‘Are Words Worthless in the Climate Fight?’, Andrew Revkin raised the question in one of his articles on Dot Earth last year. I will go even further and suggest that words commonly used to describe and address global warming are not just worthless, but detrimental to the climate fight.
Back in November, I responded to Marty Kaplan‘s The Narrative Narrative article in the Huffington Post, with the following comment:
I have been giving a lot of thought to the power of the collective narrative to influence and shape the crowds’ decisions, particularly in regards to voting. Unfortunately, we respond more to narratives and the way things are said, than to the truth itself. In fact, narratives are creators of truth in the listeners’ minds. As a therapist, I can tell you much of the work with patients is about helping them alter the narratives about their lives, and create new ones. In fact, politics are all about narratives, the ability to tell enticing stories, relying on powerful words that resonate with people’s imaginations, and the ability to deliver those narratives in a convincing fashion.
In the field of interest to me, that is climate change, not enough attention is being paid to the way the current collective narrative is influencing individual attitudes and behaviors. Also, a well used narrative can be a powerful agent of change.
Ask narrative psychologists, and they will tell you that it is not just words that are informed by thoughts. Thoughts, and therefore behaviors, are also shaped by words. Hence the importance of paying attention to our collective discourse here. When I hear ‘global warming‘, my mind goes to: global- big – world -not personal – not responsible, then warming – I like warm – warm what?. Those are my immediate associations to the words themselves. Next, I conjure up images of melting ice far away, scenarios of doom in the movies. Then, depending on what I have read in the news that day, I may associate stories of seasons gone weird, or California forests burning, or the possibility of the San Francisco Bay being flooded some day, etc. I am also hearing lots of admonitions for me to not do a bunch of things. I am to lighten my carbon footprint. Sounds good, very elegant. Too clever, almost. I would be curious to know how many people know what that really means. What I do get, when I remember, is I should not drive, I should cut down on my electricity, I should stop using the old light bulbs and replace them with, what? (I finally got it, CFLs for compact fluorescent lights), those twisty bulbs with a greenish hue. I know there is a lot more I should remember.
I was thinking about the last few research studies I have been reporting on, and the surprisingly high number of people willing to seemingly go along with what is after all, a rather confusing, complicated, removed narrative. It’s almost as if we have no other choice but to go along, and say yes to the pollster. Yes, we are very concerned and we are seriously considering taking such and such step. Are we going to do something about it? That’s where things break down. Because frankly, I, we are annoyed at being thrown this big problem, with no simple, easy, cheap and practical solutions.
The good news however, is that narratives can be deconstructed and reconstructed. How then, would we want to alter the current climate change narrative so that it is more likely to induce positive behavioral changes, both at an individual and collective level? Here are some pointers:
- Add an individual dimension to global
- Find another word to complement or modify warming; Tom Friedman has suggested climate weirding, a term originally coined by Hunter Lovins. I have also heard global heating. The point is I don’t think we have found the right word yet.
- Make sure to use simple words understandable by all, and I mean all.
- Tell it as a story, using metaphors; learn from the preachers.
- Make it relevant to people’s every day lives; people are most concerned about issues of personal health and safety.
- As much as possible, link it to the weather; the weather is one of the top search terms, and a concept everyone understands.
- Not just a problem, rather a problem with already existing solutions, also an opportunity to rediscover lost joys.
Now, you write your own version of the global warming narrative . . .