I watched the docudrama VICE about Dick Cheney’s life and rise to power. It presents him as being behind promoting ‘climate change’ rhetoric over ‘global warming’ because, in research using a focus group, people perceived it as less threatening. This is probably because it feels more abstract and neutral, not quite real. Everything changes, as the climate deniers spin it, warming and cooling over the millennia. Putting the state of emergency in those terms elicits no profound human response and opens up the field to manipulation by reactionaries, authoritarians, and social dominators.
To fight this, we need to be very concrete and viscerally emotional in our language. Maybe even ‘climate crisis’ doesn’t quite capture it. Better yet ‘climate emergency’, ‘climate catastrophe’, and ‘climate disaster’. We need to speak directly of increasing ‘death rates’, ‘property destruction’, and ‘national threats’ from ‘violent weather extremes’, ‘heat attacks’, etc. And we need to make sure the imagery of the damage and deaths gets regularly shown in the media like war footage during the Vietnam War every single time a major weather event happens and simultaneously repeat ad nauseum that extreme weather events are increasing and worsening with ‘global heating’. Burn those images and words in the public mind.
The right-wing partly won the battle of ideology by framing the rhetoric of public debate. Even though people do think that climate change is happening, it isn’t quite real to most of them and they can’t fully connect it to human causes, at least in the US. Most Americans still don’t see ‘climate change’ as man-made, even as they think the government should do something about it — still, the urgency is not there. Maybe we need to go so far as to talk about ‘humanity-wide self-destruction’ and ‘human species suicide’. And we need to be specific about who is our enemy. Corporations with records of environmental harm and externalized costs should be labeled ‘ecological terrorists’ and ‘enemies of the state’. Whatever specific language, we need to develop the structure of ideological rhetoric where a few key phrases are repeatedly drilled into the public psyche. We can’t be subtle and timid in our language.
The right-wing will always go to extremes to win. But the political left, especially the liberal class, has gotten into the bad habit of pulling their punches. This is partly because much of the liberal class (e.g., the Clinton Democrats) are essentially right-wingers themselves in terms of being neoliberal corporatists and neocon war hawks. They have been pushing the Overton window right for decades. Those of us genuinely on the left with a beating heart for justice and compassion need to fight this battle as if it mattered, as if our lives and the lives of our loved ones depended on it because they do depend on it. We have to be blunt and combative in speaking truth to power. We need to inspire respect by demonstrating strength of character and courage.
Our words need to match the horrific dangers we are facing but also give expression to the sense of what can be done about it. We should speak of those powerful interests and ruthless psychopaths who are attacking us, destroying our homes, threatening our children, holding hostage future generations. It should be portrayed as a war because it is a war, a struggle for our lives and survival. Our language needs to be radical and revolutionary, a fight for freedom and democracy and liberty, for a better society and a hopeful future. We can’t be afraid to use the language of religion, patriotism, community, family, or anything else. No tool should be left unused. We must hit them with everything we got and do so with utter passion.
Imagine how Martin Luther King Jr. would speak about worldwide environmental destruction and life-threatening corporate power if he were still alive now. Use the exact same kind of language. He would not back down from a fight, would not hold back from using the harshest and most damning words to evoke an emotional response from the public, to hold the ruling elite accountable. And he would make sure to stage confrontations that could be seen on the news to make it viscerally real. He had a flair for the dramatic.
We need to relearn that skill. We need to remember how to dream big, big enough to meet the challenges before us. But if we are to get others to feel the urgency, we first have to feel the urgency ourselves. We will be able to fight with all our strength when we finally feel in our own hearts what is at risk, that the threat is real and immediate, that this is literally a life and death struggle, that there is no later on — this is it, now or never. When there are leaders who talk the talk and walk the walk, then and only then will the public follow, then and only then will there be political will to take needed action.
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Why the Guardian is changing the language it uses about the environment
by Damian Carrington