A November study published in the Springer academic journal Climatic Change examines an interesting question about language using empirical research: Does saying “climate crisis” or “climate emergency” make readers take the threat more seriously? The idea of using “climate crisis” and “climate emergency” language dates to 2007 and the cognitive linguist George Lakoff, the author of such books as Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. The insights of cognitive linguistics are highly questionable. But the idea nevertheless gained purchase by 2019. Referring to what was once “global warming” as the “climate crisis” or the “climate emergency” became style guidance in a consortium of publications that adopted the terms in order to influence public understanding of the scale of the threat and to suggest the necessity of the policies the editorial staff at these publications prefer to address the matter. In 2019, the Guardian, among others, mandated their use. Oxford Dictionaries made “climate emergency” its word of the year for 2019. In this space at the time, I noted that this newspeak was unlikely to lead to new belief.
In “Upping the ante? The effects of ‘emergency’ and ‘crisis’ framing in climate change news,” researchers Lauren Feldman and Sol Hart tested whether it actually made a difference to use these terms. Feldman and Hart now have done the research on whether changing language changes minds or just establishes shibboleths:
“Results showed that terminology did not have any effect on public engagement with climate change, measured in terms of fear, hope, collective efficacy beliefs, policy support, and intended political action. Some small effects were observed on news perceptions, such that the ‘climate emergency’ frame reduced perceived news credibility and perceived newsworthiness compared to ‘climate change.’”
Over the past several decades, the term used by many major news sources for, well, “climatic change” has changed. What once went by “global warming” started being commonly called “climate change” to adapt to the criticism that the models predict more than just heat. This is fine, though in general, it’s better for publicly understood terms to remain as stable as possible — at least as one consideration weighed against technical accuracy, natural evolution in usage, and such. Since then, it has also become common just to hear the stand-alone “climate” used to encompass climate change issues, which is more objectionable since the study of the climate would exist even if there were not 400 and change parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now, compared to 280 or so before the Industrial Revolution began making life immeasurable better for virtually every human being alive.
All of this is background to why it doesn’t surprise me to find that the researchers write: "If anything, the emergency frame may have a negative effect on news credibility and interest, perhaps owing to its perception as alarmist or sensational.” Importantly, the study found that it’s not a liberal versus conservative thing. Possibly, the reason the lexical activism didn’t have the effects that the Greta Thunbergs and Guardians of the world hypothesized is simply that people aren’t all that dumb, and an emergency is something short and temporary. This is why you go to a special “emergency room” for a knife wound and the regular hospital for a chronic illness. And perhaps this frame justifiably suggests fatalism. Per the study, "Treating climate change as a perpetual crisis or emergency has the potential to lead to desensitization and disengagement among some audience segments." Editorialists and style guide writers should remember the lesson to engage in less cognitive linguistics and more journalism. Journalistic credibility is, after all, experiencing an existential crisis.