Catherine Holt: We need strong words to fight climate change

Breathing smoky air is becoming a new summer norm in Victoria. Wildfires have caused chaos and catastrophe across B.C., disrupting livelihoods, communities and business, sometimes irretrievably. And it’s putting climate change top of mind for many of us. At last.

What motivates humans to change?

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I spent many years as a management consultant, and most of that work involved creating and managing change. As anyone who has tried to make big change can tell you — humans resist it.

An absolute requirement, in my experience, is what’s referred to in business lingo as “the burning platform.” If people find themselves on one — literally or figuratively — they will take a risk and jump to save themselves. Anything short of that and they prefer to stay where they are.

Do we have a burning platform now? Yes. Have scientists been trying to tell us for decades that we are at risk of burning? Yes. Have we jumped? Not yet.

There are many, many factors that prevent us from acting on what science has tried to tell us is a compelling case for change. I don’t want to over-simplify any of that, but a significant factor is that the language used to make the case matters, and we have been using the wrong language for decades.

You might have noticed that scientists often communicate with each other in obscure jargon. The scientific process encourages scientists to compare results and to challenge, debate and influence each other’s work — but it doesn’t lead to clear, compelling public communication.

Consequently, to describe the biggest crisis facing the planet, they have, over decades, used such ambiguous, cautious and neutral language that, even today, it doesn’t create a sense of urgency.

Science initially labelled the burning platform “the greenhouse effect.” That was coined about the year 1900, believe it or not, and was followed by a long insider debate about whether the term was scientifically accurate.

A much bigger problem with the name is that it’s misleading, comforting even. Greenhouses are nice.

Who doesn’t like a lovely warm greenhouse full of tropical plants or tomatoes that would otherwise freeze solid in the Canadian winter?

Putting our planet in a greenhouse doesn’t sound so bad. No sense of impending crisis was created by that terminology.

What if it had been called “the oven effect”? It’s accurate and certainly more terrifying and might have resulted in public concern. No one wants to be in an oven. Simple.

Some time in the 1990s, the risk of burning started to become real, but there was still very little movement on the platform. Scientists rightly decided “the greenhouse effect” was just not convincing. So they came up with “global warming.”

Same problem. Who doesn’t like to be warm? It’s better than being cold, any day. And for those of us living a reasonable distance from the equator, it sounds like a welcome change.

Remember the constant jokes about “global warming” in Canada? On a particularly chilly winter day, someone would inevitably say: “Hey, where’s that global warming when we need it?” The words did not strike fear into our hearts.

What if it were “global overheating”? Again, accurate, terrifying and more likely to get attention and action.

So after a decade or so of “global warming” resulting in very little change, it was obvious another name was needed to express the mounting urgency. The scientific community laboured to come up with something irrefutable. So now we call it “climate change.”

You know what I’m going to say. Change. Good change? Bad change? Big change? Little change? Isn’t change the only thing we can count on? Yet again, no urgency in the language or the response.

What we really face is “climate chaos.” No one wants chaos. It’s clearly a bad thing. And it’s what the scientists are predicting and we are starting to experience.

If we had started with “the oven effect,” moved to “global overheating” and now referred to “climate chaos,” it’s likely we’d be much further along in making the changes we need to save the planet and ourselves.

It’s starting to feel like too little too late, but let’s try naming this crisis in accurate language that motivates big change and then, just maybe, we’ll jump.

Catherine Holt is the CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce.

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