In the middle of a winter’s night in 2017, Frank Luntz’s cellphone alerted him to a nearby wildfire. The longtime analyst of public opinion opened his bedroom curtains and saw, less than a mile away, flames chewing the dark sky over Los Angeles. Luntz — who specializes in how the public reacts to words — saw scary evidence of a threat that he once tried to neutralize with language. In 2001, he’d written a memo of environmental talking points for Republican politicians and instructed them to scrub their vocabulary of “global warming,” because it had “catastrophic connotations,” and rely on another term: “climate change,” which suggested “a more controllable and less emotional challenge.”
Last month, with a revised script, Luntz appeared before the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis.
“I’m here before you to say that I was wrong in 2001,” Luntz said. Nearby was a colorful chart of vocabulary, developed since his polling in 2009 showed bipartisan support for climate legislation. He went on: “I’ve changed. And I will help you with messaging, if you wish to have it.”
Don’t talk about threats, he told the senators. Talk about consequences.
Don’t talk about new jobs created by green energy. Talk about new careers.
“Stop,” Luntz said. “Sustainability is about the status quo.”
Even the committee’s name had a troublesome word in it: “crisis.” It’s flabby from overuse, Luntz thought. If everything is a crisis, then nothing is.
From a word standpoint, that’s true. And sometimes it feels true in the real world. The phone in your hand has become a police scanner of unfolding crises. The Kashmir crisis, the Hong Kong crisis, the border crisis, the trade crisis, the measles crisis. The crisis of mass shootings, of the national debt, of Puerto Rico, Brexit, the Amazon. And, yes, the climate crisis, formerly climate change — somehow the least tangible but most alarming of the crises, which makes it trickier to talk about.
Those who are talking about it have ratcheted up their rhetoric. In May, the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg ditched “climate change” for “climate breakdown” or “climate emergency.” The Guardian now uses “climate catastrophe” in its articles. A resistance movement born in Europe last year named itself Extinction Rebellion, partly to normalize the notion of aggressive action in a life-or-death situation.
Luntz wants defter language. “The strongest advocates for a particular issue are often the worst communicators,” he says later by phone, because “they forget that the people they need to convince are not themselves or their friends.”
The climate problem is not just scientific. It’s linguistic. If we can agree how to talk and write about an issue that affects us all, maybe we can understand and fix it together.
But words can be clumsy tools. They can be too dull to puncture ignorance, or so sharp that people flinch and turn away. Is “change” appropriately neutral, or unjustly neutered? Is an “emergency” still an “emergency” after months or years? Does “catastrophe” motivate people, or make them hide under the bed? How long before words such as “breakdown” and “extinction” lose their bite?
And if we keep returning to the dictionary for new words to replace them, will there eventually be any left?
The second volume of the fourth National Climate Assessment is 1,515 pages long. The word "likely" appears 867 times, sometimes after "very" or "extremely." Last spring, as they distilled data into text, the scientists who wrote the report spent long hours debating the usage of "likely."
Without significant action to curb climate change, they wrote in the final chapter, “it is very likely that some physical and ecological impacts will be irreversible for thousands of years, while others will be permanent.”
When translated to conversational English, “very likely” becomes “this is something really bad and totally crazy and wild,” says one author of the report, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
“Why don’t we use plain language and say, ‘Yes, this is crazy and, yes, you should be freaking out’? Because that’s not fair. That’s not the role of the National Climate Assessment,” the author says. “But then we sort of fail as a community in actually getting people to understand the severity of it.”
The science community is supposed to interpret for the rest of us, but its dialect does not always pack rhetorical oomph. “I didn’t realize that pointing to a climate graph I think is the Rosetta stone — people don’t see it the way I see it,” says Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We as humans don’t experience an exponential curve viscerally, in our gut.”
In the industrial age, environmentalist writers have tried to access the brain via the gut. “Thank God men cannot fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in the 19th century. In the 1960s, Rachel Carson envisioned an ecosystem silenced by chemicals: “Everywhere was a shadow of death.” In the 1980s, as global warming was first debated widely, Bill McKibben pondered “the end of nature” itself.
But “there’s a point at which words like ‘climate change’ become part of your mental furniture,” McKibben says in an interview. “Like ‘urban violence’ — things that are horrible problems but you just repeat the thing so often that people’s minds kind of skip over them.”
Terms lose their power as they get used over many years, says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, and “come to accrete their own set of connotations.”
Such as: elitist, liberal, socialist. When thousands of pages of analysis become a two-word slogan, it passes from science to politics. Facts become less important than feelings. For some people, “climate change” is a wedge word synonymous with “hoax” and calls to mind former vice president Al Gore. For others, it summons the specter of ExxonMobil and is a rallying cry for restructuring the global economy.
“The facts do not speak for themselves,” says Richard Buttny, a professor in the department of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University. “People make decisions based on values.”
And therein lies an opportunity, according to Kim Cobb, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Georgia Tech. Scientists observe and publish findings for the public, Cobb says, but then often fail to “recognize the emotional toll this takes on the recipient and the challenge to their core values.”
Cobb refrains from using words such as “crisis” and “emergency” on Twitter, where the character limit discourages context and nuance. Instead, she elevates language about solutions, and about the emotions triggered by the science, in the hopes of widening the circle of understanding.
“We’re way behind creating these communities for shared values and shared goals,” Cobb says. “And from that comes shared language.”
We are gradually building that language to talk about where we are, where we're going and about the emotions that accompany that knowledge.
The Germans have a word for feeling guilty about flying on airplanes: “flugscham,” or “flight shame.”
The biologist Edward O. Wilson has a word for a future epoch following a profound loss of species: “the Eremocine,” or “the Age of Loneliness.”
Karla Brollier, founder of the Climate Justice Initiative, is listening to her fellow indigenous Alaskans as their language evolves to include loss and adaptation, without relying on words such as “climate refugee” that connote victimhood.
Jennifer Atkinson’s students at the University of Washington at Bothell have used “blissonance” to describe the feeling of enjoying a record-hot day in winter — while recognizing that climate change might have something to do with it.
“Solastalgia,” coined by environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, means distress over change in one’s home environment. Atkinson phrases it as a homesickness without ever having left home.
Her students “describe how the sound of frogs has slowly disappeared over time — these changes that destabilize connections to personal memories,” says Atkinson, a senior lecturer at Bothell. “Unlike with personal bereavement, we don’t have a vocabulary for the grief people have for the loss of the natural world.”
Her course is called “Environmental Anxiety and Climate Grief.” One of the goals is to search for ways of communicating outside the bounds of science and its “value-neutral” vocabulary — all those likelys and somewhat likelys.
“We’re moving into an age of great earnestness, because we’re trying to figure out, ‘How do we show up for each other?’ ” says Sarah Myhre, a climate and ocean scientist who has studied social and ecological decision-making. “And the language that’s being used in my spaces is all about heart-centered work.”
Whereas Frank Luntz once tried to strip the climate problem of emotional resonance, Atkinson, Myhre and others are acknowledging and amplifying it. Whereas science has traditionally been guided by dispassionate, male-centric authority, women are rewording climate conversations to honor the collective, connective nature of the problem.
And how we talk about the environment affects how we think about it. In the colonial and industrial ages, Myhre says, our language reflected an idea of the natural world as an inventory of useful commodities — separate from, and subservient to, humanity.
Trees became timber.
Animals became livestock.
Oil and coal became fuels.
And thus a cultural problem has given birth to an environmental one, says Daniel Wildcat, a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas.
“Think of how our worldview changes if we shift from thinking that we live in a world full of resources,” he says, “to a world where we live among relatives.”
In June, the White House slashed its red pen through certain labels in written congressional testimony from a State Department analyst. When the analyst used "possibly catastrophic" to describe the future impacts of climate change, a member of the National Security Council typed a note in the margin: "not a science-based assessment but advocacy for the climate-alarm establishment."
The analyst listed “tipping point processes” on a page that was entirely crossed out. A note in the margin: “ ‘Tipping points’ is a propaganda slogan designed to frighten the scientifically illiterate.”
Some activists believe fright is appropriate, and they’re eager to use keener language than “tipping points” to do it.
“We’ve been told for years: ‘Don’t scare people, people don’t want to know the bad news’ — and all that’s meant is nothing’s changed,” says Charlie Waterhouse, founder of the company behind Extinction Rebellion’s branding. “We know that we have to up the ante, and we have to have a more extreme position because that opens that crack that lets other people follow.”
The word “extinction” is a blunt instrument that whacks at complacency.
The word “rebellion” invites enlistees and subverts established power structures.
But this “constant inflation” in terminology hampers rational discussion, says the Danish author Bjorn Lomborg, whose skeptical writings on the economics of climate action have riled scientists and activists. Words such as “catastrophe” and “extinction” imply that we should either cower and do nothing, or overreact and do everything, says Lomborg, who is president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.
“The conversation we should have is: How do we make smart policies that cost less than the damage they reduce?” Lomborg writes in an email. “Climate policy shouldn’t be done with labels but with careful analysis.”
We don’t need labels as much as we used to, back when the effects of climate change were forecast instead of seen and felt.
“In a certain sense, words are no longer as necessary as they once were,” says McKibben, author of “The End of Nature.” “Twenty or 30 years ago we were describing things that hadn’t happened yet, so you couldn’t take a picture of them. Now every single day you can take 1,000 pictures around the world of the trauma of climate change.”
Nearly two decades after Frank Luntz recommended it, “climate change” may still be the closest thing to a shared language that Americans have for describing what’s happening to the planet. But we diverge from there. Scientists speak about consequences. Activists speak about crises and catastrophes. Politicians speak about doubt and propaganda. And if you’re paying attention, you’ll hear nature speaking loudly for itself.