New Yorker Cartoon

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how we communicate about climate change. Note, this is not, a discussion about whether climate change is happening and whether, if we continue on our current trajectory, it will be catastrophic. Nor is it a discussion about whether this is an exaggeration. Anyone willing to confront the climate science will see that our current trajectory is catastrophic. No, what I’m interested in discussing is how we communicate about these rigorously established scientific claims and where we are presently headed.

You may have noticed that recently there has been a push to dispatch with “climate change” and start calling it what it is, a “climate crisis.” This is not just coming from climate activists on the front line, such as, Sunrise Movement, and Extinction Rebellion. This shift in rhetoric is also being embraced by more than 70 medical organizations, who just days ago declared climate change a “public health emergency.” Earlier this month the Catholic Church declared a “climate emergency.” The UK newspaper The Guardian has even changed its official internal style guide to prefer “climate crisis” over “climate change.”

As usual, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg was ahead of the curve on this movement.

This shift from “climate change” to “climate crisis” or “climate emergency” flies in the face of years of research by communication experts who have told us that use of such phrases as “climate crisis” should be avoided because they provoke fear or “emotional numbing,” which will cause people to “shutdown,” “tune out,” or even suspect ulterior motives. If we want to communicate about climate change, we have been told, we need to use non-emotional, staid language, with scientific euphemism and understatement being the gold standard.

This debate came up at a  Catholic climate conference I recently attended at Creighton University. Several times speakers repeated the refrain that we should avoid “catastrophist” language like “climate crisis,” not because the crisis isn’t real, they agree that it is, but because it will not reach those with whom we want to communicate. Time and again audience members challenged the speakers, noting the problem inherent in being told that there is a climate crisis, but that we should not call it what it is. One keynote address pointed to the common advice that every speaker must know her audience and that what works for one group will not work for another. This is good advice.

So, who is our audience when we ask the question “Should we describe the climate crisis as a crisis or not?” Before answering this question, let’s look at American perceptions regarding climate change. At the broadest level, it is important to begin by noting that there is far more consensus among Americans regarding the reality of climate change and its likely cause than would be suggested by the state of our politics. As the Yale Center for Climate Communication notes, more than two-thirds (70%) of Americans agree that global warming is happening and more than half (57%) recognize that its primary cause is human activity. But this is a bit too coarse to be useful. Thankfully, Yale has another study called Global Warming’s Six Americas.

Yale Center for Climate Communication study "Global Warming's Six Americas"

Yale Center for Climate Communication study “Global Warming’s Six Americas”


Instead of just talking about whether someone “believes” in climate change–which of course is a very misleading phrase because it puts it in the same epistemic category as not only religion, but also Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny–this study sorts people into one of six categories, from alarmed to dismissive. This, it turns out, is a far more useful picture because what it reveals is that a full 76% of Americans are in the categories of “alarmed,” “concerned,” or “cautious,” whereas only 18% of Americans are “doubtful” or “dismissive.”

This analysis doesn’t answer our central question, but it is a helpful context for asking about climate communication. Let’s return to the question of audience and whether it is appropriate to use phrases like “climate crisis” or “climate emergency.” One thing that we notice is that only 9% of Americans are “doubtful” and three-quarters are at least “cautious” about global warming. Further, only 9% are “dismissive”. So, again, who is our audience here? At times, we have all found ourselves having a conversation with a “climate denier.” It is probably true that using the phrase “climate crisis” is not likely to bring these people along. But does it makes sense to have the “dimissive” audience in mind when deciding generally how to frame and discuss global warming?

I think we can find an answer to this in an initially unlikely place: Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The passage that I find particularly interesting concerns part of King’s own audience, what he calls “white moderates.”

“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

For King, the biggest impediment to the equal rights of African-Americans was not the Ku Klux Klan member, but “white moderates” who agreed with him, but who would do nothing. We still have Ku Klux Klanners and we will in the future. The same is true of the Climate Denier. If you are willing to forgive a privileged white person intruding upon King’s powerful prose, it is worth imagining how this might relate to the problem of climate (in)action. Would it perhaps be something like this:

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the typical American. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that climate action’s great stumbling block in its stride toward addressing the crisis is not the Climate Denier or the Trump Voter, but the typical American, who is more devoted to “the market” than to justice; who prefers a tame activism which is the absence of tension to a fearless activism which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but do not call it a climate crisis”; who paternalistically believes that they can set the timetable for another generation’s climate stability; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the climate activist to wait for a “more convenient season.”

What this reveals, I hope, is that when considering whether to use the phrase “climate change” or “climate crisis” the audience we should have in mind is not the 9% of Americans who are “dismissive,” but the 76% of Americans who are “cautious,” “concerned,” or “alarmed.” These “typical Americans” are our greatest impediment to climate action. Our problem is the same as King’s:  shallow understanding from people of good will.

I am increasingly convinced that it is dangerously irresponsible not to use the general framing of “climate crisis” to describe our situation. As the brave activists of The Climate Mobilization have been arguing for years, the choice between apocalyptic fear mongering or scientific euphemism is a false dilemma. As they note, there is a third alternative, which they call “emergency mode.”

“Most psychological and sociological writing about the climate crisis has warned climate “communicators” of the risks of triggering primitive and pathological responses to crisis: “fight or flight,” panic, and the devastation caused by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Because of these bleak portrayals, many political and organizational leaders have dared not convey the horrifying truth of the climate crisis, since they operate under the mistaken belief that the only response to emergencies is panicked chaos.

But aside from panic, individuals and groups can also respond to emergencies with reason, focus, dedication, and shocking success. Emergency mode is the mode of human psychological functioning that occurs when individuals or groups respond optimally to existential or moral emergencies. This mode of human functioning — markedly different from “normal” functioning — is characterized by an extreme focus of attention and resources on working productively to solve the emergency.”

Margaret Klein Salamon, “Leading the Public Into Emergency Mode”

Emergency mode, they convincingly argue, is not the same as apocalyptic fear mongering that induces “emotional numbness.” They note that emergency mode is possible not only for individuals but even whole societies, with WWII as the chief example. Yes, it is true that in the 1930s nearly all Americans ultimately overcame their isolationism and saw the spread of nationalism in Europe and the Pacific as an existential threat and that the same cannot be said for the climate crisis. But what this response misses is what it will take to get to that societal tipping point. It is emergency mode that can overcome “political-paralysis mode.”

Table from “Leading the Public into Emergency Mode” by Margaret Klein Salamon

Dr. King is right: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” Climate justice requires communication courage. We are in the throws of a climate crisis and the “typical American” needs to see climate activists acting and speaking like it.

Brian G. Henning, Ph.D. is Founding Co-Chair of 350 Spokane and Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies at Gonzaga University where he teaches, writes, and organizes on climate change and ethics.