Language Is the Latest Weapon Against the Climate Emergency

A former ‘Guardian’ journalist on how revisions to the British paper’s style guide can alter our view of the climate crisis

Credit: Barcroft Media/Getty Images

TThe language of our impending environmental disaster is changing. In a note to staff, the Guardian on Friday announced it was responding to increasing concern about climate change by calling it the “climate emergency” instead.

The email, as tweeted by BuzzFeed reporter Mark Di Stefano, reads: “Use climate emergency, crisis, or breakdown instead of climate change. Use global heating instead of global warming… Use climate science denier or climate denier instead of climate skeptic.” The memo states that the aim is to “accurately reflect the phenomena they describe,” and points out that the term climate change “sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.”

It’s a good point — the word “change” hardly captures the self-imposed extinction of humankind, akin to calling an airstrike a “land-changer.” But not everyone agrees. One person on Twitter replied sarcastically: “THIS is what will finally convince people. Lol.” If by “people” they’re referring to those actively promoting denial, then fair enough. But when it comes to non-dogmatic skeptics, the change in language might actually help. And believe me, newspapers like the Guardian take language very seriously.

I was a staffer at the Guardian for about a year, and (full disclosure) still freelance for them occasionally. The first part of my training involved spending a few weeks as a sub-editor. I expected to finish with an intricate knowledge of semicolons and a sense that I would fight with anyone over proper comma placement. (I did, and I will.) But much of it had more to do with understanding the tacit messages we send by the language we use. To say someone “admits” to being gay, for example, suggests that being gay is wrong or shameful, so in order to avoid both offense and moral bankruptcy, sub-editors stopped letting the word by, and journalists stopped using it. And since the media is essentially society’s journal, perhaps removing that micro-aggression actually helped turn down the volume on the notion itself.

Before you go away thinking the Guardian has one person who decides what shall and shall not be said, drunk on power and cackling in an ivory tower, that’s not how it works. These decisions are the result of a lot of input from a lot of people. During my year in the office, there was an email from the style editor asking staff for input on how to refer to people fleeing Syria. Should it be migrants? Refugees? I remember one of the responses was: “Perhaps we should refer to them, as often as possible, as people.” Amid a slew of articles and columns in which human beings fleeing a war were dehumanized and demonized, using the word “people” was as much a matter of defending the humanity of those we were writing about as it was a simple, basic fact.

If we’re going to use leading language, why not use it to lead people to the actual, scientifically proven, peer-reviewed, obvious-to-the-naked-eye, damn-I’d-better-visit-Miami-while-I-still-can truth?

We know language matters. It’s why the 2011 tweet from Modern Family writer and producer Danny Zuker — “I’m constantly amazed at how different my twin daughters are. Lisa is so much more positive & confident than her sister Hog Face.” — was so funny. It’s because we understand the basic principle that the words we use affect what we think and how we feel about a topic, our identities — and yes, facts.

There has been plenty of scientific study on the effects of language. In 1974, the psychologist Elizabeth Loftus showed films of traffic collisions to participants in an experiment, then asked how fast the cars were going when they (alternately) “contacted,” “hit,” “bumped,” “collided,” or “smashed.” The speeds estimated by participants were directly affected by the verb used by the researchers — the highest speed reported by participants when asked the question using the verb “smashed” was nearly 41 mph, but the highest reported by those asked using the verb “contacted” was just under 32 mph.

If leading language can affect a person’s view of their own memories, surely it can affect a person’s view of a complex topic such as what effect humans are having on our climate. Certainly reporters have a responsibility not to downplay the climate crisis. If we’re going to use leading language, why not use it to lead people to the actual, scientifically-proven, peer-reviewed, obvious-to-the-naked-eye, damn-I’d-better-visit-Miami-while-I-still-can truth?

Perhaps the most important change is to ditch the word “skeptic.” You can’t be skeptical of a proven fact. There are no death skeptics, only death deniers. The media is where we get our stories, so they’re the ones who have to say: enough is enough. State your (possibly) false opinion. Say it loud, and say it proud if you must — no one will jail you or kill you for it, because that’s what "freedom of speech" means. But pretending the counterpoint to scientifically-proven fact is probably false contrarianism? This is where it has to stop.

Welcome home, facts. We’ve missed you.

Writer, journalist, author. First book THIS PARTY’S DEAD coming in Feb 2021 from Unbound. Preorder:

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