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How Language Relates to Climate Change

One of the most important things in regards to current events is that they typically fall at an intersection point between fields of study. Climate change is an issue typically looked at through a scientific, political, and economical lens; however, its connections to language are not so often mentioned. The climate crisis is both the result and cause of accessibility, displacement of Indigenous people, and public perception—all of which have some link to language or linguistics.

At the more basic level, we can think of the importance of word choice. Despite it being a pressing threat, this is not reflected in the way climate change is depicted in the media. Not only is the scientific language often confusing, but sometimes, neutral language is used intentionally to avoid frightening people. For one, the term "climate change" was popularized by Republican communication consultant Frank Luntz because “global warming” was too scary. Fortunately, some news sources are recognizing this issue: The Guardian in 2019 stated that they will now use "climate emergency, crisis or breakdown" as a replacement for "climate change." In terms of solutions to this said climate emergency, certain words actually create resentment towards these solutions. Terms like “restrict” and “cut” create negative connotations (especially for conservatives, furthering a political divide); solutions should instead be presented using keywords like “innovation,” or “market-based.”

There is a larger link between linguistic diversity and biodiversity. With harm to the environment, languages are slowly being lost. Island and coastal areas are one of few areas where certain Indigenous languages are spoken, and they are the most at risk for climate change. These natural disasters, coastal erosion, and sea level rise forces Indigenous people to migrate; as a result, their language is often lost to the dominant languages in that area. A cycle thus ensues—Indigenous knowledge about climate change is also lost, which only worsens global warming and forced migration.

To understand why Indigenous languages and knowledge are crucial to our understanding of the environment, let's look at some flaws in Western languages in regards to nature. For one, while words like "plant(s)", "animal(s)", etc are finite and countable, "soil" and even "coal" are infinite—giving us the misconception that they are limitless. Additionally, we often refer to nature as "it" (as opposed to "he" or "she"), which separates us humans from our environment. What other learning can be done from Indigenous languages? In Diné, the flowers Indian paintbrush and beardtongue, two distinct words in English, are called dah yiitih-idaa tsoh (big hummingbird's food) and dah yiitihidaa’ts’ooz (food of the slender hummingbird). The similarity in the names of these seemingly different flowers show that they both feed hummingbirds, which can be used for conservation and habitat restoration (source). However, those learning from Indigenous knowledge must avoid the common error of acting like Indigenous languages and knowledge are "universally owned" by anyone, instead of belonging to the Indigenous people.

To end, it's important to realize that you are using language to interpret my words right now. Language is also a barrier to a majority of our global population in understanding climate change, even understanding this article. Not only are most published scientific papers in English, but the University of Cambridge found that language is still a major barrier to the transfer of scientific knowledge in the 21st century. To learn more, I highly recommend checking out Sophia Kianni's TED Talk on this topic.


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