When people talk about fighting climate change, it’s usually about environmental policies such as renewable energy, tree-planting, sustainability, etc. But there’s one overlooked arena, one that actually sets the course for all things that matter in the fight against climate change; language and climate change communication.
This article will talk about how translation services and ecolinguistics influence climate change communication. Specifically, you’ll understand the importance of localizing climate change communication through the words we use, how we frame environmental issues and climate change, and what kind of narratives we bring forward to strengthen environmental advocacies.
People tend to talk about how much New York, Miami, or London will be submerged under water. Of course, it’s easier to use them as references since these cities are recognizable worldwide. However, these are predictions that might happen in the distant future. The worst is already happening to many areas around the world.
We don’t need to keep repeating the fact climate change will spare no one and everyone will be affected in some way or another. However, the reality is that some will have it worse than others. The lucky ones are from developed countries such as the U.S, Western European Countries, and East Asian countries. That’s not to say they won’t be affected but in reality, they’re much better off than other countries.
It seems rather unfair considering that they’re the main culprits for the planet’s rising CO2 levels since the start of the Industrial Revolution. As for how everyone else might fare, the University of Notre Dame has crafted the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index (ND-GAIN), which shows a detailed but horrifying map of each country’s vulnerability to climate change, along with their overall readiness and resilience.
As you can see, the most vulnerable countries are least developed countries (LDCs) and developing countries. These countries are land-locked countries, archipelagos, and low-lying regions and are home to hundreds of millions of people living in extreme poverty.
If you’re living in Scandinavia (Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland), ND-GAIN says it’s the safest place to live. But if you live in most of Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, most of Latin America, and the Pacific Islands, you won't be so lucky and that’s putting it lightly. Not only are these highly vulnerable areas, but their countries are ill-equipped to deal with environmental disasters and the following humanitarian crises.
So one of the main areas of focus in climate change mitigation is generating awareness and promoting effective environmental practices and climate change adaptation policies in these vulnerable regions. To complicate things further, these regions are one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse areas on Earth. This leads us to this question; how can we foster productive climate change communication between culturally and linguistically diverse regions and to ultimately give them a chance to be heard on the world stage?
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Translation in general has an understated role in climate change communication. It doesn’t get much clearer even on the surface level. When it comes to international dialogue, translation and also interpretation are the bridges that make cross-cultural and cross-linguistic communication possible since the earliest days of human history. But it’s not without its headaches.
Of course, translation and interpretation is how to get everyone on the same table, but as for them to agree on something, that’s another matter entirely. In reality, it’s nearly impossible to get every nation on Earth to agree on the same thing. That’s diplomacy and international relations 101 for you.
All of them, particularly between developed and developing countries, have their own political and economic interests. But we do have other actors in the game other than governments, specifically international organizations committed to environmental advocacies and climate change relief efforts.
But without governments fully committing their resources, these organizations can all get so far. Getting all countries with different priorities and policies to agree on something is a rare sight. Just ask the UN. You might say “Well it’s the survival of the planet we’re talking about here!”.
Yes, they agree that climate change is bad—most of them anyway. What they don’t agree on are certain policies such as how we should reduce CO2 emissions, who should fund renewable energy initiatives to countries that need it the most, how developed countries can assist developing countries, etc.
Gridlock is bad enough for national politics. But when the planet’s future is at stake, gridlock is something the planet and its people cannot afford when every minute matters. Breaking this gridlock requires a number of things that don't involve gunboat diplomacy—not that it’s possible or ethical in settling global issues nowadays.
As argued earlier, the words we use in climate change debates influences our understanding and perception towards climate change. If that’s the case, how can translation be a part of the solution? It’s actually a combination of translation and linguistics, the study of language. This is where this article gets really interesting.
The way we choose our language in climate change communication can shift the way people perceive it. A very good example is the ‘global warming’ being superseded by the term ‘climate change’. You can also see this a form of rebranding. Both the terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ already existed in the mid 20th century.
But it was during the 1980s that the use of ‘global warming’ became popular. Many scientists during that time also recognized and used the term climate change. But it didn’t take long for global warming to be superceded by climate change as the most scientific term to use.
The term ‘climate change’ reflects the scientific consensus in environmental science that rising greenhouse gases will cause diverse climatic changes that aren't confined to rising temperatures and rising sea levels.
The gradual switch to ‘climate change’ gave the global climate movement both the offense and defense it needed against many skeptics. Many skeptics highlighted certain faults around the global warming theory that rising temperatures would mean cold winters would be a distant memory.
However, in the following years up to today, many regions around the world still experience freezing temperatures and even blizzard-like conditions. In the end, choosing ‘climate change’ as the definitive term was the best choice. With this example, you can see how nomenclature and ultimately, how climate change is framed is one of the major battlegrounds in pushing for action against climate change.
When different groups in society debate over issues, they choose their words very carefully to support their narratives. Generally speaking, this is a major focus in sociolinguistics. It’s about the social role of language and how it can define relations in society. Sociolinguistics is a wide field and can also be applied to climate change communication. But believe it or not, there’s actually another field in linguistics that specifically focuses on the role of language in framing environment subjects; ecolinguistics.
Ecolinguistics is the emerging branch of linguistics with a unique focus on the environment. Ecolinguistic researchers aim to understand how environmental issues are framed by the words and language that individuals and groups use. By understanding the interplay between words, actions, and context, ecolinguistic researchers can draw conclusions on which words influence certain behaviors towards environmental subjects and also climate change.
It can help us understand how environmental issues and climate change are framed and conveyed in media and political discourse. It can also help us how to refine the words and overall language we use towards the various audiences in climate change communication.
A key figure in ecolinguistics is Arran Stibbe. He authored the book Ecolinguistics: language, ecology and the stories we live by and is also one of the founders of the Ecolinguistics Association (yes, they exist.) Let’s look at an excerpt from Arran Stibbe’s interview and how he details the importance of stories in presenting environmental issues to a diverse audience:
“I’m careful with the kind of language that I use myself; for example when I’m
addressing an audience of non-linguists I will talk about the ‘stories we live by’ rather than ‘hegemonic discourses’. And when I’m with linguists I’ll talk about the ‘natural systems that we depend on for our survival rather than ‘ecosystem service providers’.”
We can connect this to how translation can help us understand the diverse narratives from those affected and are vulnerable from climate change. Additionally, one of the objectives of ecolinguistics also includes resisting harmful and skeptical narratives. Stibbe expands on this:
“Part of the role of ecolinguistics is resisting the stories that underpin an unequal and ecologically destructive society, but an equally important part is the search for new stories to live by.”
You can now see very clearly that climate change communication and environmental communication in general is very complex and multifaceted. But it’s worth the effort to let every voice be heard.
Policies are shaped not only by facts but also through experiences. That’s why every voice deserves to be heard in climate change communication. Some of these voices may not agree with each other, but no voice is worth leaving out.
Carl Sagan’s famous commentary on Voyager 1’s extremely distant picture of the Earth couldn’t be more relevant than it is in this context; “there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”
As we talked about earlier, the most vulnerable populations come from poor countries and isolated communities. Without translation and interpretation, their voices from the would go unnoticed. But there are many more overlooked things at stake if we fall deaf to their voices.
Chi Luu, a computational linguist who specializes in endangered languages further highlights the connection between language and climate change and what’s at stake in this fight:
“. . . at the very same time that we’re losing biological diversity, we’re also losing linguistic and cultural diversity . . .”.
So when communities and their languages go extinct, we lose a unique fingerprint in human society. Many languages are already going extinct. While this is a result of many contemporary factors, it looks like climate change might deliver the final blow.
Along the loss in cultural and linguistic diversity, indigenous knowledge will also be lost such as knowledge on local taxonomy that took hundreds to even thousands of years to mature. Researchers will essentially have to start from scratch. This is a huge loss to everyone as a whole since many of the world’s medicines come from tropical ecosystems and isolated habitats.
All in all, translation and interpretation is the only avenue we can get to hear the narratives of affected regions and isolated communities. We can strive to not only protect their language from extinction, but also their ways of life and their population as a whole from extinction—if we act fast and effectively enough.
The entire climate movement cannot be possible without the ongoing research supporting it. It’s also the many areas that skeptics like to pick holes at by finding the tiniest faults and slip-ups in the research process, its data, and its conclusions. But that’s a discussion for another time. Regardless, climate change research serves as the main source of legitimacy for the entire climate movement.
But truth be told, the way global society can truly benefit from climate change research is through sharing it and of course, implementing it. Not from confining it to laboratories and small circles of researchers.
But there are some issues as to how climate change research is disseminated and made relevant to populations that need it the most. The problem is that English is considered as the de facto language in global science and global research in general.
This creates certain biases in the scientific community as it overwhelmingly favors publications published in English. If a foreign researcher wanted to share their findings to the rest of the international scientific community, they have very little choice but to translate it into English.
What use is an English publication to a foreign policy maker that can’t speak and read English? So it's quite apparent that disseminating climate change research involves translating it. This ties in to a wider field of science communication. But you’ll soon learn that simply translating climate change research isn’t enough in effective climate change communication.
From what we learned about ecolinguistics earlier, climate change communication and even environmental news in general has a lot to do with how facts and issues are framed to the target audience. This notion is also similar to, you guessed it, localization!
If you can recall, localization is about adapting content until it is suitable for the target audience. In the globalized economy we live in today, localization services are essential for global industries to provide locally relevant content and communicate meaningfully with international markets and audiences.
With that in mind, you can say that ecolinguistics is also the science of localizing climate change communication, environmental subjects, environmental news, etc. Localizing these types of information is how we can make them relatable to audiences coming from all walks of life around the globe. But that’s easier said than done.
Climate change is a very polarizing topic in many countries. Yes, you have the skeptics and naysayers. But you also have people on the moderate spectrum that do agree that climate change exists. However, they don’t agree on how they ought to adjust to it. Even among vulnerable communities, they are not too keen on giving up their ways up life and leaving their homes and ancestral lands, even if may not be the best choice for them.
So it takes a careful understanding of their culture, society, and linguistics in finding the best angle for global climate change communication to be successful. Localizing climate change communication also involves sharing relatable local stories and not wordy scientific concepts and jargon to the common people.
So all in all, climate change communication is much more complex than many people would like to think. It begins with disseminating climate change research but the real hurdle is by making it relatable to people all over the world coming from diverse cultures and different ways of life.
We now know that localizing climate change communication and environmental communication in general takes a different skill set and mode of understanding. But did you know that it is now a new specialization in the translation and interpretation field?!
Compared to other forms of translation, environmental translation is a relatively new and highly niche specialization in the translation industry. There’s not a lot of professional translation agencies and language service providers offering environmental translation and interpretation services. But there are indeed a few handfuls that actually do.
You can also see it as a branch of technical communication. Many environmental organizations recognize the reality of adjusting their language and choice of vocabulary as they communicate with different stakeholders. Climate change and environmental science in general is a field with very specific terminology. But as made clear by ecolinguistics and localization, the choice of words affects the overall success of climate change communication efforts.
In-fighting very well exists in the global climate movement. Some want progressive yet moderate environmental policies. Some prefer drastic changes to consumer behaviors and the means of enforcing them. Some even argue for more radical ideas such as geoengineering.
But whatever ideas they come up with, many of them agree that the pace in which we implement them isn’t fast and effective enough.
They argue that the world’s leaders spend more time and resources organizing international conferences. That talk is just talk and we’ll keep on talking about climate change until it’s too late to save the planet. They’re all correct in their own way and that talk is just talk until someone walks the talk.
But to get someone to walk, you have to get them to talk. And the manner in which we talk affects how they walk. You can apply this notion in a variety of situations, especially in climate change communication. With this article, we hope that it can give you a crucial insight on why the manner we conduct climate change communication matters.
That climate change communication should be inclusive by taking into account all the diverse voices and stories that naturally make up our world. Translation is helping us achieve that but as you can see, we have to frame it differently to accommodate various points of view for everyone to find common ground.