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The power of language in fighting the climate crisis

This is the second part of a series emphasizing the impact of language in the fight against the climate crisis and environmental breakdown. The European Wilderness Society has been aware of the importance of appropiate communication in our work since our beginning.

A little over two years ago, we had a look at the power of words. Two years later, many joined us in realizing that we have to use stronger language to convey the magnitude of the crisis. And just recently, 11 000 scientists from 153 countries urged that the climate emergency has to be tackled.

Still, not enough is happening on a global scale. Often, communities and regions are the ones acting, because they already see the impacts of climate change. The climate crisis doesn´t have a big impact on national level in most countries so far, but some local communities are already threatened in their existence. Hence, over 1000 municipalities have officially declared climate emergency so far.

Is this the age of crises?

Just like the climate crisis, the wildlife crisis should not be belittled by using soft language. The current threat of one million species is not just extinction. Extinction, just like climate change, is a natural process and constantly happens. The current wildlife crisis is the sixth event of mass extinction. However, there is one big difference compared to the five previous events. They were all caused by events that could not be influenced, like the meteor that killed the dinosaurs. The current wildlife crisis is completely due to the conscious behaviour of one out of millions of species. The activist Polly Higgins coined the term “ecocide” for it and demanded to make it a crime in international law. The problem is that most people are aware of these problems and show concern about them. Nevertheless, the crisis continues.

Language influences opinions

There are several commonly used terms, which we should review critically. One example is the term “climate sceptic”. There is no doubt that climate change is real and people, who do not accept this fact, are not sceptics, but deniers. Deniers of a series of scientific results, so climate science deniers is a much more suitable term.

A term similar to climate change is global warming. Warming up after a cold day or the warming of weather towards summer have a positive connotation. But the worldwide overheating of climate is a ecological and humanitarian crisis, not a gentle transition towards slightly warmer weather.

The environmental writer George Monbiot criticized the terms ecosystem services and natural capital. This kind of language suggests that the value of nature can be put into numbers and calculated. If we put a monetary value on nature, it means that environmental destruction can just be paid off. There are millions of people in the world fighitng for nature. But none of them grew a passion for nature because of economic value. Nature sparks passion in so many people, because it´s free of economic and human categories. It´s wild, beautiful and pure. So, if we talk about nature, let´s talk about the fascination we feel and where it comes from, not it´s mundane monetary value.

We should consider showing the direct impact of environmental issues on people’s daily lives as well as trying to indicate the scale of the impact.

Fiona Shields
The Guardian
The climate crisis directly impacts the life of millions daily.

Words are not the only language

Words are not the only language we use. In our everyday life, we use many languages like body language or sign language (not only hearing-impeared persons use signs). On this website, we mainly use pictures or visual language in combination with texts. Pictures are a powerful tool in climate change communication. For decades pandas, tigers and other iconic wildlife species were existential for campaigns of many NGOs. While headlines are often dramatic to attract viewers, the accompanying images seem contradictatory. Loss of species and other environmental issues are often either invisible or not visually appealing. While the headline “One millions species threatened” creates shock (and views), you cannot show an image of extinct species. So authors often fall back to pictures of polar bears and tigers in a knee-jerk reaction.

New words, new pictures

Our goal is to protect Wilderness, so we naturally depict Wilderness in our communication. And large animals are what people associate with Wilderness. But even though people feel empathy for suffering animals, they are quickly forgotten. The climate crisis does not only influence wildlife, but also humans. Floods, droughts, heatwaves and storms kill humans, animals and plants alike. And pictures of other suffering humans are not as easy forgotten as suffering animals.

One step in the right direction is the scientists’ climate plea. They do not only present new shocking data on climate. They also call it a climate emergency and criticize the inaction of governments. Hence, they give a clear call to action and demand a list of measures. And this last part is the most important one. We must emphasize the magnitude of the problem, but in parallel we must start talking about solutions. We must give hope to people that we have not lost this battle yet. Even though the way out is going to involve sacrifice, making our world more sustainable is a chance for great improvement, not just bare survival.

No conservation without communication

Communication is often put in second place in nature conservation work. Marketing and communication are deemed tools of big businesses, which are often considered the enemy. But convincing as many people as possible that the climate crisis is the most important issue of our time, is the only way to solve it. And since for that communication and appropiate language is the key tool, everybody should put it in first place.

Like Jes Thompson explains in her TED talk, the best way to show people the impact of the climate crisis is to bring them out into nature, so they experience the destruction with their own eyes and hands. If you cannot get you whole audience out into nature, find out what moves them and use it. The climate crisis is so omnipresent that all aspects of life will be influenced, so there is a personal connection for every single person.

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