Lakoff’s Linguistic Lessons On Climate Communication

Of the many election postmortems and Trump analyses, retired UC Berkeley linguist George Lakoff offers a compelling take.  He argues that Trump’s simplistic, repetitive, emotional and value-laden language was crucial to his persuasion.  Think: monosyllables (“sad!”), framing (“Lyin’ Ted”), and repetition (“win, win, win”).

But Clinton and the Democrats, according to Lakoff, failed to capitalize on the language of values, focusing on narrower issues.  They also played into Trump’s hand by simply repeating what he said as part of their negative attacks.  Clinton even ran whole ads with Trump soundbites, which Lakoff argues inadvertently reinforced Trump’s message (his example from his book title: if he says “don’t think of an elephant,” everyone immediately thinks of an elephant).

It’s worth reading Lakoff’s broad take on language and the election, either in this recent Salon interview or in his longer blog post.  But one snippet from his blog entry stood out to me, as he took the broader points about the power of language and applied it to communicating on climate change:

Many progressives think the same way: Demography and issues — issue by issue. Democrats looking for donors will ask, “What is your most important issue?” Instead, the values that define one’s deepest identity are what matters most. Polling issue-by-issue misses the overall values that are all too often primary in elections.

Indeed, the very question, “What is your most important issue?” almost guarantees that climate change will barely enter the electoral debate. What comes to mind when the question is asked are relatively immediate concerns — jobs, health care, immigration, poverty, student debt, and so on. Global warming is not seen as imminent — it comes in about number 20 on the list of voters’ “most important issues.”

Part of the reason is that the causal link between global warming and weather disasters is not direct, but is a result of systemic factors in the ecosystem. High temperatures over the Pacific produce more evaporation, which means high energy water molecules go into the air, blow northeast and in winter come down as snow in Washington — more than ever before! The weather disasters throughout the country — severe hurricanes, floods, droughts, fires, — are often systemically caused by global warming and they should be named as such — a global warming hurricane, a climate change flood, a global warming drought, global warming fires — with illustrations of the systemic steps involved in the cause. To establish a frame, you need a name.

It’s perhaps a small step in climate communications, but using more direct language about climate change causation and extreme weather could be effective in getting the public to understand the urgency.

Lakoff also suggests not using the word “regulation” (such as in the context of environmental actions) and instead describing it as “protection” for the public:

One possibility is for journalists to used more accurate language. Take government regulations. Their job is to protect the public from harm and fraud composed by unscrupulous corporations. The Trump administration wants to get rid of “regulations.” They are actually getting rid of protection. Can journalists actually say they are get rid of protections, saying the word “protection,” and reporting on the harm that would be done by not protecting the public.

Can the media report on corporate poisoning of the public — through introducing lead and other cancer-causing agents into the water through fracking and various manufacturing processes, through making food or toiletries that contain poisonous and cancer-causing ingredients, and on and on. The regulations are there for a purpose — protection. Can the media use the words POISON and CANCER? The public needs to know.

Changes in language like these point to a broader need to rethink word choice on environmental communication more generally.  With climate advocates now up against a federal government hostile to these environmental protections (to immediately put to use Lakoff’s terminology), there should be a new urgency to focusing on messaging.


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