Climate and Environmental Literacy
The Climate Crisis Speaks Volumes Without Saying a Word
September 19, 2023
After generations of prioritizing human comfort at the expense of all other lifeforms, we are witnessing the consequences of our actions through climate change. Sea levels continue to rise, extreme weather patterns are going global, and natural processes are consistently threatened.
While we can recognize climate change is a daunting issue, we aren’t always able to articulate why. Where do we see ourselves in relation to the climate crisis and how does it shape environmental awareness?
Nuanced and accessible language is necessary to nurture a community for activism that can begin to address the multitude of environmental issues.
Speak for Ourselves
Our perception of the world is shaped by how we talk about it — so it’s no surprise language is a primary factor for how we assess our relationships with nature.
From an ecolinguistics perspective, English is considered an anthropocentric language: it enables the belief humans and their existence are central to the world. Michael Halliday, a prominent linguist, has stated the ways we talk about nature are indicators of our morals in regards to ecology. It reinforces the ideology that human exploitation of nature is normal. Nature is objectified: clean air, water, fossil fuels referred to as “resources,” making their value entirely relative to human consumption. We even use them as uncountable nouns, causing us to perceive them as infinite when that isn’t the case.
Anthropocentric grammar leads to anthropocentric action. Linguist Valentina Adami has been critical of English-language influence on climate conversations, sharing that even in United Nations documents, environmental rights are not based in “nature rights,” but rather in “human rights.” It goes to show how much influence language has on climate conversations, even in a space dedicated to alleviating the pressures of the climate emergency.
A Disconnect with Science
A study from Yale University’s Climate Change Communication Program showed 72% of Americans believe climate change is occurring, but they’re not confident as to why and how it affects them. And it’s likely because of the science behind it.
Understanding science-based evidence is often foundational to climate action, but the language isn’t always accessible. An example of miscommunication is with the word “negative.” As used in day-to-day English, it’s synonymous with “bad.” However, science communities use the word to describe a decline in something. So, when describing victories or goals like ‘negative emissions,” it can be interpreted as a bad thing. Susan Joy Hassol of the Scientific American suggests using terms which resonate with a diverse audience, regarding negative emissions instead as CO2 removal or drawdowns. Making these small but simple changes to the way we communicate difficult information generates progress in environmental consciousness within a larger audience.
Transforming Climate Communication
The conversations surrounding climate change may not be perfect, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be improved upon.
We should be speaking to people’s priorities, learning how each of our actions connect to the progression of global warming, and thus a decline in quality of life now and in the future. Relating climate change and human activity can be facilitated through environmental education. Giving audiences an opportunity to learn more about these pressing issues and supplying them with climate literacy to make informed, sustainable changes.
Language has a crucial role in spreading understanding when it comes to Climate and Environmental Education. It shapes how we discuss the environmental problems we have and how it is relevant to our lives. Changing our climate conversations to be more inclusive and accessible can diversify the environmental movement and enhance civic engagement.