Climate change: should we change the terminology?
Could terms like 'climate crisis', ‘climate collapse’ and ‘global meltdown’ do a better job of altering our behaviour?
What other terms for climate change have been suggested?
In May 2019, The Guardian announced that it was changing the language used around environmental issues. The key difference is that it will no longer use the term ‘climate change’, instead referring to the ‘climate crisis’. This followed the UN’s secretary general António Guterres use of the term in a speech in September 2018.
At the same time, The Guardian dropped ‘global warming’ in favour of ‘global heating’ and replaced ‘biodiversity’ with ‘wildlife’, among other changes. The move to ‘global heating’ is supported by Prof Richard Betts, climate scientist at the Met Office, who recommended the change while speaking at the UN climate summit in December 2018.
Then, in November, branding expert Aaron Hall challenged a team of marketers to come up with alternative terms for climate change that would inspire people to take action and change their behaviour. The names they came up with included ‘climate chaos’, ‘global meltdown’, ‘Scorched Earth’, ‘The Great Collapse’ and ‘Earthshattering’.
Why change the terminology?
Katharine Viner, the editor-in-chief of The Guardian, said that the term ‘climate change’ doesn’t accurately communicate the real danger we are in. “What scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity,” she says.
The choice of language can have a profound impact on an audience’s reaction to an idea. “Some people say: ‘how much does language really matter? We need people to call their MPs, change the way they vote, change their behaviour.’ But I do think language plays an important role in that,” says social psychologist Dr Sander van der Linden, director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab.
For example, the term ‘climate change’, while scientifically accurate, doesn’t necessarily communicate that regular people actually need to do anything. “Just because something is changing, it doesn’t mean it requires any action from me. That doesn’t signal action,” he explains.
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“Changing the way we talk about climate change is key to getting people to act,” says Dr Dann Mitchell, associate professor in atmospheric science at the University of Bristol.
He highlights the discussion of global average temperatures as an example where this is particularly important. “If you were to get in a bath that was 0.2°C warmer than it was when you got in the same bath 10 years ago, you wouldn’t care, or even know. But for the Earth-system as a whole, this small temperature change has huge repercussions, because it can be significantly amplified at local levels.”
The term ‘global warming’ could be considered misleading, says van der Linden, because the effects are far broader than just warming temperatures, and also include flooding and a loss of wildlife.
“On the one hand, people are saying that global warming is more emotive and can be more persuasive,” van der Linden explains. “On the other hand, it might miss out on getting people concerned about the whole range of impacts.”
Does changing language ever change behaviour?
In medicine, it is well known that language strongly influences patients’ feelings about a particular procedure or illness. “If you frame something to a patient as probability of death versus survival, even though the probability is the same in both scenarios, people have very different responses to that, just based on the wording,” says van der Linden.
This framing effect can be harnessed to encourage people to take more environmentally friendly actions. In a 2008 paper, social psychologist Noah J Goldstein and team investigated whether guests at a hotel were more likely to reuse their towels based on how the request was framed.
If the guests were told to ‘help save the environment’ by reusing towels, then 35 per cent of them took part. This rose to 44 per cent reusing their towels when told that the majority of guests already did. This number increased to 49 per cent if they were told that the majority of guests who had stayed in the same room as them took part.
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How we talk about the climate seems to matter when it comes to influencing others. Speaking to 6,000 Americans, van der Linden’s own research found that explaining the idea of scientific consensus, in a clear and simple manner, significantly changed their beliefs about climate change and even affected how worried they were about it.
Climate change language has changed before. A South Korean paper studied over 40,000 tweets containing the terms ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’, spanning from 2004 to 2015. The researchers found that, over time, ‘global warming’ had gradually become less popular, with ‘climate change’ taking its place.
What is the best term to use?
What term you should use depends on the context, and what you’re trying to get across. Mitchell believes that while ‘climate crisis’ might be appropriate for a publication like The Guardian, as a climate researcher, he should only use impartial language.
“‘Anthropogenic climate change’ is about the only term I use, often just shortened to ‘climate change’,” he explains. “As a scientist, accurate scientific terminology is always our only choice. So, while the term ‘climate crisis’ seems not quite right, it is clear why it is being used, and frankly I don’t think a word exists for exactly what type of emergency this is.”
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When it comes to communicating with the public, however, it’s important to choose terms that invoke the right emotions. Namely, people need to be worried.
“[Worry] is an active emotional state in which people cognitively engage in thinking about a problem and how they might avoid it, versus fear, which is more of a paralysing emotion,” says van der Linden. So, the ideal term conveys a sense of both urgency and optimism, and not a sense of doom.
‘Climate crisis’ is van der Linden’s choice, at least of the ones he has heard so far. “Global meltdown, I think, sounds too catastrophic. Chaos is not something people like. Chaos is uncontrolled,” he says. “I think ‘climate crisis’ signals an urgency. People don’t like crises either, but people know that crises can be avoided and that they can be resolved.”