Terms of engagement

By Peter Friederici | July 30, 2014


In 2002 the Republican pollster Frank Luntz had some advice for conservative candidates seeking to address what was quickly becoming a hot-button topic. “It’s time for us to start talking about ‘climate change’ instead of global warming,” he wrote in a memo. “‘Climate change’ is less frightening.” 

More than a decade later, myriad studies have made it more than obvious that human activities are altering the Earth’s climate and disrupting weather patterns, the production of crops, and human health—not in the distant future, but today. The Obama administration has taken some steps in recent months to address the issue. But the American polity as a whole is hardly more serious about addressing this issue than it was during President George W. Bush’s first term.

There are a lot of reasons for this inaction, from the generally abstract nature of the issue to the enormous political and economic might brought to bear against significant action. But the language used to characterize the climate problem is far more important than is generally recognized.

Just how much the words matter is shown by a recent report that analyzes the significant differences between how Americans use and understand the terms “global warming” and “climate change.” The study, released in May by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, contends that ordinary Americans are more likely to use the former term than the latter, which is generally preferred by scientists for its greater accuracy. Furthermore, the surveys on which the report is based revealed that most audiences are more likely to be moved to a sense of urgency or action by hearing about “global warming” than by the bland “climate change.”

Luntz, in other words, may have been right when he wrote that “[w]hile global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge.” After all, climate change deniers rightly point out that conditions on Earth have always changed—albeit generally much more slowly than today. If you’re looking to stall action on controlling atmospheric pollutants, using the vague language of “climate change” may be just the ticket. But what’s most striking about the new report is what it omits—namely, the conclusion that America's entire public discourse about this issue has been a massive failure.

Where there's a Wende, there's a way. To better understand the US problem in climate change communications, take a look at a large, industrialized, Western nation that actually is taking serious steps toward reducing its greenhouse gas emissions: Germany, which has committed itself to simultaneously weaning itself from fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Germans—including politicians—do talk seriously about Klimawandel, or climate change, and they also like to use the term Klimaschutz, or climate protection. But the buzzword that means action on the issue is neither of those expressions. Rather, it’s an evocative term that symbolizes not loss or some sort of desperate rear-guard defense: Energiewende.

In German’s delightful portmanteau tradition, Energiewende means “energy transition.” It has an official bureaucratic meaning as shorthand for Germany’s ambitious goal of converting its economy to run on 80 percent renewable electricity by 2050. But it has a much deeper cultural meaning. That’s because of the word’s second half. Wende means a change of direction in general. But in German, this common noun has taken on a much more specific meaning as a proper noun with a deep historical and social resonance.

It’s difficult to remember just how intractable the Cold War and the division of Europe appeared a generation ago. But 25 years in the past, change seemed to just happen: East German soldiers and police did nothing to quell mass protests in the city of Leipzig; Berliners took sledgehammers to the wall dividing their city; the Iron Curtain parted, Europe was realigned, democracy trounced dictatorship, and the threat of an apocalyptic clash of nuclear-armed civilizations receded. Almost overnight, without violence and against expectations, a democratic uprising led to Germany knitting itself together into Europe’s peaceable powerhouse.

That’s what Germans refer to as die Wende: a grassroots revolution overturning all assumptions about a seemingly insoluble problem. And so it was an unplanned stroke of marketing genius to coin the term Energiewende (which actually pre-dates the specific meaning of Wende) to refer to the broad effort to remake the country’s energy infrastructure.

Here’s what the Energiewende looks like on the ground. Solar panels blanket farmhouses and urban roofs. Wind turbines sprout from fields and from the North Sea. In Hamburg, at least 15,000 jobs can be directly ascribed to the renewable energy industry. Last year, almost a quarter of Germany’s electricity came from renewable sources. And of that, most was provided not by large utility companies, but by individual landowners, by village cooperatives, by small startups.

Germany’s new Wende, in other words, is a revolution in which many people and groups—not just large industries—can take part and earn a profit. Progressive legislation, a relatively unpolarized public, and the absence of large, powerful interests militating against action have helped achieve this.

But it would be unwise to discount the considerable positive weight of the deceptively simple term Energiewende in making change happen. Klimawandel? Yes, Germans agree, it’s a scary prospect—and we’re dealing with it by building the industries of the future, and sharing the rewards broadly. (That controversial wind farm—America’s first offshore—planned off Cape Cod? If built, it will feature German-designed turbines manufactured in Denmark.) The terms climate change and global warming emphasize doom, gloom, and powerlessness. Energiewende practically brims with decisive optimism.

Marketing an American climate revolution. It’s a frequent environmentalist trope to compare the difficulties of addressing climate change, or global warming, or whatever politically fraught term we should apply to what is at heart a basic physical process, with what appeared to be the insurmountable difficulties of ending the Cold War. If the Berlin Wall fell so readily, and so peaceably, then maybe there is hope for dealing with today’s biggest environmental problem.

What the United States—which produces some 16 percent of the globe’s fossil-fuel emissions—does about it is going to be much more important than the efforts of Germany, which produces about 2 percent. But maybe one of the lessons of Germany’s example, and of that country’s inspiring political Wende, involves marketing. Americans have not yet come up with an evocative term for the change that needs to happen—perhaps one that would call up associations with the US traditions of independence, entrepreneurship, and commingled self-reliance and creation of new communities.

So, here’s a challenge to those Americans who would like to affect not just the political but also the physical climate: What are you going to call what Americans should all be doing?

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