Is it time to update our climate change language?

Posted by ap507 at Apr 16, 2015 11:05 AM |
Dr Dimitrinka Atanasova discusses how the media framing of issues such as the rise in greenhouse gas emissions appears to influence the extent to which people believe that governments should do more to respond to global warming

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Language is rarely neutral, especially in the case of climate change. The media framing of issues such as the rise in greenhouse gas emissions appears to influence the extent to which people believe that governments should do more to respond to global warming. In particular, the metaphors that feature in media coverage of climate change might be important devices that help members of the public make sense of the often-politicised debate over its effects. What do these metaphors consist of and how influential might they be in shaping public opinion?

In order to address these questions, we analysed the use of metaphors in climate change-related editorials and op-eds published in the United Kingdom. We focussed on the online portals of two of the most popular British newspapers - The Guardian and The Daily Mail. Our results showed the lack of consensus over the issue of climate change being evident in the metaphors that were used in these newspapers.

Opinion page content in The Guardian tended to use ‘war’ metaphors, arguing that the scientific evidence for climate change was unequivocal. Hence, words such as ‘battle’, ‘fight’, ‘retreat’ and ‘combat’ frequently appeared in editorials and op-eds that called on policymakers to take stronger action on issues such as the reduction of CO2 emissions and developing renewable energy resources. It might be easier to implement policies to reduce the effects of climate change if the majority of the British people thought of it as a war. Indeed, UK governments have historically been able to introduce extraordinary measures with the support of the general public during past conflicts.

However, the war metaphor may prove counterproductive for those who wish to see stronger action taken by the UK government on climate change. Studies on communicating health messages, for example, show that scaring people into action may in fact increase public apathy. Furthermore, the war language may create false expectations amongst the general public in relation to this ‘war’ being winnable and who is responsible for the problem. The ‘enemy’ in this war is in fact our behaviour, not an abstract entity labelled ‘climate change.’ Therefore, it is difficult to see how it could be resolved as cleanly or as quickly as past wars invoked by this metaphor.

In contrast, The Daily Mail took a more sceptical viewpoint on the scientific claims about global warming. Metaphors of religion like ‘ayatollahs’, ‘crusaders’, ‘cultists’, ‘conversion’, ‘recant’ were used to question the validity of climate change scientists, as well as the necessity to take immediate action to address the causes of climate change. A notable theme in many of these editorials was ‘converting’ climate change believers, convincing them to ‘recant’ their views and adopt more sceptical positions towards global warming. It is hard to tell whether these metaphors of religion will greatly influence readers in a country where religious observance has been in a sharp decline since 1945.

All in all, like the pro-climate change arguments advanced in Guardian op-eds and editorials, Mail Online opinion-page content appears to communicate radical positions that prevent the elaboration of nuanced views about the evidence for and against climate change. Should we then strive to cleanse climate change-related editorials and op-eds of metaphors? Probably not. Metaphors can be helpful - we need analogies and symbols to make sense of new and, as in the case of climate change, complex phenomena. It may, however, be time to rethink our climate change metaphors.

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