Words for Our Climate Change Challenge
Gilberto Arias. Dec. 2022

In 1820[1] Baron Friedrich Willhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand von Humboldt—a Prussian philosopher, linguist, diplomat and founder of the Humboldt University in Berlin, and brother of the similarly named and titled Alexander von Humboldt, after who the eponymous South American current was named—seminally reflected on the importance of language in shaping a speaker’s worldview. This was not a new idea—as far back as Plato, and on through Augustinian texts we see discussion that a person’s language determines, to some extent, the speaker’s view of the world.

Moving to the 20th Century, this idea began to receive more attention—now with the moniker of the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis”, or the later, more relaxed, less deterministic, “neo-Whorfian” position that language influences worldview, but not necessarily determines it.

Whether or not the edge cases are correct doesn’t detract from the principal tenets—language, and our use of it, must have an influence on how we see our world, our opportunities, and our futures. In other words, language at least affects how we think, and influences our perception, worldview and outlook. It may not be absolute determinism, but the suggestion is that how we speak of things colours how we see or perceive our world, and so, by extension, our outlook on dealing with our reality.

As pointedly, and recently, noted by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson[2], “words we use reflect the reality that we inhabit, not just the material reality, but the cultural, social and political worlds that we inhabit.”

If we now consider that our fight against climate change and its impacts, and our transition to sustainable socio-economic structures, is clearly beyond emission metrics and very clearly associated with social, cultural, and political contexts—as mentioned by Schneider-Mayerson—then our language—our words, our narratives—colour our outlook on climate action and pathways of sustainable development. Given the uncertainties of our future societies, language—how we talk about climate change and transitions to low-carbon—plays an important role in policy and socio-economic formulation of our ways forward.

In a 2020 article[3], the authors posited that the prevailing narrative on climate change emphasised the “problems, costs and adverse impacts” of climate change; the authors label this the “doom and gloom narrative”.

Indeed, to raise awareness of climate change—a slow onset event by our standards—and of the risks associated with it, it has been important to create an impression of immediacy to our future risks, and this necessity has created a narrative of inevitability of those future risks and costs, and of the difficulties of avoiding those outcomes following our current social and developmental practices. We are “doomed” not only to these future risks and costs, but also the radical alteration of our cherished ways of living.

This “doom and gloom” narrative naturally breeds a paralysis to action, as we are faced with immediate short-term uncertainty on our lives, our threats, and our economic stability—we need effort to de-risk transitions and overcome BAU. In economic terms, this facilitates an entrenchment to not deviate far from BAU, as evidently, the least cost, least risk, least uncertain pathway in the short term remains close to BAU. So, the “doom” narrative becomes the incentive to move away from BAU.

And every year, the “doom” scenarios seem closer and more inevitable, no matter what we do—wildfires, floods, hurricanes, droughts. So, the language that we have begins to reflect these elements, and builds a way of describing our pathways—a self-reinforcing narrative of “doom and gloom”, which broadly reinforces an aversion to ambitious action, which also is full of unknowns.

The hopelessness of this position isn’t hidden. The understanding and suggestive narrative of hopelessness engenders sometimes radical approaches to move past the inaction of near-BAU ambition—we’ve seen this in Europe with movements such as “Insulate Britain” and “Extinction Rebellion”, perhaps in the same way as “Greenpeace” and, more radically, “Sea Shepherd” called for sometimes confrontational, aggressive, direct action to their own environmental causes.

Numerous narratives have arisen to create a new nomenclature around sustainable development, to move policies away from BAU with less risk—to show hope in the face of “doom”. Among these is the concept of “green growth” more formally presented by the OECD through its Green Growth Declaration in 2009[4] in anticipation of the UNFCCC COP15 meeting in Copenhagen that year, and its subsequent “Towards Green Growth”[5] report. In essence, “Green Growth” is said to mean “fostering economic growth and development, while ensuring that natural assets continue to provide the resources and environmental services on which our well-being relies.” As noted in the original Declaration, it affirms that “‘green’ and ‘growth’ can go hand in hand.”

We could say that this emphasis seeks to put the “green” into traditional “growth” narratives, outlining policies and considerations to make all-important growth more sustainable, highlighting the need for a movement away from fostering human and industrial capital aligned with development that might “thwart green growth,” including fossil-fuel subsidies, and the “unsustainable use of other scarce natural resources; or which contribute to negative environmental outcomes.”[6]

We thus see a political narrative to support the types of ambitious action required, in a context perhaps seeking to reduce perceived risk among policy creators. The new narrative, and the new language, would include the idea of re-directing traditional concepts of economic growth towards economic structures more friendly to low-carbon development and environmental consciousness.

However, observers have noted that “Green Growth” doesn’t necessarily address consumption patterns, which implies risks in how fast the transformation of economies and employment chains could work to the required ends—if consumption patterns don’t shift also, then the economic transformation required under “Green Growth” will face great headwinds. Also at risk in this transformation are employment patterns of broad industries which would need to be re-skilled—sometimes not obviously so. While a commodity trader/broker can feasibly transfer to become a carbon trader/broker, a construction worker could need considerably more training to become say an energy auditor[7], though by and large the transition to low carbon economies is projected to be a net creator of jobs. However, there is clearly a perception of risk to actors facing re-skilling, and to managers transitioning their products to new designs.

Perhaps considering these last elements, as well as the tenor of discussions at multilateral levels, there has been a greater emphasis on the concept of “Just Transition”, which embraces considerations of bottom-up actors in the transition to climate adapted, low-carbon development—in other words, going beyond the top-down “Green Growth” policies, to considerations of retraining and job security for economic actors.

The concept of “Green Growth” is not without its criticism. While “Green Growth” is initially a top-down policy-driven construct looking to show way-markers for policies which can be familiar to policy-makers, observers such as George Monbiot have weighed in commenting that “there is no such thing as green growth. Growth is wiping the green from the earth.”[8] This position has associated support for the idea that the only way to escape a climate holocaust on earth is to promote a development strategy of “de-growth”—meaning a ramping down of economic activity in general. However, even Monbiot accepts that ramping down economic activity “is secular blasphemy”.[9]

And, of course, there’s nothing sunny about de-growth—this seems a darker variant of the “gloom” scenario—in political and personal terms.

So the “doom and gloom” narratives prevail.

But to paraphrase Cristiana Figueres, we can’t overcome the climate change challenge if we start from a position of despair and hopelessness—all great challenges met have started with a positive framing of the challenge—be this launching ships to Troy or taking a man to the moon. And this is very important in the language we use to consider our futures. This is the language we need in the face of uncertainty in our future.

What we explore in our “Learning by Doing” (“LbD”) project is a third way—a different way to consider sustainable development—meaning a development pathway that is constrained by the climate and adaptation requirements of the Paris Agreement, but which addresses, in a bottom-up way, the broader social and developmental aspirations—other shortcomings of BAU—for broader society. So, our narrative isn’t geared explicitly to particular sectors, but looks to describe how all sectors can contribute to a “Good Life” to its constituents—and not just to climate-related goals.

In this way, LbD seeks to introduce a new narrative for sustainable development—one not focused on abstract or technical climate targets (though these are functionally included in the milestones and direction of development), but catering primarily to issues of economic inclusivity, innovation, and economic transition to that new economic situation of a future, sustainable society. A language to move away from BAU, with speed, and not to a generalised uncertainty.

This new language we introduce looks to create a broader base of support for political and social transition—alongside the necessary production and consumption alignment. Moreover, we have found that in Latin America, this narrative delivers a very strong political signal for prosperity to the population in a new direction—not one principally captured in the context of ”economic growth” as traditionally defined by metrics such as GDP, but one that caters to their needs as their conditions and families evolve socio-economically—geared towards a new, better, inclusive, low-carbon lifestyle with husbandry of the natural space.

We apply these concepts to coordinate sectoral and sub-sectoral development—not towards focused carbon targets, but towards a “Good Life” for the actors of these sectors—including emissions profiles, adaptation, and quality-of-life, thereby seeking to deliver a narrative that gains traction to the transformation that is so necessary, with the support of many actors across society.

It is said that you can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending. We are looking to change the language of the future, to enable this new direction.

[1]  See Koerner, E. F. Konrad. ‘The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: A Preliminary History and a Bibliographical Essay’. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 2, no. 2 (1992): 173–98. https://doi.org/10.1525/jlin.1992.2.2.173.

[2] See: ‘Why the Language of Climate Change Matters – Inside Climate News’. Accessed 31 December 2022. https://insideclimatenews.org/news/24122022/warming-trends-climate-language/.

[3] Hinkel, Jochen, Diana Mangalagiu, Alexander Bisaro, and J. David Tàbara. ‘Transformative Narratives for Climate Action’. Climatic Change 160, no. 4 (June 2020): 495–506. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-020-02761-y.

[4]  See: https://www.oecd.org/env/44077822.pdf

[5] OECD. ‘Towards Green Growth’, 2011. https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/content/publication/9789264111318-en.

[6] “Declaration…” op. cit.

[7] See Botta, E. (2019), “A review of “Transition Management” strategies: Lessons for advancing the green low-carbon transition”, p. 18, OECD Green Growth Papers, 2019-04, OECD Publishing, Paris.

[8]   ‘Level Down – George Monbiot’. Accessed 31 December 2022. https://www.monbiot.com/2021/10/04/level-down/.

[9]  Ibid.