How people think and talk about our steadily warming world has a lot to do with the language we embrace to describe it. Climate change, greenhouse gases, carbon emissions — these terms tend to be used interchangeably. Climate activists are altering the language they employ to describe our quickly warming world, and the term “climate pollution” has started to shift the way that the public ascribes responsibility for the existential crisis that surrounds us.
That evolution in how language is applied to describe the climate crisis has really started to awaken people. When the phrase “climate pollution” comes up in conversations, people across political and social lives are more likely to be energized to act. It’s interesting that something as simple as updated wording can make two centuries of fossil fuel degradation real and motivate people.
People have trouble creating personal connections in their daily lives when they think of emissions or gases. Climate pollution, on the other hand, is observable and dangerous and scary. Those emotions and recognition of the cause and effect of climate pollution push people to get those responsible to cease and desist.
People have deep anxieties, you see, about a poisoned environment. They get concerned for themselves and their families. Soon, they want to see the people responsible for the climate pollution to be held accountable.
What’s in a Name? A Lot of Influence, That’s What
The term “climate change” does not necessarily evoke the culprit of fossil fuels. Why is “pollution” a better word to use than “emissions” or “gases?” Pollution causes harm to humans and the environment. We can visualize pollution — water bottles scattered on the side of a road. A factory smokestack bellowing out dark tendrils. A sea turtle wrapped in fishing line. A tropical beach washed with litter from around the planet.
The White House has made progress in the language it appropriates to describe the climate crisis. “Carbon pollution” has been adopted by the Biden administration and is evident on the Environmental Protection Agency’s site, in press releases about manufacturing remediation, and in speeches by President Bidewn. The “pollution” part of this phrase does capture visual images of litter, waste, chaos, and destruction. However, many folks just don’t know what “carbon” is nor how the energy that they have been taught to consume generates carbon emissions.
The Inflation Reduction Act, the most expansive climate legislation ever enacted by the US Congress, amends the 1970 Clean Air Act to clearly identify greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as a form of air pollution. When it comes to the law, definitions mean everything, and new language that describes culpability will make it much easier to hold polluters accountable. Perhaps the White House will also migrate to “climate pollution” instead of “carbon pollution.”
Human Dimensions of Disconnect around Climate Pollution
The United Nations defines climate change as long term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. Since the 1800’s, human activities have been the main driver of climate change, primarily due to burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas. Struggles for the public to relate climate change to regular human experience are pervasive, and the specific language to describe the climate risk is essential to convey its immediacy and life altering influences, the pain and anguish it causes.
There are many reasons for a disconnect between tangible causes of the climate crisis and some people’s inability to understand those roots. Numerous challenges and complexities are involved in knowing, experiencing, and enacting climate change and adaptation practices.
Some experts point to different scales of climate impacts or the disparate collective cultural perspectives of social groups. It’s evident that particular language choices invite more people to talk about and reflect on climate change. Acknowledging the human dimensions of climate change affects the way that the general public understands the existential crisis around us. Words do make a difference.
Industrial fossil fuel companies have a long history of refusing to accept responsibility for their multilayered actions that are wholly responsible for climate pollution. Industrial polluters try to dilute their corporate responsibility by distracting the public. One of the key strategies is to blame the victim — for example, the concept of a personal “carbon footprint” reframes climate pollution as a fault of the individual. That manipulation works because humans have a tendency to focus on the individual first — to think of climate shifts as part of a personal duty intertwined with how a person interacts with their home, car, physical activities, community, and workplace.
Such persistently uneven power dynamics shape what is considered valid knowledge about our warming world.
Rising temperatures are fueling environmental degradation, natural disasters, weather extremes, food and water insecurity, economic disruption, conflict, and terrorism. It’s also a race we can win, according to the UN. One way to make inroads is to reduce GHG emissions — those emissions that blanket the Earth, trap the sun’s heat, and lead to global warming and climate change. The world is now warming faster than at any point in recorded history.
For people to understand this linkage from fossil fuels to the climate crisis, they need to have a keen grasp of GHG emissions. Susan Joy Hassol, the director of Climate Communication, a nonprofit for science outreach, prefers the phrase “heat-trapping pollution,” since people don’t need special background knowledge to comprehend it.
Media Messages about Climate Pollution
A new emphasis is reflected in the language media texts incorporate about climate. Google Ngram, which tracks how frequently words are used in books, shows a clear increase in both “climate pollution” and “carbon pollution” over the last decade. The popularity of social media and its capacity for anonymous individuals to express themselves has created multiple and often contradictory rationales about our changing climate.
“One’s perception of dangers and challenges are directly influenced by their personal experience in conjunction with the knowledge and language from the media texts they consume, use, and are exposed to,” confirms Yonty Freisem, associate director of the Media Education Lab. People learn from and believe the culture around them, and media culture is a powerful and pervasive influence. “Climate pollution” is less likely to be the subject of an organized spread of spurious information that is circulated and reproduced by established media than, say, “GHG emissions” or “climate change.”
It also cannot be understated that there are multidirectional flows of knowledge that impact and manipulate various experiences of, and responses to, climate variability and change, and those are reflected in media messaging. For example, a fascinating analysis of the hyperlink structure of the blogosphere around climate change discourse shows the blogging network to have a number of distinct communities.
One is predominantly skeptical, while the other communities are dominated by accepters. However, there are also important differences between accepter communities.
One distinctive feature is that one of the accepter communities has a much higher level of mutual linking with the skeptical community than the other accepter communities, which suggests a more active engagement with the skeptics. Communities are not structured simply on the basis of disagreement between skeptics and accepters but also by various groups of accepters that focus on different aspects of the climate change debate. The language of cooperation and conciliation plays an important part of that outreach.
Corporate Donors Contribute to Climate Crisis Disconnect
Networks of actors promulgating scientific misinformation about climate change are increasingly integrated into the institution of US philanthropy. The degree of integration can be predicted by funding ties to prominent corporate donors.
The need for industrial polluters to call in the big corporate donor hitters has a lot to do with how public health is framed — public health concerns about climate pollution threaten the stability industrial polluters. Positioning climate change as an air quality problem validates long standing concerns from communities that are threatened by industrial pollution. Talking about air pollution rather than climate change increases people’s support for regulating power plant emissions, for instance.
Identifying climate change as a pollution problem might have bigger consequences than you’d think, according to an expose in Wired. The ability to engage with others who hold dissonant understandings of the climate crisis is crucial to enhancing everyone’s understanding and well being and the ecosystems upon which we depend.
So can prudent choices of language to describe the climate crisis — our words can create the most vivid and personal meanings of its devastating consequences. Let’s all think before we speak and choose our words wisely.