How We Talk About Climate Change Today Affects Tomorrow

As many of us self-professed language nerds have realized, the words we use mean something. Okay, that might sound obvious, but what I really mean is the specific words we choose to talk about a certain subject have an impact on the way the message is received (see audience reception theory). For example, there is a difference between using the words “spooky” and “creepy” — they cause a different reaction in the audience because they are different kinds of “scary”. Another example would be the difference between “they died” and “they passed away” — one is softer and seems almost more natural while the other is sudden and intense. They simply bring about different emotions. 

We use different words and phrases depending on our relationship with the audience, the news we are about to deliver, and how we hope they will react. And all of this just scratches the surface of our relationship to the languages we use and how it shapes our reactions — medium, timing, cultural background, age, and many other factors play into why certain words are better in specific situations.

Now, what if a research study had begun to map out this language relationship with climate change? What could this mean for the environmental movement, which seems to have a rotating door of buzzwords, to know what language might be effective for certain discussions? 

“The words we use to describe and define the things that matter — to us and to the planet — need to be precise and well understood,” says Joel Makower, author and GreenBiz journalist. “If we’re not aligned on language, there’s little hope that we’ll be able to align on tackling the challenges we face.” 

And that’s exactly what a study by SPARK Neuro sought to figure out. SPARK Neuro is a neuroanalytics company that analyzes human behaviour through emotion to apply it to effective entertainment and advertising strategies. Instead of basing their data on surveys and polls, they measure brain and nervous system activity through four methods: electroencephalography (EEGs), Galvanic skin response (GSRs), facial coding, and eye tracking. 

The participants of this particular study included 120 people evenly divided as declared Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. Hooked up to EEG devices measuring brain response, in front of webcams monitoring eye response, and connected to machines recording sweaty hands, they listened to recordings of six different words regarding climate change. The phrases were: “climate crisis”, “environmental destruction”, “environmental collapse”, “weather destabilization”, “global warming”, and “climate change”. The responses were averaged and charted on an emotional intensity scale from 0 to 5 (with 0 being the lowest stress response and 5 being the highest).

The following graph details their reactions: 

This graph was published by SPARK Neuro in their study

“Environmental destruction”, while working well for Democrats and Independents, created too stressful a response for Republicans, and might cause a sense of hopelessness and inaction. Meanwhile, “global warming” and “climate change” — the words we hear most often — hardly cause any reaction for both Democrats and Republicans and could also result in inaction. How do you find the right words to use to motivate people significantly enough to drastically change their consumerist and plastic-loving lifestyle without scaring them so much that they feel overwhelmed? From this study, it appears that “climate crisis” and “environmental collapse” could be the best way to describe the global calamity of climate change in this current political climate. 

What could this study mean? Perhaps we can more accurately discuss the biodiversity disaster of climate change before it’s too late. “Especially in today’s political climate, it’s not enough to cater to an already-sympathetic base with incendiary language and risk alienating voters who aren’t yet convinced,” explained the SparkNeuro study. “At the same time, forging an emotional connection with voters is key, and worn-out words won’t work either.” But beyond this, SPARK Neuro’s research shows that the words we use do matter — and that they can be used for good or evil. The more we understand how these words affect us, the better prepared we will be to discuss climate change in the future. 

Catie Brown

Although I’ve always loved writing, I embarked on my journey into science journalism about three years ago. I am fascinated by all things water — oceans, ice, coral reefs, currents, extreme weather, sanitation, energy, and (of course!) climate change. I also love looking into the different ways we talk about climate change as a social, cultural, economic, spiritual, and political crisis. Big thanks to coffee and chemistry jokes for keeping me going. Happy reading!