Close the gap between people and the problem: talk about climate in tangible terms

Your silence will not protect you.

Audre Lorde: writer, feminist, activist.

It’s very easy to forget about climate change. Everyday we are faced with problems, and we solve them because we have to, because they’re in front of us, because we have no other choice. When you ask someone to act against climate change, you are asking them to carve time out of their day, to stop solving the problem in front of their eyes, and solve a problem they cannot see. It is difficult to visualise climatic changes, difficult to pin down their implications, and difficult to see how your small actions have impact.

The greatest obstacle for environmental rhetoric to overcome is distance. We must close the gap between people and the problem if we are to encourage action.

However, the rhetoric used by major environmental groups fails to overcome this distance, it actually often increases it. There are two distances that we have to deal with: a physical distance and temporal distance.

Overcoming physical distance.

Images of melting glaciers create distance. Talk of mega-tonnes of CO2 in the upper atmosphere creates distance. They are, seemingly, irrelevant. Graphs and projected scenarios relegate climate change to the world of science and exclude normal people from the discussion. Of course, scientific data was important when establishing that climate change was happening, and is important in divining solutions, but it isn’t centrally important in mobilising popular action, and it needs to be taken off its pedestal. A key part of expressing issues of climate change is translating these abstract, scientific terms into ones that people can understand and recognise in their daily lives. Whether individuals and governments respond to climate change isn’t a question of science, it’s a question of values, ethics and priorities.

Read more about the importance of storytelling as an antidote to scientific overload.

The antidote to distance is tangibility.

We must make discussions of climate change tangible. For example, whilst the level of ‘greenhouse gases’ in the atmosphere may not seem to affect the average person on the street, the fact that the breath they just took is dirty and polluted does. The air we breathe gives us, our friends, our families, and our children life. That air is dirtier than it was a generation ago, it is causing health issues and we must act to make it clean again. The topic approached is still ‘air pollution’, but it is rooted in tangible terms that demonstrate the presence of a seemingly abstract idea in everyday life.

Forget ice, polar bears and data - focus on the water we drink, the air we breathe, the lives we live.

Overcoming temporal distance.

‘Climate change’ seems slow. ‘Global warming’ seems slow. They seem unmenacing.

There is a great disconnect between the urgency of action that is required, and the benign nature of the language used. By using this language, we create the impression that we, and the world around us, have time to adapt to a new ‘normal’ and mitigate risks far into the future. It is no surprise that people fail to connect with the urgent rhetoric of activist groups and it is easy to dismiss them as ‘alarmist’; it doesn’t seem that there is any reason to be alarmed.

We are in a climate crisis. We are facing global heating.

These terms faithfully convey the dramatic, rapid changes that are taking place in our climate systems and resist feelings of apathy that are often caused by ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’. They should be used in all circumstances to replace these terms.

However, doomsday vs saviour rhetoric, ‘11 years to save earth’, can also be ineffective and is covered here.

The second problem that we face is that climate change seems like a problem of the future.

It sounds like governments need to take steps to prevent climate change, activists talk of ‘saving our future’. But climate change isn’t a future event, it’s an ongoing process that affects us today. The climate is changing, living conditions around the world are changing, humans are being forced to adapt or to leave their homes. We are not trying to save the future, we’re saving the present.

If you want someone to care about the climate crisis, talk about it in tangible terms and in the present tense.

Written by Louder Than The Storm founder and Central Team Lead, George Jeffreys


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