The language of climate change
Published: 15 November 2022
York St John University research has revealed the gulf between the words politicians and activists use and why that matters.
People across the world are reading and watching discussion about the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27), currently underway in Egypt. This study looks at how the message about climate change can vary widely depending on the language used, even when everyone involved is talking about how to tackle it. The message has been loud but has it been clear?
Researchers from the School of Education, Language and Psychology at York St John University have published research examining politicians’ and climate activists’ use of words about the climate emergency. Alumna Charlotte Foxcroft, Dr Clare Cunningham and Professor Helen Sauntson used a corpus analysis approach, designed to uncover non-obvious meaning, that which might not be readily accessible to an untrained audience.
There is currently very little research comparing the linguistic features of how climate activists and politicians talk about the climate emergency. Understanding how the communication of these two groups of public figures either perpetuate or challenge accepted views about climate change is vitally important.
For this study, two groups were created, the Activist and the Politician. Activists’ language was found to mainly focus on the negative effects of climate change which are attributed to the actions of humans. Their discourse is tied in with talk of ecological and social justice, and there is a semantic frame of immediacy and realness in relation to climate change.
This urgency and immediacy is, by contrast, notably absent in the language of the politicians. By contrast, the politicians’ talk is characterised by dominant semantic frames of industry, finance, politics and economy. There is very little attribution of climate change to human actors — instead, the language works to devolve responsibility for climate change to non-human causes.
Politicians' keywords - the main semantic categories identifiable in the top 25 words used:
- finance and economy (prepayment, tariff, underinvestment, subsidise)
- energy (decarbonise, renewable, decarbonisation, carbonisation, fracking, coal-fired, energy-efficient)
- politics (manifesto, roll-out, constituency, constituent)
- location (home-grown, onshore)
Activists’ keywords - the main semantic categories identifiable in the top 25 words used:
- activism and action (climate justice, climate activist, climate action, creating awareness)
- nature (mother earth, sacred water, natural world, mimicking nature)
- types of people (celebrity culture, indigenous community)
- human rights (clean drinking, basic human right)
- negative effects relating to climate change (climate crisis, causing desertification, tipping point, wasting plastic)
Charlotte Foxcroft said: “The message about climate change has been loud, but has it been clear? With a sense of growing impatience regarding a lack of action in response to climate change, we did this study to investigate the language of two key groups within the debate: activists and politicians.
From an activist focus on ecological and social justice to the political viewpoint on business, their diverse discourses evidenced how language can frame humanity's biggest threat in disparate ways.”
Dr Clare Cunningham, Associate Professor of Linguisitics at York St John said: “This study is valuable as it’s clear to see something isn’t working in how messages about the climate emergency are being communicated and understood.
Climate scientists and activists have been campaigning for years about the stark situation facing humanity. But their words have yet to galvanise politicians into taking meaningful action to prevent climate catastrophe
It’s really important that activists and politicians learn to understand each other – speak each others’ language more, maybe – so that we actually get to the point of tacking this most important of human problems”
The study found that what was common to both politicians and activists was an emphasis on stopping and challenging climate change. And what wasn’t present in the words of either group is an alternative semantic frame whereby climate change is something which human social actors work with rather than against.
The researchers believe this may be a useful way forward. It could help climate scientists and activists by reinforcing the immediacy of climate change and potentially embodying a social justice agenda in which challenges around inequalities and injustices must be addressed in order to work with climate change.