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Does the way we talk about the climate crisis numb people with fear, rather than energising them?

<span>Photograph: Geoff Smith/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Geoff Smith/Alamy

As Cop28 approaches, the Swiss solar aviator and environmentalist Bertrand Piccard says he will be given a platform at the conference to argue that we need to rethink the words we use to discuss climate change. He says many climate terms can numb people with fear instead of inspiring them into action, and proposes new language that will reframe our situation as an opportunity, rather than a crisis.

Take the key phrase “green economy”: Piccard says this motivates environmentalists but repels those who discern an assault on their lifestyle or a rise in their bills. Why not, he says, rechristen it the “clean economy”, because no one likes “dirty”. Likewise “clean energy” instead of “green energy”. He has come up with an entire list of terms in common use that he believes need a rebrand.

Language is central to the way we deal with the climate crisis. Wrangling with words is the lifeblood of Cop delegates. Inside the negotiating halls, the US quells talk of “compensation” for nations damaged by climate events they didn’t cause; instead it insists on the more neutral phrase “loss and damage”. In the world outside, definitions have shifted as knowledge has grown. Climate change was initially labelled “the greenhouse effect” or “global warming” – until scientists fully cottoned on to how it could also provoke severe localised cold.

Some (including the Guardian but not the BBC) believe the phrase “climate change” itself sounds too benign, and have renamed it the climate “crisis” or “emergency”. Others fear “climate chaos” most accurately reflects the avalanche of extremes that are now tormenting people and nature.

But after 35 years of reporting on climate for the BBC, I can’t recall a bid to present an entire climate lexicon – especially one like this, which is already provoking accusations of greenwashing and pro-business bias.

Piccard’s draft proposal suggests swapping: “green economy” to “clean economy”; “cost” to “investment”; “crisis” to “opportunity”; “problem” to “solution”; “sacrifice” to “advantage”; “lost jobs” to “new professions”; “ecological” to “logical”; “saving the planet” to “improving quality of life” (or “saving humankind”); “degrowth” to “efficiency”; and “next generation” to “current generation” (though Piccard is still pondering this one).

Most of the terms carry a positive and business-friendly spin, and Piccard is by no means the first to reframe the climate emergency as a chance to create jobs in a prosperous economy. The UK Labour party has recently often shunned the term climate altogether. Instead, it proffers the prospect of clean jobs and profits. Likewise, in the President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act is actually a clean tech subsidy scheme.

Some of Piccard’s proposals – such as “ecological|” to “logical” – don’t work for me. And his plan to re-present the current climate crisis as an opportunity must also acknowledge the dangerous state of the Earth. But “green economy” to “clean economy”; “cost” to “investment” and “saving the planet” to “protecting our society” (my suggestion) all seem sensible.

I asked some prominent thinkers on climate and communication to weigh in. Jon Alexander from the New Citizenship Project dislikes some proposed shifts – crisis to opportunity, problem to solution, sacrifice to advantage“There is some value in the honesty that this is a time of crisis,” he says. “We do face major problems; there will be sacrifices.”

Rachael Orr, the chief executive of comms specialists Climate Outreach, says: “We know ‘future generations’ framing generally works as a story but it doesn’t have the urgency needed – so any framings that are about bringing the time horizon forward, such as ‘current generation’ are good.

“We know that positive framings are good in general, but a lot of these terms feel like they are still aimed at elite audiences. For example, I’m not sure you’d get a hugely positive reaction to ‘new professions’ from steelworkers being made redundant. More broadly, I think there is something really important for us to discuss about who gets to set the language. How would people in the most climate-affected communities and nations think about these terms and this language?”

Veteran environment strategist Chris Rose goes further, saying that any successful shift in terminology must be based on an understanding of the different priorities of the many audiences who will hear climate messaging and discussion.

He notes that environmentalists typically hold universalist values, whereas most supporters of climate obstruction, denial or delay have value sets favouring individual safety, security and simplicity. Rose supports the idea of more research into climate comms – but he’s wary about parachuting into the arena a charismatic, well-connected individual like Piccard who specialises in clean tech. “You wouldn’t want it to be another distraction or cause for delay,” he says. “You must remember that ideas need to be tested before they are tried.”

That’s exactly what John Marshall, from the nonprofit Potential Energy Coalition of media agencies, has done – spending four years researching and testing climate messaging. He suggests abandoning technocratic language and scrapping abstract terms like anthropogenic and decarbonisation. Instead, he says, communicators should “talk like humans”, engaging people with their own experiences of extreme heat, wildfires and floods.

His group’s guide to climate language notes that keeping messages local helps a lot. The phrase “Save Florida” beats “Get to Net Zero by 2040” when you ask regular people. His motto is: “Show the climate matters to people like me.”

The little booklet should be recommended to every delegate to the upcoming Cop, every politician, business leader, teacher – and to journalists round the world like me. Because the need for action on this grave issue becomes more pressing with every climatic outburst.

  • Roger Harrabin is a fellow at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge and a former BBC correspondent