From Effect to Extinction: The great Climate Rhetoric Crisis


How old are you? I’m greenhouse old: I remember when it was all called the “greenhouse effect”, seemingly a lifetime ago.

The first book I’ve read on the topic, still on my shelf, was John L Daly’s “The Greenhouse Trap: Why the Greenhouse Effect Will Not End Life on Earth”. Daly, a marine electronics engineer from Tasmania, was the original climate sceptic or denier. His book was published in 1989, my first full year in Australia, by the respectable Bantam Books, an indication that thirty years ago heresy wasn’t yet punishable by banishment. Daly believed that the sun and the sunspots play the most important part in shaping our climate, not the CO2 emissions; read his book today and you can see that virtually the same arguments – both for and against – continue to be banded around, thirty years later. Nothing much has changed, except for the public prominence of the issue and the sharpness of the rhetoric.

The idea behind the “greenhouse effect” was that the Earth’s atmosphere is undergoing warming similar to that the of the air in a greenhouse, heat up by the sun and trapped by the glass. On the global scale, CO2 and other “greenhouse” gases now played the part of the virtual glass, trapping the heat that would have previously dissipated into the space. The science remained the same, but the “greenhouse effect” as a descriptor proved unpopular in the longer term. It sounded too scientifically neutral and nerdy, maybe even harmless, like any of the large number of other “effects” known to various branches of science. For the activists, it just wasn’t emotive enough.

So we got “global warming” instead. The message was identical – the temperatures are rising beyond normal – but the name was more direct and all-embracing. So far so good. The problem that eventually emerged was that for a long time while the debate was becoming more heated, the planet wasn’t. There was of course a lot of contention about every piece of data and every form of measurement, and whether you think there was a “global warming pause” between 1998 and 2012, still largely depends on where you stand in general on the science of global warming. But the very fact that even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at one stage believed the temperatures stopped rising for a period of time muddied the waters (or polluted the air) enough for another rhetorical switch to become necessary.

To “climate change”. Whether or not the temperature was increasing or not the proponents argued there was more to the phenomenon anyway – there would be other significant, and mostly negative, changes to the long-term weather patterns: some areas would become drier, some wetter, and there would be a lot more of “extreme weather” and natural disaster. Floods, droughts, hurricanes and cyclones would all become bigger, badder and deadlier.

But in the last year or two it has emerged that not even “climate change” – implicitly for the far worse – was working to generate enough action. Large sections of the public remained sceptical or at least for all the intents and purposes apathetic: we’re very concerned and somebody should do something. But no one, including most governments, was doing nearly enough in the eyes of the climate change industry to prevent the coming disaster.

Hence, we have increasingly started seeing “climate change” prefixed with “catastrophic”. Other terms have been entering the public discussion: “climate emergency” or “crisis”. There is of course now also the ubiquitous Extinction Rebellion. All the rhetorical inflation has one aim: to shake the scepticism and complacency out of the general population and the politicians, because otherwise we’re all gonna die. The “Guardian” is very proud to see its style guide changes to replace “climate change” with “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” being replicated in the newsrooms around the world.  In Australia, a group of journalists was mooting establishing an “ABC-Staff climate crisis advisory group” to “report back to ABC management our ideas and strategies for responding to the climate crisis both internally and externally”. Needless to say, the rhetoric of XR or the School Strikers, including Saint Greta Thunberg, is even more apocalyptic, talking in terms of billions of deaths and the end of the civilisation as we know it.

And so the quest continues. At AdWeek, Aaron Hall asks the question in the title of his recent article: “Renaming climate change: can a new name finally make us take action?” Hall thinks the answer is yes, if only brains like him try even harder. To that end, he has marshaled together the resources of the firm he works for, Siegel + Gale, across three continents and the branding team has put forward the following suggestion:

Global Meltdown, Global Melting

These options are subtle brand shifts from “global warming,” yet they deliver a more negative image. The names signal that ice caps are melting, but also create a more visceral image in the mind — that real feeling of “melting” when it’s too hot outside. A meltdown is a disastrous event that draws from the ultimate terror of a nuclear meltdown, an apt metaphor for global destruction. In naming, we call metaphorical names “suggestive names,” and they are one of the most popular types of names.

Climate Collapse, Climate Chaos

Good brand names instill a clear message or even a direct call to action. Perhaps that’s why climate change isn’t powerful enough: “Change” sounds so neutral. However, there’s nothing neutral about collapse or chaos. Both are states of events that you absolutely want to avoid. They ask each of us to do what it takes to avoid collapsing or descending into chaos. They both also use alliteration — using the same letter or sound at the beginning of connected words — a naming trick proven to enhance memorability.

Boiling Point, Melting Point

Arresting brand names often capitalize on vivid visual associations. They refer to a tipping point that we’re catapulting toward and must find a way to avert. Because a boiling point is the point at which liquid vaporizes, it brings forth imagery of rivers, lakes and oceans boiling and disappearing. “Melting Point” paints a clear picture of solid matter melting. As glaciers melt and disappear, so does our way of life.

Scorched Earth

It’s time to take the gloves off and stop pretending. Sometimes a brand name needs to be hyperbolic to truly capture hearts and minds. If we don’t take massive action now, Earth will be uninhabitable — an irreversible barren wasteland. Plants and animals will die. Humans won’t be able to survive extreme weather like floods, droughts and fires. If we don’t change, we won’t even be able to spend time outside. “Scorched Earth” paints the direst picture of what’s to come and what we must avoid and is likely the edgiest brand name from our exploration.

Will any of these enter the general circulation? Possibly. But the greenhouse effect/global warming/climate change industry is now facing a marketing problem: the brand dilution. There are too many new contenders vying for the title of the new and the scariest yet name for their environmental armageddon; the activists need one flag to rally around for the sake of a unified and consistent messaging. As the Extinction Rebellion spokesperson, Zion Lights, told Andrew Neil, “unfortunately, alarmist language works”. I’m not sure if Ms Lights really thinks it’s all that unfortunate, but we’re certainly seeing more and more public hysteria and the ever-wilder claims bandied about – not to mention the ever-more extreme solutions – with the result that the younger generations are growing increasingly traumatised. Whether you are a climate change believer or sceptic, on one point the science is very much settled: we’re in the middle of an escalating and catastrophic rhetorical crisis.