Environment featured

Let’s not declare war on climate change

May 30, 2023

Climate change is finally mainstream. Indeed, it’s hard to escape noticing, given the catastrophes that seem to occur daily. From small to large scales, concern about the environment has pervaded the public consciousness. Individuals are generally aware that their actions impact our environment. Many of the largest and most powerful governments, organizations, and companies have pledged net-zero emissions in the coming decades. Despite questionable implementation of these promises – in particular from private equity – there is nevertheless much-needed momentum to respond to the climate emergency. And that momentum is measurable in dollars, with billions flowing in to develop solutions needed to minimize the worst impacts of climate change.

While technical fixes are urgently needed to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we should also reflect on how these ‘solutions’ enter our current zeitgeist. More and more it seems, we’re approaching climate with a confrontational mindset. Well-intentioned reporters, organizations, and political bodies talk about tackling, combatting, and fighting climate change. It’s even a marketing slogan for a high-end coffee company. This aggressive language was important for eliciting emotional responses in individuals, and may well have been crucial in bringing public awareness to its current level. However, with a majority of Americans now at least concerned about climate change, it’s time to reassess the effects of vilifying climate change in our everyday discourse and the larger role of language in enabling a sustainable future.

Language is of course more than just words. It structures reality, entangling the objective world with human subjectivity. Because subjectivity is involved, language is never neutral but imparts connotations rooted in cultural norms and societal practices. Indeed, Wittgenstein put forward that words are meaningless without context.  Tversky and Kahneman showed how context influences an individual’s choice in their ‘framing effect’. Lakoff elucidated the political implications, exposing how framing is used to evoke ideas that are partial to a particular worldview. A common example of the latter is the phrase ‘tax relief’, popularized by politicians in the ‘90s, that frames taxation – and by extension the government that enacts it – as agents of harm, rather than enablers of civilized society. We can understand this from a critical perspective as a negative ideology: an ideology that maintains the legitimacy of the status quo by concealing contradictions within it. Given the dangers associated with the current rate of global warming, it is critical to expose how language has become a tool to inhibit structural changes.

A “fight against” climate change implicitly creates a duality by framing climate change as an external entity attacking us humans. Of course, the climate is changing so rapidly and dangerously (to modern human civilization) because of us, where ‘us’ refers to predominantly well-off members of the global north. Raju et al., expose this contradiction between external/internal for the case of natural hazards. They argue that the extent to which hazards become disasters is a function of the infrastructure humans have developed. In other words, an event is only as destructive as we allow it to be.

Attributing a disaster to an ‘act of god’ deflects responsibility from government officials and those who willingly ignore risk[1]. It enables reactive measures that perpetuate the status quo rather than address structural inequities.

In regard to climate change, fossil fuel executives, their cronies in Congress, and lackeys in lobbies have manipulated the discourse for decades. There’s been a concerted and well-funded effort to deny, cast doubt, and otherwise mislead the public about the causes and dangers of climate change in order to maintain a status quo that benefits themselves at the expense of everyone else. Fostering doomism and despair is one of their latest tactics, which reduces human agency by pretending that nothing can be done to stop the worst effects of climate change. Externalizing climate change, casting it as a villain apart, further reduces our agency as both individuals and collective societies to limit global warming by demanding the reduction and replacement of fossil fuels. Perhaps the fossil fuel industry has engineered the metaphor of war as the latest weapon in their arsenal, vilifying climate – nature herself – to further deflect responsibility while they continue to profit.

But of course, the vilification of nature is not new. At the outset of modernity, when scarcity and disease ruled the land, Francis Bacon’s quest for humanity to “conquer and subdue Nature”, could be justified. We were children at the behest of volatile parents. Science and technology were rightfully harnessed by capitalism to meet basic human needs. But after 300 years of technological progress, the majority of people on Earth, especially those most responsible for the climate emergency, live objectively better lives than our forebears. As such, our relationship with nature has qualitatively changed – the global economy is now a planetary-scale force that is destabilizing the Earth System in numerous ways that are dangerous to human societies. We have grown into young adults, with a choice to further rebel against our ‘oppressive’ parents, or forgo the teenage drama and participate in the family responsibly. If we insist on violence against climate change, we fight just the first battle in what will be another endless war – today it’s climate change, tomorrow perhaps it’s topsoil loss.  In other words, we tacitly endorse the hegemony of the military–industrial complex; and in so doing explicitly undermine the purpose of ‘defeating’ climate change: creating a safe and sustainable society.

Instead, let’s consciously (and frequently) examine the ideology we express in our language. This is not a new or revolutionary idea. The value of frames in politics is well understood, and theorists have long investigated how those who benefit from the status quo seek to maintain it. The importance of language is increasingly being recognized in meteorological and climate sciences, and rarely are metaphors of violence found within the scientific literature. Instead, neutral terms such as ‘addressing’, ‘responding’, and of course ‘mitigating and adapting’ to climate change are words of choice. As the climate continues to change, we will change with it.  We can choose to live with it or fight against it, but it would serve us well to remember what Rachel Carson told us 60 years ago: “We are a part of nature, and our war against nature is inevitably a war against ourselves.”

[1] Note that the median home value in Montecito, CA  is 5.7 million USD.


Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

Brett Buzzanga

Dr. Brett Buzzanga is a postdoctoral fellow at NASA JPL where he works on understanding sea-level change and its impacts on society. Any opinions expressed here are his own.

Tags: climate change responses, framing messages