Carbon compounds: the language of climate change

Carbon compounds: the language of climate change

Are you a ‘carbon sinner’ intent on reducing your impact on the environment by going on a ‘carbon diet’? Or maybe you’re fed up of being sent on a guilt-trip by ‘carbon fascists’ who insist you should be giving up more of life’s little luxuries to reduce your ‘carbon footprint’?

Whatever your attitude to climate change, it’s an issue which is hard to ignore and articles, opinion pieces and commentaries on the subject littered with metaphors and emotive language dominate newspaper websites and the blogosphere.

Now linguists at The University of Nottingham are charting the rise and fall of these so-called ‘carbon compounds’ — climate change-related phrases which have now become commonplace in our environmental lexicon — as part of a two-year research project.

The study, funded with £190,000 from the Economic and Social Research Council, will aim to reveal how certain words and phrases move through the traditional media as well as cyberspace to become part of our shared vocabulary. Understanding the way in which complex scientific concepts such as climate change are communicated to the public and the inevitable ‘hype to cynicism’ cycle created by prolonged media interest could have important implications for policymakers when developing awareness campaigns about issues which need our attention and cooperation.

Professor Brigitte Nerlich, of the University’s Institute for Science and Society, said: “The publication of the Stern Review in 2006 and Government moves to slash carbon emissions has presented a challenge in terms of how we get people to change their behaviour and attitudes. In recent times, this has been framed almost exclusively in terms of how to reduce your carbon footprint.

“As a result of this, we have found that three types of lexical ‘carbon compounds’ have become most prevalent: finance, such as carbon tax, carbon budget and carbon fraud; lifestyle such as carbon footprint and carbon diet; and moral and religious such as carbon sinner and carbon indulgences.

“When Al Gore released his film An Inconvenient Truth, people on the internet began talking about him as the ‘carbon Pope’ and terms like this are becoming ever more common.” Most recently the UK budget was announced by Alistair Darling as a ‘carbon budget’.

The researchers are studying online news sites for national newspapers such as The Guardian and The Observer, blogs and sites populated by environmental activists. They have found that interestingly, the language used by activists tends to be more instructional rather than hectoring whereas the most emotive phrases seem to have sprung up among the mainstream national news.

They have noted that as environmental issues such as recycling begin to pervade every aspect of our society, even children’s literature, there has been a swing towards ‘carbon fatigue’, a backlash against the ideas that are now seen by many as the domain of the bourgeois ‘grow-your-own’ brigade from the affluent British suburbs.

Professor Nerlich added: “It has become a lifestyle issue and it’s now seen as very fashionable and middle class to be climate aware and there is now evidence of a backlash against it, with growing cynicism over the effectiveness of schemes such as carbon offsetting and a feeling that only the more wealthy sections of society can afford to be carbon conscious.

“An example of this new scepticism was demonstrated by the story in the nationals about Al Gore, which alleged that his mansion had a ‘Godzilla-sized carbon footprint’ and we discovered that sometimes our carbon-heroes can have an Achilles heel. People start asking, if someone like that can’t do more to reduce their carbon consumption, then why should I? There is a definite hype-cynicism cycle.”

The Nottingham researchers are working with Professor Mike Thelwall, a Webometrics and Cybermetrics expert at The University of Wolverhampton, who has been using complex data-mining computer programs to provide text corpora for analysis. It allows them to track the use of key words or phrases across the internet and see the context in which they are used.

The researchers are planning to finish the two-year study with a workshop at which interest groups including academics, Government officials and public relations professionals, can discuss the growth of ‘carbon compounds’, how they use them and what they think their significance could be for climate change communication.