At a Loss for Words: Why Exclusive Climate Language Must Change

This past week, the U.S. Defense Department reworked its definition of 'climate change.' For better or worse, the shift in language is part of an ongoing struggle to navigate the conversation of climate discourse, in turn, mapping how we manage climate solutions. But, does it really matter what we call it? The short answer is yes, but it goes a bit deeper.

With February being the hottest month in recorded history, national organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), charged with illustrating many of the changing weather patterns, grapples to find appropriate adjectives that have not already been implemented. The problem stems from our inability to create a linguistic trajectory large enough to capture the ever increasing climate strain.

While the effort to define climate-related impacts suffers from a prematurely exhausted list of descriptive terms, jumping from 'alarming' to 'scary,' according to NOAA climate scientists, Jessica Blunden, the way we talk about climate change also has exclusive characteristics that disengage particular segments of the American population. In a recent article for the Huffington Post, people of color, while concerned about climate change, are increasingly averse to the label of 'environmentalists.' 

Despite a recent increase of Americans expressing concern over climate change, according to a Gallup poll, Americans remain conflicted about joining causes or efforts toward finding solutions, essentially because these endeavors maintain outdated or exclusive terminology that does not resonate with the audience's experience or primary concern. For example, people of faith are more inclined to act on climate change when it is framed in the context of 'caring for God's creation,' according to ecoAmerica's report, Let's Talk Climate. 

The greatest hurdle in forming climate solutions is not in what to do about it, rather in how we speak about it. Find out what terms and phrases wok best in your community here

People Of Color Care About Climate Change, But Are Less Likely To Call Themselves Environmentalists

Nick Visser | Huffington Post

Racial minorities are among the most vulnerable when it comes to climate impacts. But a new study finds they’re often underrepresented in positions of environmental leadership and less likely to join green movements despite high levels of concern over the issue.

The report, published this month in the journal Climatic Change, found that while people of color are just as worried, if not more so, as their white counterparts, they often reject the label “environmentalist.” About 50 percent of non-white respondents identified as environmentalists, compared to 56 percent of whites. The study says the difference “remained significant” across political ideologies, gender, education level and household income. 

Jonathon Schuldt, an assistant professor of communication at Cornell and the study’s co-author, said this lack of labeling among people of color can be tied to a shortage of diversity among environmental groups where, he said, it’s often “an image of whiteness.”

“When you look at who is among the ranks of leading environmental organizations … and on the faculty of environmental departments at leading colleges and universities, non-whites are substantially underrepresented,” Schuldt said. “You might look at them and say: ‘Well, the people who are in these organizations don’t look like me, and maybe my voice isn’t welcome at the table.’”

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