of “climate crisis” increased 20-fold. “Climate emergency” increased 76-fold.
This is partly down to deliberate choices. See, for example, the Guardian’s editorial directive to adopt more severe language on climate. But it is also because language is a mirror. As long as manifestations of climate change get more dramatic, so will the words we use to describe it. @AlexDymoke
Language and beyond
"They are liars, they are stupid. Or they don't know how to do it, because we figured how to do it and it's all about having the balls to do it” - Arnie’s verdict on politicians lacking the courage or imagination to make a positive case for radical climate policies. As told to the BBC.
The Economist’s Bartleby on what we learn from even the most nonsensical company mission statements.
Ed Caesar’s astonishing story on the vast disintegrating oil tanker off the coast of Yemen that could cause millions of deaths.
“Roger Federer (40) owns a hyperbaric chamber and sleeps 10 to 12 hours a night in absolute darkness.” A fascinating investigation into athletic longevity.
“Endowments, portfolios and pension funds worth just shy of $40 trillion have now committed to full or partial abstinence from coal, gas and oil stocks.” Bill McKibben on the extraordinary success of the campaign for divestment in fossil fuel industries.
A useful guide to climate jargon.
“No polemic, no academic paper could produce such a complex and precise account of the disturbing proximity of moral goodness to self-righteousness and egotism.” James Marriott’s review (£) of Crossroads is brilliant writing, if a little harsh on Franzen’s style.
The amazing climate success of Bangladesh.
Ezra Klein’s NYT profile of David Shor, one of the most important voices in US politics. The former Obama data whizz “has built an increasingly influential theory of what the Democrats must do to avoid congressional calamity. The chain of logic is this: Democrats are on the edge of an electoral abyss. To avoid it, they need to win states that lean Republican. To do that, they need to internalize that they are not like and do not understand the voters they need to win over. Swing voters in these states are not liberals, are not woke and do not see the world in the way that the people who staff and donate to Democratic campaigns do.”
A wise and convincing piece in Wired from Hannah Ritchie on the questionable wisdom of telling kids they have no future because of climate change.
New from us
A tribute to Frank Field and a defence of assisted dying from Phil in his latest New Statesman column.
A name change will do little without a change of personnel at Facebook argues Josh in City AM.
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