“What is it that human beings ultimately depend on?” pondered the physicist Niels Bohr. Answering his own question, the great Dane didn’t point to the structure of atoms that won him the Nobel prize. “We depend on our words,” he concluded. “We are suspended in language. Our task is to communicate experience and ideas to others.”

It wasn’t a new idea. Some track it back to the dawn of everything: “In the beginning was the word,” says John 1:1-5. Or the older Genesis when God lit it all up: “God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” Ancient Jewish mystical traditions hold that our whole world is constructed from the Hebrew alphabet.

With the possible exception of the almighty, no one has matched Shakespeare’s way with words. We are still suspended in some 1,700 of his inventions, starting with addiction, and swaggering on through puke all the way to zany. And it was the monumental, majestic Bard who captured the heart of a certain New York ballerina, prompting a dexterous pirouette into Renaissance scholarship and expertise in the meaning of language, rhetoric and persuasion. Auspiciously for us, because Genevieve Guenther has repurposed those semiotic skills to decode our planetary predicament in her new book, The Language of Climate Politics.

“This capacity to transmit ideologies — to shape the way people see the world, without their even being aware — makes words politically powerful,” she writes. Language is how fossil fuel ideology reproduces. And it’s why we “will need to use the power of words to fight climate propaganda.”

Does the notion of a fossil fuel ideology sound a bit overwrought? Guenther argues it is at the core of our predicament. And when I caught up with her this week just ahead of her book launch, she described how the “current consensus” contains a fundamental contradiction — the belief we can halt global heating without halting what’s causing it. “That is false and horrifically dangerous,” she said.

Ask yourself if any of this sounds familiar:

“Yes, climate change is real, but calling it an existential threat is just alarmist — and anyway phasing out coal, oil and gas would cost us too much. Human flourishing relies on the economic growth enabled by fossil fuels, so we need to keep using them and deal with climate change by fostering technological innovation and increasing our resilience. Besides, (name of your country here) should not act unilaterally while emissions are rising in India and China.”

That’s not a pastiche from The National Post or Pierre Poilievre, though it could well be. It’s a passage from The Language of Climate Politics highlighting the six key terms that shape the language of climate change. Woven together, they suspend us in a narrative that appears so commonsensical we don’t even notice we’re grappling with a problem without tackling its cause. That basic contradiction certainly tracks public opinion research. People want net-zero, without the zero.

“We simply can’t get to net-zero without the virtual phase-out of fossil fuels,” says Guenther, echoing any number of scientists.

A new book, The Language of Climate Politics, highlighting the six key terms that shape the language of climate change, writes Chris Hatch @zerocarbon #climatechange #cdnpoli

Some of the six key terms have probably been conspicuous to you already since you’re reading a newsletter titled Zero Carbon — alarmist, cost. Others, like innovation, are sneakier; obviously desirable, but dangerous when appropriated by fossil fuel promoters. “Innovation, not elimination,” is the mantra from US senators like Joe Manchin. Canadians will be extremely familiar with similar tropes used by oilsands companies about carbon capture. Unlike industries like cement, oil companies use “innovation” to obscure the fact that carbon capture could only ever be applied to the fraction of climate pollution spewed while producing oil, not the vast bulk that comes from burning it.

And the appropriation of “innovation” shapes our thinking more deeply — the notion we can keep burning fossil fuels because, later, we’ll remove the carbon out of the air, like some kind of planetary-scale air purifier. The technology exists, we hear repeatedly. But that says nothing about its planetary-scale deployment, Guenther emphasizes: “Human life in space also ‘exists,’ in that astronauts live on the International space station.” They do, in fact, scrub carbon from the air in those little modules, but “No-one believes this means that everyone on earth could move to space permanently.”

Perhaps more surprising to the Canadian ear is the fact that “China and India” are not just invoked to justify going slow in our mousy little country, but in the climate politics of our elephant neighbour as well.

It turns out that whataboutism is prevalent across the world. Everywhere except India and China where the finger gets pointed back — in precisely the direction where Guenther advises we redirect focus, at the U.S. for having put the most climate pollution into the atmosphere to date. And Canada which ranks No.1 for cumulative carbon emissions per population. It is the accumulation of carbon that drives climate change, after all.

The India and China dodge is meant to “obscure obstructionism” says Guenther. Both Canada and the U.S. have long histories of pledging to lead, given their role among the most advanced economies. And then obstructing international negotiations, pulling out of treaties and running interference for their fossil fuel industries (U.S.A. at No. 1 in the world, Canada its fourth-largest oil producer).

Climate laggards might come to regret putting focus on China. China has cornered the market for clean energy technologies and The Language of Climate Politics unpacks the many ways China is preparing for a future without fossil energy, more systematically than any of the G7’s purported “climate leaders.”

The most unexpected of the six key terms is “resilience.” But it’s a favoured phrase of climate-shirking politicians for a reason, argues the former researcher of rhetoric and persuasion. It is dangerously misleading to conflate adaptation and resilience, she says. “It misrepresents the physical reality of the climate crisis… If we do not force decision-makers to phase out fossil fuels and eliminate emissions, climate change will cease to be a series of discrete disasters from which communities can just ‘bounce back.’” It’s the sort of discourse highlighted by other scholars — like Jason Stanley in How Propaganda Works — the kind that “irrationally closes off certain options that should be considered.”

Instead of resilience, Guenther suggests “‘Transformation.’ For it is the transformation of our systems, and ourselves, that will in the end preserve a livable future.”

And here the Shakespeare scholar reemerges. Storytelling, in the Renaissance, was about trying to midwife a new world. English literature, as we know it, was coming into being (1,700 new words — almost a new dictionary — from one author!) The poets were keenly aware of ideological constraints and aimed to have emotional and intellectual impact that would change patterns of thought and lead audiences “to want to be better people and take action in their lives.”

Guenther had the theories of language, but it was only after her son was born that she got the motivation to focus on climate change and noticed the rotten state of storytelling. “No climate communication that I read in the public sphere was really engaging those principles,” she told me.

And when her son started kindergarten and some hours opened up in the day, her first foray was a petition protesting the New York Times’ hiring of an avowed climate denier. “I was a Renaissance scholar Luddite,” she laughs. “It went viral and I had to learn Twitter.”

The New York Times went through some internal soul-searching and public apologia. The columnist in question would later perform a bit of a pivot. Guenther founded an organization, End Climate Silence, and became a thorn in the side of media outlets across the Anglosphere.

End Climate Silence would prod and expose outlets to catalyze more scientifically accurate coverage that described the fossil-fuelled cause of climate change. And to assign stories commensurate with the growing alarm in the scientific community.

“It is perfectly appropriate to be alarmed,” Guenther writes. “Indeed, it is sensible to feel frightened… It is not a symptom of alarmism. On the contrary. it’s a sign that you are willing to look at the danger head-on and not look away. It is a sign of courage.”

Instead of alarmist, she recommends courageous. The word “alarm” comes from the Italian al’arme! — “to arms” and Guenther urges her reader to the battlements: “One of the most powerful weapons you have is your voice. End the climate silence that gives fossil-energy interests cover. Talk about the climate crisis as much as you can.”

The recommendations boil down to a three-step process to counter fossil fuel propaganda. Acknowledging fear and redirecting it onto the powers that perpetuate the fossil fuel economy. Thereby transforming it into outrage, indignation, even anger. And then into a desire for change.

The book is designed for the climate movement. The former professor of literature unapologetically describes it as a work of activism and of climate communication. “It kind of marries the two sides of my personality, because writing about climate means you are writing about something really horrific. And you're writing about something very emotionally challenging to hold in your head.”

“But you're also doing it because you're devoted to the miracle that is this planet, and the people that you love on it, who are going to inherit it after you're gone… For me, at least, there’s the same kind of undercurrent of devotion to something bigger than me.”

The Language of Climate Politics is written especially for that educated, relatively affluent portion of the population who are concerned about the climate crisis but who don’t support the phase-out of fossil fuels because they don’t know that it’s necessary, or that it will be better not running an economy on fossil fuels.

“It’s a book to get people to start talking about the climate crisis in a helpful way.”

We are, none of us, going to save the world by ourselves, Guenther says as we discuss the events planned around the publication date of her book, coming July 10. And the former Renaissance scholar peeks through again. The poets found the act of engaging in an effort larger than ourselves is what gives our lives meaning. “The goal, here, is to transform yourself into someone who rises to this epochal moment.”

“At the end, we want to look back and say, ‘I was one of those who helped.’”

Chris Hatch writes Canada's National Observer's celebrated Sunday newsletter, Zero Carbon. Chris is the former Executive Director of Rainforest Action Network as well as the former executive editor at Canada's National Observer. He is now a columnist at National Observer and writes the acclaimed Sunday newsletter, Zero Carbon.

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Sounds like a book we all need to have a look at, those of us in Alberta in particular. The idea that we can have our cake and eat it too is well established in this petro state. As a retired English teacher I totally agree with this author. We swim in language, as a fish in water............and its way past time we started using it to tell the truth about a range of boondoggles designed to keep fossil fools in power, and planet killing energy running those vehicles without limits, that the manufacturers like to advertise trashing what's left of our wilderness.
Personal transformation, and a just transition: NOW

Excellent article.

I find it impressive propaganda-wise that the side that wants to keep on doing the same (crappy) thing gets to use the word "innovation" for it, whereas the side that wants to introduce a whole set of new better technologies does not. Changing to better electric vehicles, heat pumps, using lots of new kinds of batteries and rapidly improving solar panels and wind turbines, pioneering geothermal and wave and tide power, all strike me as a hell of a lot more "innovative" than tacking some kludge that doesn't work onto a hundred-plus year old technology to pretend that makes it better.