“It’s not climate change – it’s everything change.”
— Margaret Atwood, Canadian novelist and poet, in a 2015 essay
Rapid. Far-reaching. Unprecedented. When international scientists wrote last fall in a U.N. report of the societal change needed to halt catastrophic climate consequences, those are some of the words they chose.
The “rapid” part they quantified: 12 years remain in which to overhaul global energy systems so as to slash carbon emissions. Unless we apply the brakes in that timeframe, we risk going off a climate cliff.
The choice of language in that U.N. report was notable because scientists traditionally communicate in studiously neutral terms. And in climate matters, members of the media have generally followed suit.
But that’s changing as more people recognize the urgent threat of a planetary mutation in the making. The Guardian recently jettisoned use of the terms “climate change” and “global warming,” deeming “crisis,” “emergency” and “breakdown” more accurate.
It can be tempting to describe climate extremes — like the hottest June ever recorded on Earth last month — as “the new normal.” But as Penn State atmospheric scientist Michael Mann observes, even that characterization is too tame.
That cliche suggests we have settled into a new state that we simply must learn to live with. “It’s worse than that,” Mann said in a recent interview, because extreme events will keep getting more pronounced and frequent as we continue heating the planet.
That is a hard reality to wrap our minds around, even for the slim majority of Americans who accept the basic mechanics and causes of climate disruption. It’s not just those who disregard climate science who succumb to the sort of mental paralysis George Marshall describes in his book, “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.” No sane person wants to contemplate loss and upheaval on that scale.
Employing words that suggest a dire threat can inspire action, but they can also tip us into hopeless passivity. Our climate lexicon, therefore, must leave room for hope.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood this delicate balance when he addressed what he called a “stricken nation” during the Great Depression. In his March 1933 inaugural address, he alluded to the risk of a “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts” to enact major reforms.
Breaking through that fear, he knew, required acknowledging the breadth and depth of suffering while holding out a reassuring vision: “there is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously.”
Contrast FDR’s grounded and uplifting language with the vapid terms for climate progress employed today. Whereas President Roosevelt called for “direct, vigorous action,” we hear of climate “mitigation measures” and “adaptation plans.”
Mitigation is wonk-speak for “getting off fossil fuels before we irreparably scald our planet.” For most people, it’s meaningless jargon with no hint of a call to action.
Adaptation, a textbook term borrowed from evolutionary science, seems to suggest a passive process that occurs through genetics and generations – rather than in our lifetimes through active engagement.
We would do better to toss these prosaic terms and take a lesson from Roosevelt, who effectively inspired people with powerful metaphorical language.
What if we spoke instead about the need for a societal detox, withdrawing our agriculture, transportation, heating and electricity systems from addictive fossil fuels? What if we saw oil and gas producers like ExxonMobil — which deliberately manufactured “climate doubt” even when its management knew that further fossil fuel combustion posed planetary risks — as the pushers and dealers they have been?
Americans understand the devastation of addiction and the vigilance and sheer grit needed to get clean.
That metaphor could stretch to encompass the process of coping with more erratic weather, increasingly severe floods and droughts, and incremental — or even abrupt — increases in sea level. Our planet will be “in recovery” for generations to come, and we’ll need to strive continually to minimize further damage to atmospheric and ecological systems.
To accomplish that healing as quickly as possible (mindful of that 12-year window), we need a climate lexicon that inspires commitment and action. Roosevelt’s lofty language, while somewhat antiquated by today’s standards, still resonates because of its moral vision: Isn’t preserving this remarkable planet and its inhabitants – whether or not one sees them as God-given – “a sacred obligation?”
FDR understood the need for a sense of common purpose, what he termed “a unity of duty.” Through his fireside chats during the Depression, he encouraged those who had experienced economic trauma to take part in helping the country tackle “the unprecedented task before us.”
The climate challenge before us is brimming with risks, but it also holds potent possibilities for recovering — not just planetary health — but greater fulfillment and justice in human society. To realize that potential, we need rousing invitations to act instead of scientific jargon and stale bureaucratese.
In her book, “This Changes Everything,” Canadian journalist Naomi Klein calls climate a “civilizational wake-up call.” An alarm is sounding, but that also suggests the arrival of a new day. “What if global warming isn’t only a crisis?” she asks. “What if it’s the best chance we’re ever going to get to build a better world?”