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The Power of Language in Climate Solutions

By Ryan J. Smith
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Language has the ability to guide cultures, advance leadership, or crumble societies, but words themselves are not inherently valuable. Their merit rests in the concepts that support them, which are subject to change depending on the time or setting of their use. Comparing concepts to bricks, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze famously explained how both may be “used to build a courthouse of reason, or...be thrown through [its] window,” depending on who, when and where they are expounded.

At ecoAmerica (Blessed Tomorrow's parent organization), we think a lot about words and the concepts that drive them — as do our leaders. We test words and phrases, and research their meaning and use to determine what language is effective in prioritizing climate change for more Americans. In our many reports designed to advance these efforts, we found that word usages and meanings are changing faster than ever before, causing us to continually reevaluate and refine their effectiveness. And, even the most trusted terms and phrases are subject to rigorous tests from the broader climate communications community.

In the early 2000s, for example, the phrase “global warming” was used to describe the earth’s rapid increase in global temperature. By the end of the millennium's first decade, the term had become over-politicized and subject to misuse. The brick that once supported the courthouse of reason had been plucked from its wall, only to be hurled back at the structure’s window. The result was a transition to our current phrase “climate change,” an expression seemingly liberated from the confines of our political arena….for a time.

While global warming indicates rising surface temperatures, climate change refers to a broader, long-term change in the Earth's climate, rendering it less vulnerable to unrelated dissuading factors such as cold weather in traditional warmer months. Case in point: Senator Jim Inhofe’s memorable snowball on the senate floor.

From farm to Congress…

We have reached a period in which even the term “climate change” is due for investigation. As it turns out, many have already moved on, and it may have started in America’s heartland.

Farmers throughout America’s midwest are among the many moving beyond terms like climate change, focusing instead on the solutions proposed to fix it. Fourth-generation grain farmer Doug Palen, whose crops have been repeatedly devastated by drought and soil erosion, explained that he doesn’t care much about what is causing his farm to suffer, so long as it stops before he loses everything. “If politicians want to exhaust themselves debating the climate, that’s their choice,” Mr. Palen said, “I have a farm to run.”

If politicians want to exhaust themselves debating the climate, that’s their choice,” Mr. Palen said, “I have a farm to run.

The American midwest is filled with farmers like Mr. Palen, who keep their political leanings private and avoid terms like climate change given its connotation or their disbelief in its existence. While not specific about his position on climate change, Palin is clearly in favor of climate solutions, many of which are already implemented on his farm, including “a no-till farming method that prevents erosion and keeps carbon in the soil.” And Palen’s straight-to-solution attitude appears to be making waves in Washington.

After years of infighting over climate science, legislators are beginning to avoid the term climate change altogether, instead relying on its impacts and solutions to advocate for change. As Slate Magazine explained in a recent article, “Many have argued it’s better to focus on strategic solutions to climate change than on science or politics or pundits. Solutions directly affect our future, whereas past-oriented debates focus on who or what is to blame and who should pay, and thus are highly polarizing.”

Bypassing climate change and jumping straight into its solutions may sound impossible, but most Americans have already made the leap. A survey released by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that while many Americans remain skeptical about climate change and its cause (30 percent), they overwhelmingly support solutions such as renewable energy and emission reductions (82 percent).

The survey found that 70 percent of Americans believe that climate change is happening, with only 49 percent who believe it’s human-caused. While only 51 percent of people think climate change is already harming people in the US, 82 percent of Americans support funding research into renewable energy sources. Put simply, 12 percent more Americans support solutions to climate change than those who believe the climate is actually changing.

A study conducted by PLOS ONE not only concurred that solutions are a better lead but added that solutions are best coupled with preparedness messages. They found that if a person supports preparedness measures that reduce the vulnerability of social and biological systems, they are more likely to support climate solutions, such as emission reductions.

This method is particularly useful in faith communities that are situated in conservative regions of America. If a faith leader serves a community that is less receptive to climate change discussions, they would be better served to skip straight to solutions and their benefits. If possible, it’s best to couple those solutions with preparedness and to leave climate change out of it. In providing solutions for a congregation’s immediate concerns such as drought, floods, and severe weather, faith leaders may frame climate change in a way that evades politics while emphasizing a person’s values.


Ryan Smith is a writer at Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside.