Linguist Weighs In On Framing Climate Change

George Lakoff, a professor of linguists at the University of California, Berkeley, and a specialist in "framing" the way language shapes the way we think, tells host Guy Raz that the future of climate change legislation depends on the words used to explain it.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Now, Professor George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist at UC Berkeley. He's not a climate scientist, but he's written widely about the problem, as he sees it, in the way the whole climate issue is framed, and it starts, he says, with the term global warming.

Professor�GEORGE LAKOFF (Cognitive Linguistics, University of California, Berkeley): I think it has been very problematic. Global warming applies to climate, not weather, and most people don't think of the difference, and so you shouldn't be talking just about global warming. You should be talking about the climate crisis. That, I think, is very important and then you explain what a crisis is. But the people who are in the environmental movement are very bad at communication, and they haven't done that.

RAZ: But, I mean, it seems as if those facts are available, they're out there, they're being discussed all over the place. The facts are clear: Scientists most scientists do not see what they do as a political calling but a form of research that's rooted in facts.

Yet polls show, George Lakoff, that about 57 percent of the American public believes that global warming is taking place now. That is down 14 points from October of 2008.

Prof.�LAKOFF: There are two reasons for this: the cognitive problems and then the communications problems. The cognitive problems with snow are these: People have, on the whole, a false folk theory about how snow works. They assume that since snow is cold, it can't come from anything warm. But that's scientifically false, and they haven't heard that over and over and over. So they still believe snow can't come from anything warm.

The second thing they believe, when they hear global warming, is that it applies to every place uniformly on the Earth. That is false too. They are thinking about weather, not about climate.

RAZ: Surely, some of the problem lies with the scientists themselves. I mean, we heard last year about some climate scientists who were trying to muzzle dissent. I mean, that certainly fueled suspicion that climate change or global warming is a hoax.

Prof.�LAKOFF: Look, that was at a minor place, and you get some people who make mistakes. That doesn't mean that

RAZ: I mean, we interviewed one of the scientists. I understand that, but the message behind that had an enormous impact.

Prof.�LAKOFF: That's right, and the reason that's right, and it's very important for the scientists to know that they don't know anything about communication. They're very bad at it.

See, the scientists who study weather don't study cognition. They're not cognitive scientists; they're climate scientists. That's understandable, but they don't know that they can't communicate, and they don't know they need to get some people who know something about it.

RAZ: In a strange way, George Lakoff, we are actually framing the debate because we're talking about climate change. We're not talking about global warming, right? I mean, could we be accused of doing this?

Prof.�LAKOFF: Accused is interesting. The idea of climate change, actually, was introduced by conservatives, by Frank Luntz in the 2004 campaign. He found that global warming alarmed people whereas climate change sounded fine. It was just change, as if it just happened, and people weren't responsible. And climate is a nice word. It sort of gives an image of palm trees and nice climate, as opposed to hurricanes and, you know, and huge snowstorms and floods.

RAZ: So climate change, in your view, as somebody who I have to presume does not agree with Frank Luntz, is not the best way to talk about this.

Prof.�LAKOFF: Yeah, I think the climate crisis is a much better way to talk about. You want to say this is crisis. This is a crisis for civilization. It's a crisis for life on Earth.

RAZ: That's George Lakoff. He's a cognitive linguist and professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

George Lakoff, thanks for being with us.

Mr.�LAKOFF: It's a pleasure.

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