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The Words We Use Illustration by Dushan Milic.

The Words We Use

A longtime science reporter reviews the ways we’ve tried, and failed, to convey the looming climate crisis.

In the summer of 1988, I stood on the rocky shores of one of the world’s largest and most famous environmental test tubes. Lake 226, as it was called, was located in Northern Ontario, near the Manitoba border. It had been recruited into the cause of science after massive algal blooms appeared in the 1960s on Lake Erie and other local bodies of water. These blooms were killing off most living things beneath them and potentially poisoning humans who came in contact with the waters they colonized.

Some researchers believed the growths, known as eutrophication, were fuelled by phosphorous entering the water through fertilizers, cleaning liquids and other man-made sources. But was there a way to prove it? It turned out that there was. They took a pristine Canadian lake, erected a barrier over part of it, then poured phosphorous into one of its arms and not the other.

This created a visual kaboom: an algal jungle exploded on the phosphorus-fed side, while pure lake water remained on the non-phosphorus side. The result was more than visual; it was undeniable. In response, a joint Canadian-American commission dramatically reduced the amount of phosphorous in cleaning liquids and sewage water. This was mostly successful; the algal blooms decreased. I still remember, as a science reporter at the time for the Globe and Mail, looking at the now-pristine waters of Lake 226 and feeling as if I had come to a holy place at the end of a scientific pilgrimage.

Science had absolutely demonstrated to the world that something was making nature toxic. It showed, just as definitely, its man-made causes. And that evidence was a starting point for scientists, politicians and businesses to figure out straightforward solutions. 

Lake 226 was not alone. I regularly encountered examples of environmental salvation over the course of my thirty-five years covering science. In 1969, I passed though Sudbury, Ontario, which was a pollution hell. Nature had died for tens of kilometres around it. But when the town’s smelters were cleaned up, Sudbury was also ecologically reincarnated. 

Likewise, when the ominous hole in the Antarctic ozone layer became evident in the 1980s, people replaced the ozone-destroying chemicals in refrigeration units and aerosol cans. That shrank the hole and forestalled a potential global epidemic in skin cancers. For decades, I watched government, industry and citizens work together to address obvious threats. Each time disaster was avoided, I felt like I was seeing a sort of miracle. 

“What’s past is prologue,” writes Shakespeare in The Tempest. But I have come to fear that’s not the case when it comes to understanding and dealing with climate change. That’s because the past’s environmental communication paradigms don’t apply. Unlike lake eutrophication, or Sudbury pollution, or an ozone hole, we can’t undeniably see climate change. Nothing is intrinsically different, just more intense or frequent—storms, droughts, heat waves, cold. We can’t see the primary pollution source, and we don’t have remediations that are relatively easy, cheap and acceptable to everyone. And non-scientists can’t even see when a solution has worked.

For journalists and other communicators, the contradictory nature of climate change has always, despite best efforts, stymied attempts to convey its seriousness and potential solutions. As the threat approaches calamity, that struggle weighs now more than ever. 

In retrospect, miscommunication has always been climate change’s first, middle and last name. In 1990, an early Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released an alarming report about rising temperatures and sea levels over the following thirty years. The Guardian, after the fact, ran an article about the report with a headline that read, “Global warming message received but not understood.” The problem, said the newspaper, was that even if you believed human activity was releasing more greenhouse gases, increasing heat trapped in the atmosphere, no one was positive what that would cause. “Predicting the consequences is fraught with difficulty,” concluded the article.

This doesn’t begin to capture the ferocity of the disagreement about what was or wasn’t happening. In 1997, I reported on a scientific catfight, one group of US governmental scientists against another. Satellite data suggested the earth had cooled since 1979, while earth-based monitors suggested it had warmed. Two different ways of tracking the same phenomena produced two contrary results. 

 Even if you accepted that global warming was occurring, there was similar scientific fighting over why. In 1998, I reported on another disagreement: one group of American scientists said global warming likely had  as much to do with cutting down forests and changing farming practices as it did with the dreaded greenhouse gases. I didn’t know who was right and so retreated into the he-said-she-said world of straight reportage—I simply described the controversy. 

I did this in part because of a trend I had observed at my time at the Globe and Mail. I came to call this trend the “Evangelical Religion of the Environment.” Regularly, environment reporters were removed from the beat because editors had come to believe they saw their jobs not to report on the science of the environment, but instead to save nature, the planet, the future. They were seen as becoming evangelists, and I was determined I was going to remain a just-the-facts-ma’am type of reporter. I saw the best journalism as being almost environmentally agnostic—you said what was, no matter if those sometimes contradictory, confusing truths made it harder to save the planet.

Not long after the turn of the century, scientists reached a general consensus that human-released gases were affecting the climate. But, they asked, exactly what would happen to it?

The answer often led to even more contradiction. In 2005, I wrote a piece for the CBC on two papers in the journal Nature. One predicted that global warming was going to make snow in the Rocky Mountains melt earlier. But the second paper implied that Western Canada was going to get wetter because warmer air could carry more moisture, translating into more snow, rain and sleet. Many of the articles I wrote brimmed with similar contradictions: how some amount of climate change, for example, would actually be good for Canadian agriculture and diminish winter-related deaths and injuries.

I quickly learned that environmental science often doesn’t feel like it makes things scientific, at least in a way we have been taught. That is, it isn’t based on data that every sensible person must accept. Rather, you get a world where you must embrace uncertainty—a world where last week’s startling finding gets reversed by this week’s startling contradiction to that finding. It is a world, I came to understand, that feeds skepticism not just about what is happening, but what to do about it and why.

Surely, you might say, that was the past. Surely now, with warnings of a climatic Armageddon seemingly uttered every minute, certainty must be the norm. Sadly, the opposite is true. 

Communicating climate change remains so hard that a virtual industry has arisen around the practice. An entire academic subdiscipline on climate change communication has generated more than eight thousand entries on Google Scholar and led to an annual World Symposium on Climate Change Communication. A couple of years ago, the University of Bristol produced a “practical guide” with twelve different ways to communicate the threats of climate change—and its uncertainties—more effectively. We are counselled not to argue and to explain risks instead of uncertainties. Don’t say it, rather frame it, we are told. The IPCC suggests avoiding all-or-nothing statements, tending more toward phrases like: “It is very likely that hot extremes, heat waves, and heavy precipitation events will continue to become more frequent.” 

Yale University law professor Dan Kahan has conducted some disheartening studies showing that when it comes to believing in climate change, people’s value systems override everything else, including how science-literate they are. In other words, climate skepticism isn’t driven by not knowing or understanding the science, but rather by how the science is framed by other things we believe in. In Canada, Conservatives are less likely to believe in climate change than Liberals. In the US, white men are less likely to believe than non-white men.

Trying to convey facts in such an environment becomes close to impossible. For example, some saw David Wallace-Wells’s so-called doomsday article, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” published in 2017 in New York magazine, as so exaggeratedly depressing that people wouldn’t do anything after reading it. “There is also a danger in overstatement that presents the problem as unsolvable and future outcomes as inevitable,” wrote climate experts in the Washington Post, calling the type of rhetoric in the article as harmful as climate-change denial.

These twists sometimes seem almost comical, at least to me. One science writer proudly proclaimed in a blog post that “when I talk about climate change, I don’t talk about science.” He instead speaks to religious people on, supposedly, their level: sea-level rise, for example, must be human-caused, because otherwise it would mean God was breaking His covenant after Noah’s flood to never again wipe out life on earth by flood.

But the central problem remains: unlike earlier crises, there is no irrefutable visual evidence of a warming planet, nor an easy visual demonstration of remediations working. Because if a solution works, you cannot see what didn’t happen, what impending disaster was avoided.

I recently sent out a note to climate scientists and researchers asking if they could imagine any specific occurrence that would confirm climate change, or one of its fixes, to doubters. Could they show that electric cars were lessening the strength of hurricanes, or that a switch to a vegan diet was diminishing droughts in the Sahara? Yale geography professor Anthony Leiserowitz, who studies public perception of climate change, sardonically says there will never be a breakthrough like this, unless “someone can figure out a way to make CO2 emissions visible for all of humanity to see.” 

Looking back at my own science reporting, I wouldn’t change any of it. I was being as honest as I could, even if that honesty didn’t always convey a great danger. But climate communication today isn’t any clearer than it was then, despite how much we’ve learned.

Consider that the Globe and Mail recently published an article about a government report claiming Canada is heating nearly twice as fast as the rest of the world, and this increase is driven by human influence. Many accepted the report’s conclusions, but there was also a cacophony of doubt. One reader pointed out how climate change would reduce Canada’s national emissions because less heating would be required in milder winters. Many speculated that the math behind the calculations must be wrong, or that the study came out to justify the new carbon tax. Still one of my favourites: “I would hope that people realize this news was released on April Fool’s Day,” quipped one commenter. “It appears a lot of people fell for the prank.”

There’s still some faith that rewording will help. The Guardian recently announced that to be more scientifically accurate, it would start using the term “global heating,” because that captures the risk better than “global warming,” and would recast the term “climate change” as “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown.” I still hasten to point out that not all climate changes are dire, and there are still colder-than-usual winters. 

Part of me thinks humanity won’t collectively respond to climate change until we undeniably see what it has wrought, and by that time it will likely be too late. Part of me thinks we are doomed.

And that has led me to despair about a future that belongs more truly to my children and grandchildren than myself. So at my seventy-fifth-birthday party last year, I gave a little speech, reflecting on the series of personal choices about country, career, friends and family that led me to where I am now. But I told the twenty or so people gathered in my home, including my four grandchildren, that climate change likely meant my grandkids would never enjoy the freedom of my casual existentialism. 

It would make no difference to the globe if they or their friends were the most carbon-neutral humans on the planet. It would not suffice for just one part of humanity to change its behaviour while the rest do nothing. Instead of a re-Edening, we likely were headed towards a twenty-first-century version of hell on earth. 

It was such a gloomy talk that my wife decided it was too negative for the grandchildren, the oldest of whom was just five. While I intoned my climate-change jeremiad, she gave them candles dripping with icing from the birthday cake, which they sucked on. It felt like a fitting metaphor: ignore future bitterness by sucking on whatever sweet thing you can find today.

But this year, something has suddenly made me more hopeful: Greta Thunberg. I have been talking to everyone I can about the sixteen-year-old Swedish girl who has been called the Joan of Arc of the climate-change wars. She initiated the global school strike for climate movement and has delivered scalding speeches to both the United Nations and the European Union. 

Thunberg, in her straightforward, emphatic, totally heartfelt way is accomplishing what I think journalists and scientists couldn’t. She declares, don’t look at the past and how things were done. That will just lead to a slough of despondency—to inaction and eventual failure. Instead, think only of the future, concentrate only on yet-unlived lives. 

“We can’t save the world by playing by the rules,” she says. “Because the rules have to be changed.” Go beyond reason. Be consumed by fear and a sense of the apocalypse. “I don’t want your hope,” she says. “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”

And I think, yes. Don’t try to make sense out of an intrinsically complicated and confusing body of science. Don’t frame and reframe the message. Instead, believe. Believe that if we don’t do many complicated, expensive and politically difficult things, my grandchildren and your grandchildren and their children are going to live in a harsh, unpredictable, largely uncontrollable world.

Forget better communication. Today, just believe. Today, just act.