The challenge of climate change – why language matters

I was heartened to see recent research released by EECA that shows more than 80% of New Zealanders believe we need to do something about climate change, whether that is business, government or individuals. And I think that it is time we examined the language we use when we talk about climate change.

In the media and in conversations, the shorthand used seems to be we need to “fight” climate change. This invokes conflict between us and the forces increasing the temperature of the planet – a “battle” which can only have one winner.

Military language and metaphor are common. In her speech launching the Helen Clark Foundation, the Rt Hon Helen Clark mentioned the concept of the “World War Two-level mobilisation” needed to stop the use of fossil fuels – which might very well be true, but may not be that helpful.

The problem with invoking metaphors of battle and conflict is that it can trigger deeper responses like fear and anger, which don’t help us get to where we need to be. I prefer to talk about the “challenge” of climate change, where we all have a role to play to help tackle it. Tackling – now there’s a rugby term, but in the New Zealand context that is more likely to evoke a positive response.

This is ongoing work – I continually hear myself talking about the “fight”. But I believe that finding more helpful ways of talking about the issue can help us move more quickly to finding solutions and taking action.

If you’re interested in how the language we use can frame our response to climate change, check out the Common Cause Foundation work on values and frames.

Jess Berentson-Shaw and Marianne Elliott deliver the Common Cause training in New Zealand via The Workshop and I highly recommend attending the one-day introductory session to get started.

And Jess’s recent book, A Matter of Fact, is essential reading for constructive communication.

Image credit: Andol [CC BY-SA 4.0 ( from


Author: Catherine Jeffcoat

Wellington-based communications manager.

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