The 21st century had just arrived. Scientific warnings were escalating public concern about global warming, and Frank Luntz was worried.
Not about the threat to humanity's life-support systems — but about public perceptions.
An adviser to the Republican Party, Luntz felt the GOP was becoming seen as handmaidens to "fat cat" corporate polluters. And the business model of fossil fuel-dependent industries and influential political donors would be threatened by serious pro-climate regulation.
Something had to be done.
As University of Washington professor Lance Bennett explains, Luntz drafted a memo in 2002 advising his Republican clients to "embrace the environment in personal and emotional terms shared by the audience" to present climate science as unsettled and to decrease public anxiety — in part, by relying on American journalism's ethic of "balance" to give well-funded climate deniers equal access with climate scientists. That strategy confused Americans about the scientific consensus, and probably delayed action for years.
But another important tactic was to shape the language.
Framing the terms of a debate is halfway to winning it. "Framing is about getting language that fits your worldview," writes linguistics professor and Democratic adviser George Lakoff. "The ideas are primary — and the language evokes those ideas."
What people are reading
Consider the debate over abortion. One side talks of a "baby," the other side refers to "embryo" and "fetus," evoking a medical context. It's not hard to guess each side's preferred term. Once the words are chosen, writes Lakoff, the issue of the morality of abortion is settled.
So, too, with labels like "greenhouse effect," the most frequent term in the 1980s, which was displaced by "global warming" in the 1990s. For Luntz, that phrase was too frightening. It implies an ongoing process with "catastrophic" consequences. Instead, his memo championed an emerging alternative, "climate change," which sounds like flying "from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale" and seems "a more controllable and less emotional challenge."
That's where news media enter the equation. Far from being merely "legacy" media, press commentary still helps set political agendas, taking on a second life through social media networks.
So the language of climate news helps to reveal how the issue is being framed for the public — and perhaps where Canadian news organizations stand.
That's why we searched the Factiva database to identify the climate terms of choice in three Toronto-based but nationally significant newspapers since 1988 — the Toronto Star, Canada's largest circulation daily; the Globe and Mail, Canada's self-professed national newspaper; and the National Post, flagship of the conservative Postmedia chain, which incorporated the Financial Post in 1998.
The numbers identify how many articles included each of 11 terms. Apart from greenhouse effect, some terms imply a dangerous situation urgently requiring our attention and response — global warming, climate emergency, global heating, planetary emergency, climate crisis — and warns of climate denialism. Other labels imply that the situation is not a matter of great concern (climate change) or is even overblown — climate hoax, climate alarm/alarmist/alarmism, climate panic.
We crunched the results into two tables.
The first table implies that over time, climate news has surged with events like major climate conferences and extreme weather, and plunged when displaced by other crises, like the 2008 financial collapse and the current pandemic.
While that media roller-coaster must be frustrating to science communicators, struggling to focus public attention on planetary crisis, Luntz's and Lakoff's work suggests that the framing of news is as important as its quantity. As the table shows, the term "climate change" overtook "global warming" in 2002, a gap that has since widened.
Luntz certainly can't take all the credit. He inhabited a much broader "right-wing information infrastructure," including media pundits, political activists, broadcasting networks (notably Fox News), fossil fuel-connected billionaires and corporate-funded think tanks. In an emailed response, Mount Royal University journalism professor Sean Holman says journalists' adoption of "climate change" also followed the lead of climate scientists, environmentalists and public officials.
From 2018 through to April 2021, the Toronto dailies have modestly reflected a growing sense of urgency. As various governments started declaring a "climate emergency," that term appeared in 667 articles, "climate crisis" in 1,453 and "global warming" in 2,313. Conversely, terms implying that the emergency is overblown — alarmism, hoax, panic — popped up in just 80 articles.
That's important progress, however limited. In an emailed response, professor Shane Gunster, a climate communication researcher at Simon Fraser University, said framing climate change as a crisis or emergency helps to generate corrective action. A crisis is something we pay attention to, talk about with others and demand that governments address. Citizens and governments have responded with "force and conviction" to previous emergencies — fascist aggression in the 1940s, the current pandemic — and key to success each time was "communication that consistently and accurately represented the scale of the crisis."
Beyond crisis and emergency, however, more robust terms are scarcer than David Suzuki fans in Exxon's boardroom. When the internationally respected Guardian editorially opted for "global heating," the Toronto dailies declined to follow suit, using it in only 63 articles since 2018 and "planetary emergency" just twice.
The Guardian's style book revisions did prompt internal discussion at CBC in 2019. Paul Hambleton, CBC's director of journalistic standards, reportedly opined that "climate crisis" or "emergency" have "a whiff of advocacy to them," whereas "climate change and global warming are more neutral terms."
Take a bow, Frank Luntz. Your preferred expression has become naturalized as non-political. From 2018, "climate change" tallied 17,214 articles in the Toronto dailies, outnumbering all other terms combined by over three to one.
Lexical choices don't always reflect a conscious ideological bent. Many news organizations use conventional terms in order to appear accurate and unbiased. "Most mainstream newsrooms don't often consider the political consequences of their language," said Holman.
Case in point: We recall an interview by former CBC TV news anchorman Peter Mansbridge with an environmental advocate, who said that by referring to Alberta's "oilsands" rather than "tar sands," Mansbridge was taking sides. The newscaster appeared nonplussed, seemingly unaware of the fossil fuel industry's previous public relations effort to implant "oil" as its preferred term.
But departures from the dominant terms — climate change, with global warming a distant second — sometimes do indicate political preferences.
As the second table shows, language conveying urgency disproportionately appears in the liberal Star, while dismissive phrases reflecting climate skepticism find more favour in the Post, which accounted for 199 of the 233 articles referencing "climate alarm/ist/ism" since 1998. Indeed, climate science rejectionists still have access to the National Post's opinion pages, which are often shared throughout the Postmedia newspaper chain, Canada's largest.
Does the press therefore deserve kudos for reflecting Canada's political diversity?
Not necessarily. Diversity is certainly relevant in debating policy responses, but the journalistic value of accuracy should take priority in reporting scientific findings and debates.
Democratic journalism should warn the public of unpleasant, but urgent, realities. There are signs of change, even in Postmedia dailies. In a recent report on B.C.'s deadly heat wave, the Vancouver Sun aptly referred to "global heating linked to the human-induced climate emergency."
The next question is — which humans, which organizations, which economic models are the biggest emergency inducers. Those questions invite conversations on an even bigger concept — climate justice.
Robert Hackett, contributing columnist, is a co-author of Journalism and Climate Crisis. Julia Dzgoeva is in her final year of environmental studies at Simon Fraser University.
I was about to write that
I was about to write that they had not mentioned how "climate change" has always been the preferred term in peer-reviewed scientific journals. It's the "International Journal of Climatology", after all. On a second read, I found the sentence-fragment: " followed the lead of climate scientists, environmentalists..." - which undoes the point of the rest of the article.
It wasn't a right-wing campaign like "pro-life" was. It was climatologists explaining that they study climate change, that global warming is one kind of climate change, and that they (increasingly) often ascribe climate change to global warming rather than to, say, the rainforest being cut down, or the Aral Sea drying up.
The major right-wing component, the thing that got the environmentalists on board with the climatologists, was responding to their criticisms that the "global warming" was causing drying in some places, floods in another, and even longer, harsher cold snaps in winter...make up your mind.
The right-wing PR campaign certainly did force all media to be as scientific as possible with coverage, triple-checking every assertion past climate scientists, and their careful terminology came to dominate, the anthropogenic cause of a given climate change not being asserted, unless a given research study was specifically about assigning anthropogenic cause to a given change.
The key to this article is that they quote political science professors and journalism professors, but never a climatology professor, who would have set them straight that it always was the preferred scientific term.
All that "scientific" number-crunching over the exact count of various terms in the media, all that science used to study popular media, when they could have studied the peer-reviewed journals for 15 minutes to determine that the term long predates Frank Luntz. (Not just his career, his birth.)
NASA has a nice page on when you use both terms:
Thanks for this. As a
Thanks for this. As a sociologist, not a climate scientist, I agree. I'm skeptical about the alleged ideological bias of "climate change" versus "global warming". The latter sounds innocuous: "the weather's going to get warmer, that sounds nice!". "Climate change" indicates that lots of things are going to change, not just temperature: rainfall, storms, long heat waves and long cold spells, drought etc. And it more easily switches into "climate emergency" and "climate crisis".
As evidence that "climate change" doesn't have a right-wing bias, see the bar graph: the National Post uses the term "global warming" more than the Star and the Globe and Mail, and "climate change" less.
And yet, right wing PR people
And yet, right wing PR people did champion the term. Climate scientists are not politicians; it's not surprising if they liked, or could be fooled into liking, a term that was not actually politically helpful to their position. In the interests of accuracy, they mousetrapped themselves into using a term that would be more likely to make that accuracy ignored.
If scientists have any other
If scientists have any other position than "I did the research I've described and am publishing the results; I have a hypothesis to offer which would explain this data." ... then they aren't scientists any more, but activists.
The whole problem with getting people to believe climatology research, was the (right-wing touted) claim that these weren't really scientists at all, but activists reaching predetermined conclusions and prostituting their University positions to sell their narrative. That's what Michael Mann has been called for 30+ years.
As with epidemiologists today (Tony Fauci could heavily sympathize with them), climatologists like Michael Mann had to camp-out very firmly on the most neutral scientific language they could, acknowledge that there is/always-was, such a thing as non-anthoprogenic climate change, and devise data-gathering efforts that clarified certain data could not be explained with anything but anthropogenic global warming.
The acceptance of the scientific terms in media was the media trying (endlessly, always) to defend itself against the charge of being "liberal media" with an alarmist agenda. As Jon Schwarz at The Intercept dryly put it: "For their part, the elite print and broadcast media accepted the right’s critique that they were – as huge profit-driven corporations naturally tend to be – horribly liberal. "
I'm not sure if it's really a bad thing (in the long run) that media were forced to be very dry and factual and use scientific terms about all climate, and other environmental, topics. I suspect it was a benefit to credibility when the next science-related danger came along, the pandemic. It's STILL frustrating how dry and soft and meek the doctor's opinions are, to those of us who want anti-vaxxers driven into the wilderness and ostracized. But a lot of PR types seem to be counseling that it's the smart move.
"greenhouse effect", "global
"greenhouse effect", "global warming", "climate change"
These terms are not synonyms. Not interchangeable.
All three are all valid scientific terms, referring to different, though related, phenomena.
1) Greenhouse effect refers to trapping of infrared radiation (heat) by so-called greenhouse gases (GHGs).
Given the Earth's distance from the sun and and albedo, the Earth's temperature should be -18C. We should be a frozen snowball. Far too cold for life. Instead, life flourishes at a balmy 15C.
At 280 ppm, CO2 (and other GHGs and feedback effects) make the Earth 33C warmer than it would be without them. The NATURAL greenhouse effect.
The ENHANCED greenhouse effect is the result of increasing atmospheric GHG levels by, for example, burning fossil fuels.
2) More GHGs, enhanced greenhouse effect, more greenhouse warming.
Hence, global warming — the increase in the Earth's average surface temperature.
Increasing the atmosphere's and the oceans' energy or heat content.
3) Global warming causes regional climates to change in various ways.
Hence, climate change.
Climate change refers to the wide spectrum of changes in climatic conditions in response to, for example, global warming.
As Mr. Brander states, other causes of climate change are possible — both natural (e.g., volcanic eruptions, orbital variations, continental drift) and man-made (e.g., deforestation and overgrazing.)
Changes in some parameters (e.g., more frequent/intense/prolonged extreme events) are global.
The (enhanced) greenhouse effect causes global warming, one of several possible cause of climate change. A chain of cause and effect.
I disagree that "global warming is one kind of climate change", though I have come across that explanation myself. Global warming is one possible cause of climate change. Cause and effect.
As for Republican spin doctor Frank Luntz, his motivations were clearly political.
He consciously tried to shift the discussion from global warming to climate change:
"It's time for us to start talking about 'climate change' instead of global warming and 'conservation' instead of preservation."
"Memo exposes Bush's new green strategy" (The Guardian, 4 Mar 2003)
Luntz tried to replace the more ominous term "global warming" with the more amorphous, generic, and anodyne phrase "climate change". Not that he invented the terms.
The fact that these scientific terms pre-dated Luntz's PR efforts does not negate his political motivations.
Roy, thanks so much for these
Roy, thanks so much for these observations. I would add that, just because climate change was the preferred term of climate scientists doesn't mean it wasn't also the preferred term of conservatives. These facts can co-exist at the same time. And the fact of the matter is that the term global warming, in the past, has had more resonance with the public that climate change (for example, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/may/27/americans-climate-ch...). So the use of the later term over the former has had political consequences, even if we wish it didn't. And this is the challenge journalism faces, as Prof. Hackett has so ably pointed out.
I completely agree. I first
I completely agree. I first started as a writer (former journalist) in the climate change section of BC's Ministry of Environment in the early '90s. At the time, we were referring to "global warming" as the "enhanced greenhouse effect." We then switched to "global warming," but soon realized that the term was misleading. People took it to mean that the local climates everywhere were getting warmer. They didn't understand that an overheating planet (I like that term) was causing climate change -- which resulted in different impacts throughout the world. So we settled on "climate change" because it's the most accurate term.
I just want to clarify that I
I just want to clarify that I completely agree with Roy Brander's post.
I just want to clarify that I
I just want to clarify that I completely agree with Roy Brander's post.
Thanks to everybody above for
Thanks to everybody above for contributing to this thoughtful discussion -- that was one of our hopes in researching and writing this piece, along with raising awareness that carbon capital and its climate science denialist allies ('useful idiots', in Lenin's phrase) are very actively engaged in trying to shape the terms of public discourse. We hoped to encourage people to reflect upon the political terms that we often use automatically; it happens to us all, and there's no need to be defensive about it -- as JM Keynes once said, we may consider opinions our own, but we are all victims of some long-dead academic scribbler. Or words to that effect. And some scribblers are far more powerful than others.
Thanks also to Sean Holman - our interview with him doubly ensured that we did not claim that Frank Luntz or his ilk invented the term 'climate change'; rather, they actively promoted an already 'emerging' term. One currently emerging candidate as a replacement, which unfortunately we didn't mention, is 'climate disruption'. What do folks think of that one?
I don't think new words are
I don't think new words are needed. From The Guardian just now:
"A second community in western Canada has been destroyed by wildfire as authorities in the region scramble to contain the destructive toll of climate change."
Now that "climate change" and "destructive toll" are in the same sentence (routinely), climate change means what you want it to mean. The term is now associated with Australia burning down, California burning down (twice) and now BC burning down, with the big heat waves across the world, it's a very negative term in its own right.