Language isn't everything but finding the right vocabulary is importantby Alice Bell / June 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
Why are we so inarticulate when it comes to climate change? Why do campaigners like me garble our words, hesitate, stumble, sound crass, confusing or boring, or avoid the topic entirely?
It’s not just our language that feels clunky—our visual vocabulary can seem weirdly limited too: a polar bear holding onto a vanishing bit of ice or that graphic of a burning earth in a pair of hands. If we do get to see some people’s faces, we might get a shot of some protestors, but that’s a very narrow take on the multitude of human stories that run through this issue.
As the Climate Visuals project shows, we have options. From a barefoot solar engineer in India to smog-selfies in China, a girl sweeping snow off a solar panel, offshore wind turbine engineers teetering on the edge of a giant turbine blade, or scientists at work in the field or labs all over the world, their database offers a host of striking images with engaging stories to tell. There are alternatives—let’s retire the old picture clichés.
Debates over how best to talk about climate change have rumbled on for decades. And yet, somehow, nobody has quite figured out how to do it well. There’s a bit of research, but it’s underfunded, and—besides—since we talk about climate change so little in the first place, there’s a limit to how much material scholars have to crunch. According to a recent audit by Bafta, climate change appears in non-news TV only as much as rhubarb; 20 times less than Brexit and barely half as much as picnics.
Fights over climate communication have intensified in the last year, though, with new voices like Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion advocating language like “climate crisis.” At the end of last summer’s heatwave, scientists in Sweden popularised “hothouse Earth” and in December, a Met Office scientist told the UN climate talks that “global heating” was more accurate than “global warming.” In May, the Guardian even decided to change its style guide, arguing “climate change” created a false sense of security, and thus switching to climate “emergency” or “breakdown” instead. However, climate scientist Doug McNeall has queried whether it is appropriate to take phrases that are really about failing politics—which have broken down in the face of the climate challenge—and apply them to…