Carbon copy

Carbon copy: what writers can learn from the language of climate emergency


When you talk about the environment, every word’s up for debate

Last year, an international conference stalled because of semantics. COP26 overran as governments picked apart the difference between phasing out and phasing down.

The conference eventually agreed to phase down coal – enfeebling the resolution, and bucking a trend. On the whole, the way we talk about the environment has become more impactful, urgent and emotional. Common parlance has gone from greenhouse effect to climate emergency. Why is that?

The way we describe things is political

Language reflects the way we understand the world. As we learnt about the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, global warming began to feel limiting. It didn’t describe extreme weather, rising sea levels or ocean acidification.

But language is also affected by politics. When pollster Frank Luntz advised the US Republican Party in 2001, he suggested they avoid global warming – not because it was inaccurate, but because it had ‘catastrophic connotations’. He recommended climate change instead (‘a more controllable and less emotional challenge’).

Meanwhile, environmental activists have spent decades forming phrases to rattle the status quo. You won’t hear climate change in Greta Thunberg’s speeches. She’s more likely to use climate breakdown or metaphors like a house on fire.

Scientists must feel trapped in the middle. They try to stay neutral, filling their reports with hesitant language. Outcomes are likely or very likely, never 100% assured.

But the same scientists can sound very different in conversation. Speaking to The Washington Post, an author of the National Climate Assessment revealed that when they described something as very likely in their writing, they really meant, ‘This is something really bad and totally crazy and wild.’ Their urgency is lost in publication.

Take on these different personas as you write

Writers can borrow these different approaches depending on what they’re trying to do. Using language like a scientist or a small-c conservative will keep things as they are. But writing like a campaigner will spur your readers to act.

This last persona will be useful if you work in marketing or internal communications. So let’s cover it in more detail. Here are four techniques we’ve learnt from environmental activists:

  1. Make your slogans memorable. Protesters have a knack for writing headlines. Their signs are full of rhyme (‘Science not silence’), wordplay (‘Fossil fools’) and cultural references (‘It’s getting hot in here, so take off all your coal’).
  2. Attribute blame with the active voice. Who’s to blame and who will face the consequences? Students have been unafraid to point fingers: ‘You’re destroying our future’ ‘If you won’t act like adults, we will’ and – most morbidly – ‘You’ll die of old age; we’ll die of climate change’.
  3. Turn up the intensity with imagery. Greta Thunberg’s burning house has become part of our collective consciousness. It’s a catastrophe that most people can imagine. And calls to mind news footage of wildfires and smouldering fossil fuels.
  4. Call on social proof to ramp up the peer pressure. Generally speaking, if your peers do something, you’ll consider doing it too. Psychologist Noah Goldstein tried to persuade hotel guests to do something small for the environment. He found they were more likely to reuse their towels when they were told it was normal behaviour for people staying in their room.

Remember your work has consequences

Frank Luntz came to regret his role in minimising the climate emergency. He’s since worked with the Senate Democrat’s Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. These days, he’d like people to stop talking about threats. And start talking about consequences.

The debate over the climate emergency reminds us that our words matter. Just as a fraction of a degree can make wildfires more likely, a single word can change your reader’s viewpoint and light a fire in their heart. Choose your terms carefully.

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