FEATURES HOW TO THE SAVE THE PLANET
To catch up and compete, those of us committed to making the green transformation democratically must urgently win over hearts and minds. Don’t assume it will be easy. The difficulties were driven home by elections on the other side of the world a couple of weeks after the UK parliament’s emergency declaration. Bill Shorten, leader of the Australian Labor Party, ran on a platform of acting on climate, but lost to Scott Morrison, who told school climate strikers to get back to class, once brought a lump of coal to parliament and argued that any action would destroy jobs. Australia—far more than Britain—already faces clear dangers from climate change: killer heat, floods and the destruction of its greatest wonder, the Great Barrier Reef. Yet voters rallied against the threat of action, not inaction.
“BEYOND THE ECONOMIC EFFECTS, THE NEW DEAL HELPED A STRICKEN AMERICA REMEMBER HOW TO HOPE”
In the UK, Brexit is too easy an excuse for our drift. Let’s not kid ourselves: even without it, climate change would not be anywhere near our top priority. No political leader (me included) has consistently voiced the scale of the challenge while at the helm. When difficult choices have been faced between economic gain and environmental protection, the latter loses out. The long-running saga of the third runway at Heathrow illustrates the point. In 2009, I was convinced it was the wrong choice but lost a fraught argument inside government. Amid the wrangling, we were able to make the UK the first country in the world to set a target for aviation emissions, but on the practical question—with its dreadful symbolism—the economy trumped the environment, with the help of the argument that the UK couldn’t make a difference on its own: “if we don’t take the hub flights, Amsterdam will.” The Conservatives were against Heathrow in opposition, but after five years in government they succumbed to the same thinking and pressure from business, and flipped.
Mind your language— communicating the climate problem
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 purely scientific questions about what’s happening in the atmosphere. Rather than simply swapping one word for another, we might be better off expanding our climate vocabulary.
Besides, language itself is only going to get us so far. It’s a neat story to say pro-oil interests lobbied for “global warming” over anything more alarming because they thought it would help quell climate action. But do you really think if we’d picked another phrase they wouldn’t have found a way round it? We need to consider a context far broader than the label we stick on the phenomenon, including all the other words and images in which the whole discussion is couched, as well as the media infrastructure and brute political power. We need to give people things to do as well as say, we need to empower new voices and find ways to turn down the volume on some of the older ones, and we need to make it more socially acceptable to talk about climate change (and socially unacceptable not to care). It’s a labyrinthine puzzle, and it won’t be easy to escape. But finding the right words would be a good start.