Language Matters: Speaking truthfully and acting justly in climate change

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This paper was originally intended for a climate change conference at St John’s Church in Keswick on 21 March. The event was, not surprisingly, cancelled (or more hopefully, postponed) a few days beforehand when it became clear that we were heading for a lockdown.  

The conference was organised by two friends of mine from St John’s Church, both eminent scientists, now retired. Mike is a glaciologist who has been monitoring glacial retreat for decades. Terry is a particle physicist, who came to the issue of climate change with an attitude of open and honest enquiry typical of him: what did the physics say about climate change, whether it is happening and what could be causing it? He was convinced by the arguments from physics, became converted to the cause, and by the time we met him, was fully and passionately engaged in trying to persuade others to accept the evidence and change their ways, including the church. An interesting example of how science moves from facts to response and action.

The Keswick conference was set up to cover science in the morning – Terry and Mike would give input in their fields, along with other presentations from a meteorologist and from an expert on the theory of the Anthropocene. After lunch we would switch from science to our response – the ethical or moral aspect of the issue. I noticed how the draft programme, as it developed, sometimes used the word ethical and sometimes used the word moral, and we could have quite a debate about that if we wanted. Words, you see, are important.

I also noticed how all the speakers in the morning, covering the science, were men, while all the speakers in the afternoon, covering this ethical or moral response, were women, and I’m sure that was probably coincidental, but maybe it was because men are seen as doing the hard stuff, the science and the facts, while women do the soft stuff, clearing up after the men have made a mess, but at least have they told us about it. And you’re probably thinking, oh dear, we have a crazy feminist here, and you may well be right!

The conference was based at and organised by the church in Keswick, but it was open to people of all faiths and no faith. When Mike asked me to give a talk, he said it shouldn’t be too theological, he didn’t want it to be inaccessible or off-putting for people who don’t come from a faith position. That was OK for me. My concern about climate change has been driven more by scientific evidence than by my faith position. It is a source of shame to me that the Christian churches have largely failed to give a lead on climate change and care for the planet.  A personal challenge for me is to find a coherence between my environmental concern and my faith. Stumbling blocks to such a coherence lie in the way we normally speak of God, creation, and the place of humanity. I think there is a particular problem with the idea of human stewardship of the world, which I’ll say a bit more about later.

I’ve been here before, struggling with similar stumbling blocks, and wrestling with language. In the 1980s and 1990s, as I explored a vocation to ordained ministry within the Church of England, and waited to see if my church would ordain women, and if it would ordain me, I got thoroughly caught up in the debate about inclusive language and the call to ‘Make Women Visible’ by referring to sisters as well as brothers, by using the pronoun ‘she’ as well as ‘he’. Non-sexist language for human beings made it into much of our liturgy and hymns, but there remained the issue of the mostly male language we use for God. My personal way of confronting and resolving this issue was to study for a PhD. It took me nine years of wrestling, to produce ‘Language Matters: The Church of England’s response to feminist liturgical revision’, and the conclusion that we (ie theologians, liturgists, bishops, synod members, worship leaders, worshippers)  needed to rethink and speak differently about both God and gender in order to find a healthy and holy way forward.

What’s all that got to do with the climate crisis? It’s the language thing again. Language matters. Language is never neutral, it is always loaded. Language reflects and at the same time shapes our imagination and our world view. We can simply follow our linguistic habits, or we can choose to use language intentionally and carefully in order to change the way we – and others – think and act.

Why I sat up and noticed the language being used about climate change

In October 2019, just around the time Mike was asking me to firm up a title for my talk for his conference, The Guardian announced changes in its style guidelines for reporting on climate. For example:

  • ‘climate emergency’ or ‘climate crisis’ were to be used instead of ‘climate change’ (although ‘climate breakdown’ or ‘global heating’ or ‘climate change’ could be used when describing it specifically in a scientific or geophysical way)
  • ‘climate science denier’ or ‘climate denier’ were to be used instead of ‘climate sceptic’ (since ‘sceptic’ is normally understood as a ‘seeker after truth’ and therefore was not appropriately applied to those who ignored or rubbished the truth)
    • [aside] But I’ve also noted that the people we might describe as ‘climate deniers’ are now labelling themselves as ‘climate realists’ – which just goes to show that all sides will use language for a purpose, and we must be vigilant and be ready to call out incorrect or misleading terms!
  • ‘greenhouse gas emissions’ was to be used instead of ‘carbon emissions’, in order to include methane, nitrogen oxides, CFCs etc
  • ‘fish populations’ was to be used instead of ‘fish stocks’, since fish do not exist solely to be harvested by humans

Having worked for many years as an editor in educational publishing, I was familiar with style guidelines, and fascinated to observe the Guardian’s policy changes. It was a reminder, yet again, that language always matters. Choosing our words carefully is as important as signing petitions, walking instead of driving, or switching to a plant-based diet. I began to practise saying ‘climate crisis’.

I noticed a couple of other shifts in language:

We started hearing about Extinction Rebellion, and I signed up to receive their newsletters, and again was fascinated and, to be honest, a little discomforted by the particular, distinctive language used by XR: ‘rebels and little rebels’ (the latter referring to children), ‘climate warriors’, ‘audacious’, ‘swarm’, ‘love and rage’, ‘grief’, ‘ecocide’. I don’t think this language is accidental. It’s intended to create a sense of identity and belonging and cultivate a set of shared values. Words like ‘swarm’ and ‘rage’ disturbed me. I wasn’t sure I could easily belong to this group, though many of those getting arrested for occupying bridges certainly looked like me. An interesting example of how language can be off-putting, even to someone who is basically supportive of a group’s aims.

Then ‘Climate Strike’ was named as Collins Dictionary 2019 Word/Phrase of the Year. 

Definition:       ‘a form of protest in which people absent themselves from education or work in order to join demonstrations demanding action to counter climate change’

The first use of ‘climate strike’ was registered as in 2015 when there were mass demonstrations at COP15 Paris. The phrase then took off in late 2018, when Greta Thunberg decided to start skipping school on Fridays in order to protest outside Parliament. By September 2019 this had grown into a global movement of 6 million, and Collins recorded a hundredfold increase in the use of ‘climate strike’ in 2019.

Language shifts because the world shifts.

And then, the issue of climate change language made it on to the BBC, when in January 2020 Michael Rosen interviewed George Marshall of Climate Outreach on the ‘Word of Mouth’ programme. They explored the language we use to describe climate change – its causes and effects – and the words we use to convince others that they need to do something about it, acknowledging that our language may help or hinder.

George Marshall noted that both ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ appeared in scientific papers of the 1970s. Both terms have their weaknesses. ‘Climate change’ suggests something slow and gradual that can be managed. ‘Global warming’ ignores the fact that it may get colder in some places on the planet, as well as omitting other, potentially devastating changes. Other terms have emerged in recent years: ‘climate chaos’, ‘dirty weather’, ‘global weirding’, ‘carbon pollution’ etc. The problem Marshall has with all these terms is that they don’t convey that what we are facing, what we are experiencing, is something new, exceptional, dangerous. ‘Crisis’ and ‘emergency’ get a little closer. But we are probably going to have to find or create new words for this unprecedented crisis. ‘The language’, suggests Marshall, ‘has to do a lot of lifting in this issue.’ We are being required to understand and anticipate something that hasn’t happened yet, but we have to take action now on the basis of that imagined future scenario. I’ll come back to the role of imagination in a moment.

Climate Outreach continues to research and develop resources for communicating climate change effectively. I commend its work to you, especially its guidelines for REAL TALK, how to have good conversations about climate change in your local communities and groups.

The problem with stewardship

Climate Outreach emphasises the importance of respecting and validating people’s identity and values in order to communicate climate issues effectively. I was particularly interested in their work on talking with people of faith and their identification of keywords that work well with people of different faith traditions. When speaking with Christians, for example, an important narrative is one that focuses on planet earth as a precious gift, that has been entrusted to our care. ‘Nature’ or ‘natural world’ or ‘the earth’ are too weak for many Christians, whereas ‘Creation’ and ‘Creator’ are direct expressions of divine power and divine gift. God has made the world and all that is in it, God has made us, human beings, in the image of God and has given us responsibility to care for creation. That responsibility has often been expressed as ‘dominion’ – as God says to the newly created male and female human beings: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’ (Genesis 1:28).

That Bible verse has been blamed for every act of exploitation and destruction that humanity has inflicted on the earth. And so in recent decades we have been told that ‘dominion’ should rather be understood in terms of ‘stewardship’ – we are not lords of the earth with inalienable rights to take and use and spoil whatever we want. The earth belongs to God, the Creator, and we are God’s stewards, responsible for its care and accountable for its condition. 

But ‘stewardship’ is hardly any better than ‘dominion’. Most obviously, it ignores all that happened before humans emerged. ‘Stewardship’ gives humanity a sort of managerial role in relation to the earth, as if we have been left in charge by an absentee landlord – has God really left the scene? ‘Stewardship’ still treats the world as a natural resource to be managed for human benefit, and suggests that ‘nature’ is best when controlled by humans – turning every wilderness into a garden. It is arrogantly anthropocentric, putting humans in a unique and privileged position. 

But what if this imagery is all wrong? What if, instead of speaking of God giving Creation into our hands to do what we want with – Creation as a ‘thing’, an object, separate not only from us but also from God – what if instead we were to speak of God as rooted in Creation, so that if we harm Creation (which we are doing) we are harming God? What if the cry of the earth is also the cry of God? How might that change the way we live and act?

‘What if…?’ – these two words invite us to exercise our imagination, to imagine a different way of looking at the world, a different way of being in the world. ‘What if…?’ releases us from being confined to ‘What is.’ ‘What if?’ is the launching pad for right action.

Back in March, three weeks before we went into lockdown, when it was still possible to attend mass gatherings, I was a participant in a conference organised by the Joint Public Issues Team of the URC, Methodist, Baptist and Church of Scotland churches. The title of the conference was Renewal and Rebellion: Faith, Economy and the Climate. We were invited to ask those ‘what if…?’ questions, to imagine a better future – in Christian terms, to imagine the Kingdom of God for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. 

‘what if every community had shared, public green space at the centre?’

‘what if it wasn’t too expensive to buy eco?’

‘what if public transport worked for everyone?’

Those questions, displayed around the conference venue and up on the screens, were hugely energising and encouraging.

The idea can be traced to Rob Hopkins’ latest book, From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want – which is on our bookshelves, but we haven’t read it yet (maybe now, while we’ve got all the time in the world!).

In fact, I think the idea is much older than Rob’s book.

In this group I can be a little more theological than would have been appropriate in Keswick and refer to the work of the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, who writes about the Prophetic Imagination, and says that:

‘it is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternate to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one’.

The Old Testament prophets practised a ‘what if’ approach to life. See, for example, Micah 4:3-4, ‘they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks… they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.’ This was about imagining a different future, and putting it into words. And trusting that words lead to action.

The title of my Keswick talk, and of this adaptation of it, ended up as ‘Language Matters: speaking truthfully and acting justly in the face of climate crisis’. Of course, there must be more than words and empty promises. As Greta Thunberg told the UN, "You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words”.

Words are not enough. We need to move on to ask, ‘what can we do?’ But, I want to argue, speaking truthfully and imagining daringly come first.

Julie Nelson

23 April 2020