A word to the wise on selling climate action

Eureka Street
Eureka Street

A FEW WORDS could build political will to tackle climate change much faster. Just a few. The problem is no one is quite sure what they are.

It’s important to choose your words carefully when talking about climate change — or should that be ‘global warming’? The mainstream media uses these terms as synonyms, even though they have slightly different meanings.

In the scientific literature, ‘global warming’ is an increase in average surface temperature from human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a narrow definition, purely about heating up the planet.

‘Climate change’ is any long-term change in Earth’s climate, including temperature rises and changes to wind, rainfall and sea levels. So it’s broader, and slightly more removed from increased emissions.

Subtle distinctions like this matter because the way an issue is described can have enormous influence on the public’s appetite to solve it. The secret is choosing words that ‘frame’ the issue in your favour.

The best known examples of framing come from American cognitive linguist George Lakoff. Lakoff argues that George W. Bush replaced the phrase ‘tax cuts’ with ‘tax relief’ to reframe paying tax as an affliction. Embedded in those two words is a neo-conservative worldview against government intervention in the private sphere. If you accept the term, you absorb the worldview.

Framing also applies to the climate change debate. In world climate negotiations in the late 1980s, the US and Saudi Arabia lobbied to change the language of key resolutions from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’ because it sounded less connected to the burning of fossil fuels.

And in 2002, US pollster Frank Luntz famously advised Republicans to use the phrase ‘climate change’ because he thought it posed less of an emotional challenge than ‘global warming’. President George W. Bush subsequently used ‘climate change’ in his speeches.

In Australia, two words helped Tony Abbott sabotage the previous Labor government’s centrepiece climate policy — ‘carbon’ and ‘tax’.

As UK climate change communications expert George Marshall has argued, carbon is an emotionally meaningless word lacking inspiration. Taxes are disliked, but tolerated as a social good. Combined, the two words implied an arbitrary cost, paid by the public, on a ubiquitous and invisible substance.

A ‘carbon tax’ does sound like a pointless tax on everything, which Abbott hammered home with every soundbite. The moment Labor got sucked into this frame — even to refute it — was the moment they lost the debate.

How can just a few words have so much influence? Lakoff argues it’s not the words themselves, but the connections they make in the brain. A single word activates a whole neural circuit of associated concepts. The word ‘hospital’, for example, will make you think of ‘doctor’, ‘nurse’ and ‘patient’, putting you in the ‘health’ category of your compartmentalised mind.

One example of how this works in practice comes from a study by Stanford University psychologists into the power of metaphor. It tested two common frames for crime — crime as a disease (plaguing or infecting a city), and crime as a predator (preying on people and lurking in the shadows).

When crime was framed as a disease, people were more likely to propose preventative solutions such as eradicating poverty and improving education. When crime was framed as a predator, people proposed catching and jailing criminals, and harsher laws.

Most alarming of all, the participants weren’t aware of the metaphor’s influence. Asked for the reasoning behind their different solutions, they cited the same set of crime statistics. The researchers concluded, ‘Far from being mere rhetorical flourishes, metaphors may have a profound influence on how we act to deal with important societal issues.’

You can see how crucial this is for policy debates. If you believe crime is best addressed through prevention, then using words that portray crime as a predator — such as to fight crime, or to beat crime — will undermine your argument. Likewise, government framing of an issue — such as a ‘war on drugs’ — determines the solutions people will propose.

The progressive side of politics is finally recognising the power of frames and metaphors. After the US Supreme Court decided that carbon dioxide could be defined as a pollutant, President Obama promoted the term ‘carbon pollution’ in his speeches — associating an invisible, odourless gas with the unpleasantness of smog.

The environment movement leverages the same association by talking about ‘dirty fuels’ versus ‘clean energy’. ‘Dirty’ has connotations of corruption, grime and sickness, triggering disgust. ‘Clean’ has connotations of freshness, newness and country air, triggering a longing for purity.

These phrases have spread through the world’s media and are now picked up in focus groups and polls. Swing voters love the words ‘clean energy’ — which was probably the major factor in convincing federal Labor to adopt a target of 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030.

Over time, some phrases can become culturally contaminated. The words ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ are now so politically divisive, especially in the US, that many leading communications experts are advising NGOs not to use them.

What are the alternatives? Al Gore has floated using ‘climate chaos’ and ‘climate crisis’. Others have suggested ‘climate emergency’ or ‘climate disruption’.

Swing voters, however, are hypersensitive to anything that sounds alarmist, and these phrases still use the tainted term ‘climate’. They’re also unlikely to gain enough traction — the phrase ‘climate change’ is now so embedded in institutions that we might be stuck with it.

Meanwhile, some communications specialists are recommending variations on ‘pollution’, the dirty/clean dichotomy, or an old/new story of energy transition. They might be onto something — a recent study across 24 countries found emphasising the positive community benefits of addressing climate change was more motivating.

Right now, though, it’s up for grabs. Hundreds of researchers, psychologists and pollsters around the world are frantically searching for a way to make this issue a top concern for voters. The fate of so much has never rested on so few words.