Language Sends a Message

Since February, every country involved in the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) has been required to submit their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) prior to the...

Since February, every country involved in the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) has been required to submit their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) prior to the critical COP21 climate summit in Paris in November/December of this year. So far 17 countries plus the EU have submitted their contributions and targets, mostly aiming for around 2030 as their target year, with some of the carbon emission targets ranging from pleasantly surprising to simply a begrudging attempt to play along. Out of these the most surprising is Ethiopia’s 64% cut in Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions from the ‘business as usual’ scenario, by 2030. This is reliant on receiving support from the international community in terms of investment in clean energy and other climate mitigating actions. Despite the caveats to this target, the aim itself is admirable and indicates not only a heartfelt commitment to avoiding dangerous climate change but it also shows other developing nations the potential benefits of shifting to a low carbon economy and society; mitigation does not have to be damaging to the economy. Ethiopia has the long term aim of becoming an entirely carbon neutral country, which isn’t something many countries can claim. This shows that Ethiopia recognises not only the importance and significance of the possible effects climate change will have on an already water stressed country, but also the opportunities that can be capitalised on, to actually gain from the requirement to mitigate for a changing climate.

Gabon was the first African nation to put forward their commitments, and they similarly have aimed high, with a target of a 50% reduction in GHGs by 2025, again in relation to the ‘business as usual scenario’. Both Ethiopia and Gabon have used the ‘compared to the business as usual scenario’ clarification when outlining their carbon reduction targets, and this should be analysed with a critical, even slightly cynical, eye. Both countries are rapidly expanding their economies, population and influence. Therefore their ‘business as usual’ carbon emissions scenario, by 2030, is exponentially higher than their emissions now, therefore these high reduction targets may not actually represent a reduction from present day emissions at all. Nevertheless, to achieve these targets, a massive shift away from fossil fuels is required, and more broadly, a decoupling of economic (and population) growth from carbon emissions. Therefore despite international negotiators and many interested parties seemingly constantly getting bogged down in the numbers, targets, aims and commitments, these two countries should still be commended for their leadership within Africa and further afield, and it should be recognised more widely instead of the only appreciation being received for climate leadership being given when the EU pats itself on the back.

This idea of positivity and appreciation does not sit naturally in a policy and political process inherently associated with cynicism, pessimism, and ultimately failure. The international climate change conferences are attended every year by high flying civil servants from across the world; this in itself is a success. Regardless of the specific targets which may or may not come out of Paris in November and December, the fact that public figures (not restricted to politicians, as One Direction showed us last week!) are already pushing for conversations and awareness to be raised can be attributed to the fact that public advocacy works.

The language around climate change is too sensationalist and often apocalyptic. This goes hand in hand with the ‘hopeless’ discourses created around the international negotiations. However, imagine how differently the negotiations in Paris would go if there was an emphasis on developing ‘clean energy’, the jobs and technological advances that would go alongside it, as opposed to berating countries who were dependent on ‘dirty fuels’. If there was an emphasis on raising living standards, health and clean air through non-polluting energy sources… could ideas like these be argued against?

The widespread public apathy associated with climate change, combined with increasing political apathy in certain EU countries – the UK especially – are both driven, and drive, the media’s framing of climate change, which penetrates the consciousness of everyone, whether intentionally or simply through osmosis. Therefore the language used in the media, big or small, old or new, needs to shift away from the ‘global warming’ rhetoric of previous years, which oddly creates a simultaneous over-simplification of the situation, alongside creating an issue of such gravity that hopelessness is the natural reaction. However, if on a global level, the debate around how to mitigate climate change was framed around energy security, development and food and water security, as it is in many developing nations, then this would make climate change ‘real and relatable’. This compartmentalisation of the issue combined with the use of language shifting away from negativity and fruitlessness, towards ideas of possibility and personal relevance, could create public interest and therefore a political mandate to act strongly in Paris at the end of the year.

Therefore if countries are showed the positives, the opportunities, the benefits of shifting to a low carbon society, instead of solely being made aware of the economic investment required and the ‘cataclysmic’ result if we fail to act, then civil society will support and follow this. The fact that the Paris negotiations are already receiving media attention, especially on social media, indicates the level of global advocacy already truly present. However a much wider public impetus is required for political action. If the debates and issues around climate change were framed in a positive light, moving away from cynicism and the ‘blame game’ to a rhetoric involving opportunity and personal, social and cultural development (never mind environmental resilience), the public demand for the exploitation of these positive possibilities could allow the COP21 in Paris to be a resounding success.

Catherine Graves

Catherine is based in Leeds, in the UK, currently studying for an MSc in Sustainability (Environmental Politics and Policy), after graduating from University College London last year. Her main interests lie around climate change, both the communication of the science and issues of creating effective climate policy. She is also interested in environmental issues broadly, many of which will be affected by climate change, such as water resources and biodiversity loss. She hopes to move into these areas after completing her masters degree.
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