“Action speaks louder than words”. Well, many linguists and psychologists would not agree with this well-known proverb. Language and words as its means are powerful enough to create thoughts and these thoughts initiate behaviours. And exactly here we come to the very facts that climate change is induced by human activity: that main contributors to the accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere include the burning of fossil fuels for heating and energy generation, that major threats to clean, fresh-water resources include contamination caused by human actions, that deforestation is caused by the action of converting forests to residential areas, and that all types of ocean pollution are generated by humans. This human behaviour that is detrimental to the environment needs to be reversed. One way to achieve this is the right selection of words that will trigger people to realise the magnitude of potential disaster, assume moral responsibility for their actions and why not, to even feel embarrassed for their wrongdoing.
The subtle changes in language can generate more ethical behaviour
Psychologists have conducted a vast amount of research to assess the effectiveness of different strategies designed to produce behavioural change. Thus, the Stanford’s research, co-authored by Benoît Monin, Christopher Bryan and Gabrielle S.Adams, has showcased that “people were less likely to cheat for personal gain when a subtle change in phrasing framed such behavior as diagnostic of an undesirable identity”. The experiments conducted showed that a subtle linguistic change can prevent private unethical behaviour “by invoking people’s desire to maintain a self-image as good and honest”. Apparently, word choice can affect human behaviour at a very subtle level affecting their moral boundaries. Yet, can the change in terminology used to describe the current environmental crisis contribute to the behavioural change and make people act swiftly, more sustainably and responsibly?
Changing wording, changing behaviour
The terms like “climate change”, “global warming”, “climate sceptic” have become euphemisms if the current state of the environment is taken into account. That is why a change of tone and wording coming from the UN officials, scientist and environmental activists could have been noticed lately. Namely, in his recent message given on the World Environment Day, the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, talked about “the global climate emergency”, adding: “There is no time to lose. This is the battle of our lives. We must win. And we can.” In his previous speeches, he also talked about “climate crisis”. The scientist, Richard Betts, who leads the climate research arm of Britain’s meteorological monitoring organisation, introduced a term “global heating” addressing the audience at the UN climate summit in Katowice, Poland: “Global heating is technically more correct because we are talking about changes in the energy balance of the planet”. When it comes to environmental and sustainability activists, the most prominent one is Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who has inspired school strikes for climate around the globe, said: “It’s 2019. Can we all now please stop saying “climate change” and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?” In line with the above movement, in their article last month, Guardian declared it is now changing the language it uses about the environment, in order to accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world.
The power of words
Using mild and gentle terms like “climate change” and “global warming” can only provoke passive resistance and not a swift and urgent action since that is the only viable option for the world facing existential threat.
Changing wording and talking about “climate emergency”, “climate crisis” or “climate breakdown” and “global heating” can change behaviours. The subtle influence of language on behaviours can make humans take responsibility and realize that actions to prevent the environmental catastrophe should be taken now. The environmental crisis is not a future problem, it is very much present and cannot be ignored any more.