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“When they talk about climate change, what’s exactly changing?” The language problem.


In the run up to the UN Climate Action Summit that kicks off today, I’ve heard artists, chefs, journalists, politicians, film makers, lawyers, musicians, academics and change agents all speak about what needs to be done to reduce and (for the more radical), reverse the impact that we’re having on the planet. This week will be the turn of businesses and investors as many host round tables, inclusive and exclusive “high level” chitchats and dinner soirees across New York City, all in the name of imagining a more sustainably managed world.

What’s struck me in all the noise as I travel around the city from one event to the other like an information junkie much like others who are here for this month, is the total dichotomy in the language that people use when they talk about climate change. From academic discourse on Globalism and Localisation, impassioned calls for Environmental Justice (“EJ” to those in the know), the desire to tell the “radical truth”, conflict and human rights, to the taxi driver who asked, quite rightly and with genuine curiosity, “When they talk about climate change, what’s exactly changing?”. Are we missing the point and failing to tell it how it is in a way that really matters?

Any one who’s ever worked with me knows that I’m an advocate for tailoring messages to the audience, so the natural rebuttal would be that of course we need different conversations, not every one wants to chat about Green Bonds! But there’s still a disconnect when it comes to climate change. Some call for a change in narrative, some talk about evoking emotional connection, some talk about storytelling. Even Greta’s emotional speech today used the language of outrage, of a generation that feels let down. For all the claps in the auditorium, the sixteen year old is not the voice of opportunity and growth that the audience is probably interested in.

The most compelling voices I’ve heard so far come from those that are on the ground, experiencing the changes to their, and their community’s daily lives. Be it the fiction writer from Bangkok who’s seen first-hand the results of people and nature being at odds with each other and can’t help but bring it into his stories, the chef that says “stop clapping and do something” after coming back from distributing thousands of meals to those that are coping with the aftermath of hurricanes or the activist who knows first-hand the effects of environmental degradation in her African nation and calls for indigenous communities to have a seat at that all-powerful table and for their solutions to be heard. They are the ones who are experiencing the problems. All of these people are storytellers in their own right. They speak of the challenges but they are also filled with optimism of what can be achieved when all the other information, to use an American phrase that’s come up a lot over the last few weeks, “bums people out.”

We’ve traditionally broken things down, appealing to the “what does this mean to me”; the spiritual will resonate with the language of connection to nature and with each other, business leaders to the financial gains that a more sustainable planet will create, and the consumer to the stigma increasingly associated with making bad purchasing choices. What I’ve learned from all the creative folks that I’ve heard speak over the last few weeks is that ultimately we need all of the mediums; film, art, theatre and fiction to rise up, bring the issues to life in whatever way they choose but to do it knowing that their crafts have the power to teach, generate conversations and inspire action, each in their own way. And the rest of us need to have conversations with every one around us, without jargon or judgement, be conscious in the choices we make, the counsel that we give and the lives that we aspire to live.

Back to the debate in the taxi. It was when my twelve year old niece declared from the back of the car when our driver said it’d need to be hot in January for him to believe that the climate’s changed, “We were striking so it’s never hot in January. You can’t tell someone to stop smoking once their lungs have given up, you’ve got to tell then to stop smoking earlier, before that happens and they’re sick. That’s what we’re trying to get the government leaders to do. Stop it being hot in January before it happens”, he gave me a look from the corner of his eye and smiled at me. “That makes sense, why don’t they explain it like that?”. Why not indeed.

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