Power of the Word

In the middle of my musings about the appropriateness of the moniker, ‘climate change warrior,’ my friend Margie sent me a piece from Counter Punch by Ralph Nader.

In A Note to the Environmental Community, Ralph Nader talks about the political strategist Frank Luntz, who in 2003 wrote a confidential memo to the Republican Party and advised them to use replace the phrase “global warming” with the less threatening, more benign expression, “climate change.”

How much did that shift in language shape the way we have dawdled, dragged our heels and turned a blind eye as the seas swallow towns and the desserts turn to furnaces?

Words have power.

They can distance us from the truth. Think: Ethnic cleansing, collateral damage, and negative patient outcome—sugar-coated phrases that soften a harsher reality.

They (or their absence) can make a person, place or thing invisible. Think: Mankind, manmade, Congressman. We live in a world where women often go unnamed.

Words can tell a truth that causes people to sit up and pay attention.

Ralph asked two widely respected ecologists, Paul Hawken and Bill McKibben, what language they use to talk about ‘climate change.’ Hawken uses, “climate volatility,” and McKibben says “climate chaos.”

I say, good start and still not big enough. I get stuck on the word climate. It feels too small. I don’t immediately jump to the interconnectedness of all things. I don’t immediately understand that the earth, humans and animals are all part of one system and if one thing (climate) goes out of whack, the whole system goes bonkers.

The word climate makes me think rain and snow and wind and sun. It doesn’t make me think about the hundreds of thousands of human beings who have been forced to leave parched fields in search of food and work. It doesn’t make me think about the dying ice algae that feeds the Arctic cod that feeds the seals that feeds the polar bears.

But Nader is on to something. He closes his letter with a request—that we replace the ‘benign’ language of ‘climate change’ with something that matches the cataclysmic upheaval we have wrought upon ourselves and the planet.

Hear, hear Ralph!

For now, until I come up with something better, I’m using ‘the climate crisis.’ Not perfect, but a little closer to the truth. 

The phrase needs to convey urgency, express the full Monty of potential devastation and is plain speak.  

Give me your good ideas and let’s change the trajectory of this conversation.

7 comments on “Power of the Word

  1. Transnational and trans global solutions needed- words from Carl Sagan- for the climate crisis.

  2. Excellent point re the vast interconnectedness (is that a word?) not smacking us between the eyes when we hear “global warming” and “climate change”. And what an appropriate illustration, that big rock poised above us, calibrated so finely between staying where we would like it to stay and squashing us all flat.

  3. By your putting these thoughts into words, I realized that indeed the words we’ve been using are part of the reason that things are moving too slowly and too “business as usual” when it comes to action by all people and entities, large and small. It seems the whatever the title is, it needs to be an accurate description but also be a catchy phrase.. How about a climate crash? That’s pretty urgent, but as you said, the word climate isn’t comprehensive enough to encompass the full scope.

  4. As a fellow “word-nerd,” I really loved this piece. Words matter. I frequently eschew “the language of our oppressors” and opt for “human-caused climate disruption,” or, if speaking to national security hawks, “climate instability.” Most of the time, I just say “climate crisis” or “climate emergency.” In years past, and depending on the audience, I’d frequently refer to “Global Weirding and Climate Chaos,” an all-time favorite. (Thanks, Tom Friedman.)

    I am a strong believer that words matter. I frequently tell people about Frank Luntz and I share this short, Stephen Colbert video segment to highlight the fact that it was Frank who contrived of the ‘double-C word’ in the first place: bit.ly/luntzcolbert

    Words matter.


    It was early November; the run-up to the mid-terms, and Gov. Jay Inslee visited FL. I was invited to the meeting of grasstops environmental leaders. I asked him to underscore the importance of carbon pricing for others at the table. My head exploded when he proceeded to explain that it’s just “one of the tools in the toolbox.” Nooo!!!

    After cleaning up the mess, I wrote this op-ed called Words Matter.

    I strongly feel we’ve done ourselves a disservice by referring to carbon pricing as “a solution.” If the solutions refer to the many technologies and practices that reduce CO2, save energy, or make clean energy, then carbon pricing ain’t one of them. Meanwhile, the way we continue to talk about carbon pricing constantly leads people to think it is one of the many solutions. It is not.

    Carbon pricing lifts the boot off the neck of all the solutions. it’s not one of them. Words matter: bit.ly/words500

    • Surely you’re joking. Citing Ralph Nader as a source of useful climate information is like citing Donald Trump on truthfulness. In 2000, Nader s ego and political naivete (which he shares with Trump) prevented the nation’s foremost political climate leader of that era–Al Gore–from becoming president. Nader’s an unforgivable fool who failed to see a meaningful difference between Gore and Bush.

      • Dick–I guess I hit a hot button when I brought in Ralph Nader! Like him or not, words do have power. We’re so mired at this point, that I don’t know how much difference it will make, but I’ve begun referring to our current disaster as the climate crisis in hopes that it generate more compelling action than the words climate change.

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