The Linguistics of Climate Change

Astrobiology Magazine’s climate blog, The Hot Zone, recently spoke with Professor Brigitte Nerlich about aspects of climate change related to human behavior. The future of life on Earth may truly be in the hands of humankind – yet our actions are sometimes hard to predict or understand. The words we use to describe issues like climate change may have an important affect on how we feel and behave.

Talking about Climate: A Linguist Weighs In

Global carbon cycle (billion metric tons).
Credit: US DOE

Last week, I wrote about how we can only really know things we can measure. That’s true for scientific phenomena, such as the rate at which glaciers are receding, and amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. But for anything having to do with human behavior, all bets are off.

Yesterday I spoke with a linguist, Professor Brigitte Nerlich at University of Nottingham’s Institute for Science and Society. She’s been studying the incidence of phrases that include the word “carbon” in reference to the discussion of climate change. Each stakeholder, she says, from a government to an NGO to a business, frames the issue of climate change differently. She uses tools that search blogs and other Web-based texts to count the frequency of compound phrases as such carbon diet, carbon footprint, carbon budget and so on.

Dr. Nerlich has found some striking trends in the evolution of the climate discussion. During the 1990s, for example, the favored frame of reference when talking about CO2 levels was “climate budget.” Next down the list was “management.”

Beginning in about 2001, she noticed an uptick in the frequency of the term “carbon footprint.” Just under that, “carbon challenge.” More recently, starting in about 2007, she’s found terms such as “carbon bigfoot” and “carbon dictatorship.”

I asked her what affect the use of certain kinds of language has on how people feel about climate change.

US gas emissions by gas, 1996 (million metric tons carbon equivalent).
Credit: US DOE

“Taking things out of the personal realm, making them too big to comprehend is one way to make sure they’ll be ignored,” says Dr. Nerlich. “People need to see things on a human scale. In other words, how does it affect me? What effect do I have?”

She says alarming people doesn’t help at all. Telling them the end is nigh and there is nothing that can be done about it creates more problems than it solves on a public policy level. She added: “Words are interesting creatures. They’re always evolving.”

Yes, all right, they’re evolving. But what I want to know is: how does semantic change translate into action? Dr. Nerlich doesn’t have an easy answer to this question, because there isn’t one.

Lately, Dr. Nerlich has found a greater moral overlay to the discourse about climate. Words like “morality,” “indulgence” and “crusade” have crept in, and their use is on the rise.

After that conversation, I got to thinking about how language is manipulated, and unrelated facts can be elided to cause confusion about the relative merits of something – especially when someone wants to sell you something that isn’t particularly healthy. Just about anything can seem appealing if the right things are associated with it. Advertisers do this all the time. Take cigarettes, for instance. Remember the Marlboro Man?

In George Orwell’s novel,1984, the semantic grouping together of two contradictory things was broadly practiced by the government. It was called “doublespeak.

And boy, are corporations good at it.

I recently learned of one company that has an entire business unit to sell carbon offsets. They promise to take the muss and fuss out of reducing your CO2 emissions. They’ve embarked on creation of a carbon market where you can essentially pay someone else to suffer the consequences of your contribution to climate change for you.

How human activities impact global air quality, showing urban hotspots.
Credit: KNMI/ESA

Here’s how they describe themselves on their Web site:

“ClimateCare is a leader in high quality carbon offset credits. We help lower business emissions and individual carbon footprints through credible, verified carbon reduction projects, because we all want to tackle climate change today…. We can help you reduce your CO2 emissions, giving you the advice you need to reduce your carbon footprint or calculate and buy carbon offsets in low carbon technologies, renewables and energy efficiency.”

Bear in mind, though, that if you’re going to reduce something – like carbon output – you have to be able to measure it.

Rod Robinson, 41, a research scientist at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in London, has developed technology to do just this. He’s building laser technology to measure CO2 emissions from factories and automobiles.

But when I hear about this simple algorithm to buy our way out of the climate crisis, by peddling “carbon offsets” I think of the Middle Ages, when you could buy your way out of purgatory by purchasing indulgences from your local pardoner. It does sound an awful lot like what they’re doing, doesn’t it?

Journalist Robert Shrimsley made the real point in a 2007 article in the Financial Times. He says what we’re really talking about offsetting is our own feelings of guilt.

Here’s an excerpt from his 2007 article: “Don’t care? Offset”

“I found a wonderful scheme on the internet through which I can offset my lack of concern about the environment, by paying a man in Hyderabad to care about it for me. For little more than £30 a year, Rahul will feel deeply angst-ridden about global warming, allowing me to carry on not giving a toss. I could have chosen a Brazilian offsetter for £20 but I didn’t want some cheap option. This moral offsetting should not be confused with carbon offsetting. Rahul does not do anything. He is not planting trees or erecting wind farms. He simply wears a green wristband and wanders around muttering “oh dear, oh dear, those poor polar bears”; and his angst means I can engage in guilt-free indifference…

“There are a wide range of moral offsetting schemes available. However, this does mean there are cowboys out there. There are instances of people who have taken the money but have then not actually cared. Others are double- counting their compassion. Another pitfall is offset payments made to people who already care and who are not therefore adding to the sum of human handwringing. To be on the safe side, people who want to offset their careless footprint are advised to use a UN certified scheme that guarantees your offsetter will be a verified worrier who will shed real tears for the despoiled rainforests. Thanks to Rahul I can miss the LiveEarth concert – I’ll be flying to Nice for the weekend. You’re right; you’re right. I shouldn’t be flying. But hey, I’ve bunged him an extra £ 7.50 so the hell with you."