Climate Change Scientists Could Learn From Debt Ceiling Debate

Climate Change

On March 18, a leaked draft from United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC ) presented the most comprehensive investigation on this subject ever undertaken, and the findings cause more worries in scientists. On the other hand, the latest Gallup poll shows that although two in three Americans believe global warming is happening/will happen shortly, only 36 percent of Americans believe it will threat their way of life in the immediate future. Scientists could learn a few things from the debt ceiling debate in solving the mismatch between them and ordinary citizens on perception of climate change.

A small miracle happened in Congress on Feb 11 this year, as the House and Senate passed an increase of the borrowing limit of U.S. without spending cuts or other conditions attached to it. This was such refreshing news to citizens who grew numb to the series of deadlines and cliffs for months. According to Doug Hattaway, the president of Hattaway Communication, this miracle happened in part due to a simple word change his company helped introduce: changing the word “debt ceiling” or “debt limit” to the word “default.”

Hattaway’s company mapped out the language that was used to define the national debate on this topic. Both parties were talking about raising the debt limit. He provided a list for the Democrats that they should eliminate “debt ceiling” and “irresponsible” and instead use “default crisis,” “default on the debt” and “catastrophe.” Climate scientists can learn and borrow the same words from this debt ceiling debate.

The problem with raising the debt limit, according to Hattaway, is it sounds like running up the credit card and people intuitively are against this idea. He said emotion works with cognition in human brains to help with the tension, retention and motivation. A message has to create emotional reaction for people to notice it, remember it and act on it.

The problem with “irresponsible,” Mr. Hattaway said, is it is too boring and does not create emotional reactions. The suggested change of phrase to “default” and “catastrophe” made the message meaningful to people, just like defaulting on mortgages will lead to a catastrophe.

This suggestion was made in May of 2011. After two months, Hattaway looked at the language used on this topic again and found the use of “default” had increased significantly particularly in the news media, which meant people started to hear it and be affected by it. He acknowledged that the government shutdown helped the legislation to raise the borrowing limit, but the term “default” used by the Democrats was instrumental in putting it on the public’s minds.

How changing just one word can often change the whole message of a particular argument is demonstrated in the debt ceiling debate, and climate scientists can learn from this on how to put the threats of climate change on the public’s mind. “Change” sounds neutral and may even be linked to a positive feeling rather than negative, and “Warming” can sound cozy rather than alarming. Both are undeniably boring. “Climate Crisis” or “Global Catastrophe” has been used only occasionally. Scientists need to use these meaningful and emotional words, or maybe even something entirely new to eliminate any boarding element, to communicate the threats of climate change to the public, before Americans can remember and act on it. Considering Mr. Hattaway’s suggestion of using “default” in the debt ceiling debate took more than two years to affect politics, the change of language by climate scientists must hurry now.

Opinion by Tina Zhang


The Independent
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