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.