The Only Four-Letter Words on Climate Change that Matter

There has been a sea change in the climate conversation recently. It feels like the issue has moved from one of public apathy to one that people – from politicians to members of the mainstream media – are actively discussing. For some folks, however, climate change remains an inconvenient topic.

The very phrase can elicit a heated response laced with expletives, especially from those who still deny the problem even exists. Seeing this happen repeatedly, I decided to start using a selection of a few four-letter words of my own to try to shape constructive conversations around this critical issue that affects us all.

The first is the “F-word”…. FACT.

In this era of “alternative facts” and misinformation campaigns, many people are unsure or unaware of the consensus among climate scientists on this subject. But the fact is hundreds of articles published in peer-reviewed journals show that 97% of the world’s climate scientists agree that climate change is real, human-caused, and happening now.

The second word is LOVE.

Discussing the reality of climate change in terms of something people care about tends to get their attention and elicit an emotional response. One of the beautiful things about love is that it can take many forms, with familial love being one of the strongest types. People love their families and value their health and well-being. They also tend to treasure particular places – anywhere from their hometown to a favorite vacation spot. To borrow a line from the famous ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau: “People protect what they love.”

Today, almost everything we love is feeling the effects of climate change. Stronger storms, rising sea levels, and expansive wildfires are posing serious risks to both human life and property. Furthermore, warming temperatures are exacerbating a variety of human health concerns as disease-carrying insects expand their territory and live longer.

From love springs HOPE.

As behavioral psychology tells us, emotion is the main driver behind most of our decisions. When people see their loved ones or the places they care about being negatively impacted, they want to take action.  This fundamental element of human nature injects a healthy dose of optimism into our climate challenge.

If we look, we will see that there are signs of hope all around us. First, there is the Paris Agreement. While the non-binding commitments of its signers are currently not enough to meet the goal of limiting global warming to 2°C, the fact that it exists is a sign that governments around the world recognize climate change as a problem. Second, there is a huge grassroots movement of everyday people, from students to senior citizens, calling attention to the issue in their communities across the country and around the world. Then, there are the economic signals. The costs of renewables, for example, are falling dramatically.  According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, almost all green energy sources can now compete with traditional fossil fuels. Furthermore, a study by Carbon Tracker, a financial think tank, found that more than 40% of the world’s coal plants are already running at a loss. This is in line with the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting that solar installer and wind technician will be two of the fastest-growing occupations through 2029.

While hope is about the possibility of change, it is not a PLAN.

 Individual actions, such as switching to LED light bulbs, are important first steps in addressing climate change. But the scale of the problem is massive and the solution must be as well. As such, the conversation needs to move from “what can I do?” to “what can we do?”

Society, as a whole, needs to take substantial steps toward building a sustainable future. Thoughts on how to achieve this have been laid out in various versions of the so-called Green New Deal over the years. From the original plan put forward by Thomas Friedman in his 2008 book, Hot Flat and Crowded, to the latest expanded version released in 2019 by members of Congress, the ideas are there. We just need to focus on the ones that will have the biggest impact on the problem at hand and put them into action.

Planning is essential, because TIME is of the essence.

As scientists have been telling us for years, a certain amount of climate change is irreversible given the amount of carbon dioxide we have already added to the atmosphere and oceans. But, it is not too late to avoid additional warming and worsening impacts if we act now.

As the old proverb says: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second-best time is now.”

That is why we all need to VOTE.

Any meaningful, large-scale action in the US has to come from the federal government level. While not every elected official is in tune with the realities of human-caused climate change, they all understand the power of an active social movement and a vocal electorate.

The lack of political will has been one of the largest impediments to government action on climate change to date. But, if we can move beyond the partisan rhetoric to talk plainly about the facts in terms of love and hope, we can all begin to plan for our collective future through the extraordinary power of the vote.

With that said, be mindful of what those in elected office and those who seek to be there are saying and, more importantly, doing about climate change. We get to judge their actions today, but history will ultimately judge ours.

More 4-letter words should be used when talking about climate change. Image credit: MF

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About Melissa Fleming

Melissa Fleming is an environmental communicator and visual artist working at the intersection of art and science. She is passionate about exploring, learning, and sharing information about the natural world. She has presented her interdisciplinary work in a variety of mediums at venues and conferences around the world.