If I hear someone say that the climate is an existential crisis one more time, I am going to puke. I don’t much like the word environment either. It has four syllables. Think about how I feel about the word environmentalist. It has six! OK, this is a bit of rant, but stick with me.
My objection to these words is not the number of syllables, but that they don’t evoke anything and therefore don’t really mean anything. The climate and environment are a cold collection of concepts that deal with our physical surroundings. In other words, “Blah, Blah, Blah.”
Wait! They do have meanings, you say. The climate is… well…. Yes, see my point. The word climate is an intellectual short hand for a huge number of issues from melting icecaps to ocean acidification, rising seas and a warming earth. I have no idea what existential means except maybe it makes me feel smart. If we are going to be successful in getting people to act, we are going to have to be clearer about the words we choose because we need them to feel what they hear.
Right now there is some debate about whether climate change should be called something else. The phrase climate change is a frame and was developed by Dr. Frank Luntz for Newt Gingrich (R-PA Speaker of the House, ‘91) because global warming was too onerous (irony intended… please read scary.) So we are debating the following words, and people ask me which one we should use?
- Climate Crisis
- Climate Emergency
- Climate Catastrophe
- Global Heating
- Climate Disruption
- Global Weirding
- Climate Mitigation
- Climate Breakdown
- Extreme Weather
- Ad Infinitum (also add irony)
It’s the wrong debate. When asked, I answer the question with a question. Can your audience see the object of your verbs? For example, I like the term climate crisis better than some. But what or who is suffering the crisis? It’s just the climate, and we’ve already know that the word is too vague and meaningless. In other words, the crisis isn’t happening to us. It’s just or only happening to the climate. There is a disconnect between climate and us. The term climate change shows this clearly. Where does it lead? Oh, “the climate has always been changing.”
In other posts I’ve discussed the barriers of fear and distance. We use fear to capture attention, but too much leads to apathy, fatigue, and disengagement. Physical distance or distance in time also lead to a big so what. So when we say we want to protect our environment or our climate, we can think in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy for the words. What classes of words can we use?
When we use the words our children, our audience might actually see their children. The word home has lots of history, but it has a specific and evocative meaning. We protect our homeland. We welcome soldiers home. A man’s home is his castle. Protect our home, means protect our lives. It appeals to the values of safety and security. As we move down the pyramid, the words become less specific. At the very bottom so small we can’t see them are climate and environment. That is as it should be. We are most connected to those things immediately around us.
All of this doesn’t mean that we can’t use the word climate. It means we have to make people feel the subject or object we are discussing. So I can say, “Climate is an existential threat,” or I can say, “The manmade climate crisis is causing droughts and floods that threaten our Minnesota farms and our children.” Can you see the floods or the drought? Can you imagine the world your children will grow up in?
The current occupant of the Whitehouse knows how to use words. He is a master of small words and simple thoughts. We could learn something from him. “Hoards of illegal disease ridden, rapists and drug dealers are swarming the border, coming to take your jobs.” Never mind that its not true, can you visualize this? We never stop to ask what kind of job do you have if it can be filled by a disease ridden rapist?
Not that we have to use fear, but can you visualize what you are saying, especially in a positive sense?
We can create the home we want for our kids. Imagine a new world where we can drink clean water and breathe clear air. Where we no longer tolerate the pollution of our air and water for the profits of a few wealthy individuals. Where we have restored the earth and even stabilized the climate crisis. Where food safety is no longer a concern. Where renewable energy supplies all our needs. It won’t be easy. But it will happen with your help. And it can happen, while creating opportunity, and with justice.
If our audiences can see what we are saying.
‘We are all connected. Savor the Earth!’™
L. Hobart Stocking