Green lingo: The world warms up to more emotional language

Nov 1, 2021

At The Power of Words, we have quite a few green industry clients. So, naturally, we like to keep up with all the lingo. And, as COP26 (the 26th UN Conference of the Parties on Climate Change) begins in Glasgow, it seems timely to put the chameleon-like language of climate science, biodiversity and green tech under the microscope.

There’s a lot of jargon and technical language, as you might expect. But the way scientific viewpoints are reported in mainstream language and the media is changing. What can this collective language tell us about attitudes and popular concerns?

Linguistic subtleties

Since the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its report three decades ago, words like ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ haven’t stopped rolling off our tongues.

Until now, that is. Outlets like The Guardian are reflecting (or perhaps leading) a change in public mood with their language. ‘Climate crisis’, ‘climate emergency’, ‘climate science denier’ and ‘global heating’ might not sound radically different, but the impact of these words is. Behind all of these new-ish terms are some big value judgements.

Sceptical use of ‘denier’

It’s no longer a gradual ‘change’; seemingly overnight we are in a ‘crisis’ and an ’emergency’. Naysayers are no longer ‘sceptics’ putting forward another view, they’re now ‘deniers’ rejecting a mainstream body of scientific evidence. Allowing fish to be a ‘population’ rather than ‘stock’ for human consumption also signifies a change in how we talk about our relationship to other organisms we share our world with. The shift may seem subtle, but the intention is anything but.

Climate change or crisis?

Activist language has changed too. Just think about the use of the term ‘climate emergency’. It’s gathered pace and caught the imagination of popular thought, spicing up the narrative to generate more immediate concern – spurring people to action. In fact, the term increased in use by a whopping 10,700% between September 2018 to September 2019. That’s pretty staggering. At the same time, nations and districts the world over have declared their own emergencies and made grand statements about what they’ll do to solve the problems.

Of course, it’s a bit chicken and egg (although let’s not get into the environmental footprint of the egg industry right now). It’s impossible to know whether action is driving the evolution of language, or the other way round. I suspect it’s a little bit of both. But what’s clear is that, as mainstream language evolves to incorporate this sense of urgency and seriousness, our popular beliefs are likely to follow suit – and fast.

IPCC and COP26

A body that has seemed, perhaps surprisingly, behind the curve on the evolving language of climate science is the IPCC itself. Back in 2005, John Houghton, ex-IPCC co-chair, told a Senate committee that “IPCC reports have consistently proved to be too conservative” in their estimates and force of their scientific conclusions. 

Interestingly, the Committee strikes a very different tone in its 2021 assessment. And, if you click on the link, the TIME graphic Time shows a warming (if you’ll pardon the pun) to punchier, compelling language. Scientists too are making increasingly bold statements about our climate’s future.

This has an important knock-on impact on policymaking. National governments need a worst case scenario to plan around. But that is something that the consensus-based scientific process was unwilling to provide until now. The COP26 meeting has, for the first time, been handed an emphatic case for immediate global action. Yet, even the word immediate seems too late.

Storytelling: from tree hugging to green washing

But it’s not just individual words or phrases here that have evolved to evoke greater reactions. Storytelling has taken centre stage in the climate change narrative. Greta Thunberg’s no-nonsense, memorable language and delivery has brought some stark generational fears into the living rooms of millions. Let’s not forget her very confronting words: “I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is!” And she’s part of the overall move towards a mood of urgency and human impact. A now or never mindset; do or die. Dangerous apathy or better late than never action for the greater good of humanity.

In the UK, David Attenborough has long been a part of the unfolding story. An establishment figure in many ways, he brings a conservative naturalist’s sensibility to a debate that was long associated with hemp sandals and tree hugging. As COP26 and the alleged point of no return looms, the climate debate has been crying out for a greater diversity of storytelling across voices, young and old, embedded establishment and the international business community alike.

The so what?

The evolution of language vis-à-vis the climate crisis reveals rapidly shifting public views. New words, such as ‘greenwashing’ express scepticism of corporate eco programmes. Whilst the ‘degrowth’ agenda questions the capitalist “fairy tales of eternal economic growth” that Greta famously spoke about at the UN in 2019. 

We’ve certainly changed our lingo to reflect the seriousness, urgency and collective concern of a common threat. Or is that crisis? Or emergency? That’s the power of words for you in action.

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