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."
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.
In Canadian media outlets, the term "climate change" overtook "global warming" in 2002, a gap that has since widened, write Robert Hackett and Julia Dzgoeva. #ClimateCrisis #cdnfoi #cdnmedia
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.