OPINION: Let’s revamp how we talk about climate change

by Michael Shank | Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance
Friday, 10 June 2022 09:43 GMT

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta and Sweden's Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson attend "Stockholm+50", an international meeting convened by the United Nations and hosted by Sweden, in Stockholm, June 2, 2022. Jessica Gow/TT News Agency/via REUTERS

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

To win real climate action, we need to clearly show how that benefits people – and talk more frankly about the risks of inaction

Michael Shank is communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and adjunct faculty at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.

Anytime the international community convenes on climate change there’s a predictable mix of criticism and encouragement. This month’s 50th Anniversary of the Stockholm Declaration, commemorating the United Nations’ first official gathering to discuss the “human environment” and ways to protect it, was no different.

After the Stockholm+50 talks last week, and in response to the final remarks by hosts Sweden and Kenya, environmentalists lauded language on the need to “phase out” fossil fuels. Understandably so. This was remarkable. This phase out language was stronger than last year’s “phase down” language at the UN’s 26th Conference of the Parties in Glasgow, Scotland.

Simultaneously, environmentalists were frustrated that only “sustainable consumption” was encouraged, which mirrors safer language from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. There was no mention of “over-consumption” and unsustainable lifestyle practices, which abound.

What is worth noting, in this narrative precedent-setting at climate talks, is how UN leadership is ratcheting up its language, from Secretary General António Guterres to the Environment Programme Director Inger Andersen. It’s noticeable and welcomed because they’re setting the narrative precedent for climate leaders globally.

Guterres, who powerfully drumbeats that the climate crisis is a “Code Red” for humanity, a phrase now well-used by climate leaders, talked again in Stockholm about our “suicidal war on nature”. 

This is powerful framing and more effective than tired, default phrases like the “existential threat” that climate change poses, a phrase overused by many leaders when pitching the problem to the public.

The weakness of “existential threat” language is that the public isn’t likely to resonate with or use the phrase. It’s not common parlance. That we’re witnessing a “Code Red”, in contrast, is a clearer and compelling rallying cry.

A “suicidal war on nature” is something the public understands.

Guterres isn’t alone in his narrative leadership. UNEP’s Andersen was forthright in her communication at Stockholm+50, praising the fact that “ecocide”, mentioned 50 years ago in the 1972 Stockholm conference, had newfound prominence in recent climate talks.

Rightly so. Ecocide has teeth. It’s an effective way to tackle climate change because it “contains stronger legal consequences and employs a narrative that emphasizes the protection of human rights”.

Andersen didn’t stop there. She reiterated the “war on nature” and corresponding “crimes against the environment” and called out our problematic behavioral status quo, flagging fast fashion and meat-heavy diets, something many climate leaders are loathe to touch.

Andersen noted that it’s ridiculous that in 2022 we’re only now recognizing the “human right” to a clean, safe, and sustainable environment. This is something we should’ve all known. But at least it’s now on paper, she said, calling for a UN General Assembly resolution on it.

This is the kind of strong language needed to convey the gravity of the situation. Leaders should let go of “existential” and match more closely the UN’s clarion call. If they do, citizens will want to know how their governments are taking that code red, ecocide, and human right seriously, which is perhaps why some leaders avoid it.

This is where Stockholm+50 leaned in. The number one recommendation in final remarks by Sweden and Kenya was to center climate work in “human well-being” - that a better planet brings a better life and vice versa. This seems obvious when appealing to systems and behavior change, but it’s not often prioritized.

The climate community spent a lot of capital winning the climate science fight and is finally pivoting to messaging that builds public and political will for this work.

How is life going to be better for people making the switch to greener systems and behaviors? And are we sharing stories about tangible improvements to one’s health, economy, security, fashion, food, independence, mobility, and culture? Those stories are there but we’re not seeing and sharing enough of them.

If we’re going to get public attention with code red and ecocide, which the UN does well, while rightly promising human rights to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, then we better showcase how well-being improves with systems and behavior change.

This is a very tellable story, and we should be showing it and living it every chance we can. A greener life is healthier and safer, more independent and efficient, more inclusive and regenerative. We know this.

But we’re still largely fear mongering, while serving up unspecific green jobs and climate justice talking points. The vision of how life can be better hasn’t crystallized for the environmental community. 

If we want the world to get on board, not only must “human well-being” be at the center of this work, which Stockholm+50 rightly prioritized, but we need the stories to prove it. Guterres and Andersen are getting the public’s attention, now it’s up to the rest of us to keep it and carry it forward.