Climate change semantics: let’s use language that makes a difference

Written by Nikki Wright, FPRINZ, Managing Director, Wright Communications

Have you noticed there are more people considering the semantics of climate change? Stuff polled the public this week on whether Stuff should start referring to a ‘climate crisis’ in their media coverage.

Now Auckland Council is referring to a climate emergency. It’s widely believed more urgent action is required, and the first step is choosing effective language.

Here’s what’s happened in my local council, which takes care of a quarter of the country:

Auckland Council’s Environment and Community Committee meeting – packed with members of the public young and old – ratified a motion for Auckland Council to declare a climate emergency.

Activists at the meeting said policy change was the best way to limit climate change and policy change was needed now. Mayor Phil Goff admits he initially wasn’t sure climate change was an “emergency” but he has become a strong proponent of the declaration saying he didn't want to leave future generations the "rotten legacy" of climate heating.

"We have an obligation to act, and it would be irresponsible and reckless not to act," he told a council meeting.

Auckland Council has now resolved to incorporate climate considerations into work programmes and decisions. Wright Communications wholeheartedly supports this, considering our commitment to sustainability.

Auckland’s stance follows Environment Canterbury, Nelson City Council and Hawkes Bay Regional Council which have all declared a climate emergency. Note the different connotations of the word emergency versus change. One of these words will catalyse urgent action. The other is what they used to call ‘weasel words.’

Let’s look at the language which succeeded on cutting through the crap and getting Auckland alert.

If your house is on fire, don’t get loquacious. Get out.

“Our house is on fire. I am here to say; our house is on fire.”

These are the words uttered by Greta Thunberg, 16-year-old climate change activist, at the World Economic Forum in January this year. “The media has failed to create broad public awareness,” Ms Thunberg said. “Now is the time to speak clearly… But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”

She used punchy, staccato language to inject a sense of urgency. It’s the difference between chronic and acute. We tend to ignore serious chronic problems but deal with trivial acute ones. Her core message: “According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we are less than 12 years away from not being able to undo our mistakes. In that time, unprecedented changes in all aspects of society need to have taken place, including a reduction of our CO2 emissions by at least 50%.

Lifesaving language: lessons to learn here at home

New Zealand’s Climate Change Adaptation Technical Working Group released a Stocktake Report in 2017 which noted a lack of consistent terminology as being equally problematic to limited funding, resourcing and capability to respond to climate change. Too wide a range of language and definitions “reduces the potential for shared understanding and collaboration,” the report found.

Meanwhile progressive news publisher The Guardian will now be using terms such as climate crisis, climate emergency, climate breakdown and ‘global heating.’ Media in several countries including CBC, Canada’s national public broadcaster, are now reviewing their own language. The Guardian’s editor-in-chief Katharine Viner explained the reason for shaking up the language: “The phrase ‘climate change’ sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.”

The Guardian is also describing climate change sceptics as “climate science deniers.” Even the BBC told staff in a recent memo, “You do not need a ‘denier’ to balance the debate.”

Back to Auckland Council’s stance then. Let’s look at what legacy language leaves.

One of the stakeholder groups at the Auckland Council meeting was called ‘Low Carbon Network’. Another group called itself ‘Extinction Rebellion’. Which group’s name has a greater sense of urgency?

I applaud the Council’s declaration. Now we need to hold them – and ourselves – to account. Part of the solution will be matching what the Land Transport Management Act calls for: slashing carbon dioxide emissions from transport and driving a shift to the green alternatives of walking, cycling, public transport and hybrid and electric vehicles.

Wright Communications is playing our part in using words to contribute to a better world. After producing sustainability reports for clients ranging from Air New Zealand to Moana, Wright Communications last year produced an inaugural sustainability report, and in 2019 we’ll continue to encourage pro-sustainability statements. Let’s quench this fire.