Daily PlanetWatch for Friday, August 30

Thomas Schueneman

Thinking about the latest environmental news headlines from the Daily PlanetWatch every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon. Today: on a new climate narrative

Words, don't fail me now

In an article in Inverse, Mary Annaïse Heglar speaks of the “battlefield of technical, clinical jargon. Boobytrapped with too many syllables and jolted acronyms” surrounding much of our climate narrative. Heglar touches the exposed nerve of how our discussions about climate change fail to meet the challenge. 

Science and the truths it reveals are essential to understanding climate change, but it is not enough. That much is painfully clear, and for many reasons. Climate change moves beyond our common perception of the world (at least until recently); untangling the science of climate, indeed, the scientific method itself, leaves itself open to one-liners, vilification, obfuscation, misinformation, and “alternative” facts. Left to their own devices, scientists are ill-equipped to deal with the onslaught. Theirs is not the task of creating compelling narratives or fending off specious arguments in defense of their hard work.

For too long we have ceded too much of the climate narrative to high-powered communicators, skilled at massaging language in the service special interests intent on sending us off course - the merchants of doubt. 

“This crisis didn’t appear out of thin air,” writes Heglar. “Someone did this to us: the fossil fuel industry and the governments that aided and abetted it. And it didn’t start there. The fossil fuel industry was born of the industrial revolution, which was born of slavery, which was born of colonialism.

“It’s no accident that the map of climate change’s worst wrath to date looks like a colonizer’s playground. Because that’s what it is. And it’s also no accident that when it does play out in more ‘affluent’ countries, it finds its way to communities of color with all the precision of a heat-seeking missile — that’s a feature, not a bug.”

Working in millimeters

Our predicament, and the long story that landed us here, is difficult to face. We naturally want to find an easy way out And excuse. We let a false narrative carry us astray. We are addicted to comforts and endless choices constantly paraded before us through a machine entirely dependent on unceasing consumption. We know it doesn’t really make us happy, but it’s so enticing. Just one more bump, one more hit. Maybe that will do the trick.

But, as any addict knows, the only way out of the pit is by looking up, seeing how far we have fallen, and taking the first climbing step out of the abyss. “We are not powerless,” Heglar says. “We don’t have to sit idly by and watch our future burn.”

We find our power when we find our voice. At first it may seem it is but a voice in the darkness, to this I can personally attest. But slowly we find a community, a connection with others. We find the power of our voice. 

“I want to change the narrative around our climate crisis,” says Heglar, “to make it more intersectional, more emotional. More inclusive. I want to break it apart, remove the lies and the half-truths, add in the missing parts, name the unnamed, make the implicit explicit. I want to make it so that people of color see themselves in it — because we’ve always been in it. At its center, even. In other words, I want to make it whole.

"I don’t want a fact-finding mission. I want a truth-telling movement," Heglar says.

Of all the human innovations, language is by far the most powerful. It touches hearts, makes connections, shines light in the darkness, changes the course of history. To be sure, language can do the exact opposite of all that: harden hearts, break connections, pour darkness on the light, entrenches us in the mistakes of history.

It is up to us which direction our language takes us.

Heglar quotes James Baldwin:

“You write in order to change the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks or people look at reality, then you can change it.”

Like Heglar, I choose to work in millimeters. 

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