Ethan Lyon | Mar 02, 2010
Al Gore is taking some serious heat about global warming amid record winters. “I, for one, genuinely wish climate change were an illusion,” Al Gore said in a The New York Times article Sunday. “Climate change” might be the very thing fueling global warming opposition. As the international figurehead of climate change, Al Gore needs to re-think his marketing language if he’s going to curb growing opposition.
Even amid mounting scientific evidence, could the misconception about global warming stem from a simple word choice? As Google Trends illustrates, global warming dominates the lexicon (blue=global warming, red=climate change):
“Global” means everywhere and “warming” implies higher temperatures . Therefore, as Philadelphia and many other cities continue to break winter records, it’s difficult to believe anything is warming. The global warming language makes people question the reality of climate change. In fact, 57 percent of the American public believe global warming is true — down 14 points from October of 2008.
Gore repeatedly uses “climate change” language which is highly ambiguous. It could mean cooling or warming. Is that bad or good? To snuff ambiguity, Gore needs to have a straightforward, descriptive message that speaks to his pro-environment efforts. In fact, “the idea of climate change, actually, was introduced by conservatives, by Frank Luntz in the 2004 campaign,” says professor George Lakoff, a cognitive linguistics professor at University of California, Berkeley. “He found that global warming alarmed people whereas climate change sounded fine. It was just change, as if it just happened, and people weren’t responsible.” To Luntz and conservatives surprise, the global warming language is working in their favor amid record winters.
If “global warming” and “climate change” are not effective, what is? Lakoff believes “climate crisis” conveys the right message. Climate speaks to the big picture (not just weather patterns) while injecting the urgency of “crisis.” As Luntz can attest to, changing two words can have widespread implications. For instance, Luntz helped conservatives alter public perceptions of the estate tax when Luntz re-labeled it, the death tax. Public perception of global warming could be easily changed by a simple word change.
“It’s very important for the scientists to know that they don’t know anything about communication,” says Lakoff. Therefore, it’s Al Gore responsibility to take the lead and convey the correct message. In fact, the relationship between Gore and scientists parallels advertising creatives and account executives. Research and insights from account executives informs the creative. The creative’s responsibility is to then craft a compelling message to sell the product / brand to consumers or businesses. Gore needs to re-think his “creative” to curb the mounting “climate crisis” opposition.
But is it too late? Global warming and climate change are already deeply embedded in the environmental lexicon. For Gore to change the growing global warming opposition, he needs to take a two pronged approach: 1) change his language to “climate crisis,” then tell scientists and other influential proponents of environmental sustainability to follow suit and 2) launch a public awareness campaign that explains why harsh winters can happen amid global warming — using the Lakoff’s “climate crisis” language. If Gore doesn’t convey a clear, self-explanatory, descriptive message, he could get burned.
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