The language of climate change—and the Anthropocene

Hanna E. Morris, a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication who researches environmental communication, explains the sudden rise of ‘Anthropocene’ as the latest buzzword in the climate dialogue.

Man running during Super Typhoon storm in Philippines

Climate change, global warming, climate crisis—the operative term for the most pressing global issue seems to change by the year. 

It’s how we discuss climate change that intrigues Hanna Morris, a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication, who will soon present a new paper that assesses climate news frames at the annual International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) conference this July in Madrid, Spain. She tackles the rise of the term “Anthropocene” in climate news, which can be summarized as a relatively new word that is meant to mark the beginning of a new epoch defined by human-caused environmental change. 

In the paper, Morris argues that the word not only misinterprets the actual share of blame—the oversimplified notion that humans are all equally responsible for climate change—but ties up the problem in a neat, media-friendly bow.

“By eliminating differences,” she writes in the paper, “histories of colonial violence, and the disproportionate burden of environmental harm felt by Indigenous people is neutralized and therefore evaded. The idea of the Anthropocene therefore validates ‘planetary scale’ projects designed by white male capitalists working from an unaddressed imperial logic.”

Colonialism and capitalism, she argues, drove climate change, and are now deciding how to frame who is responsible for it, who is most affected, how it will be solved, and how we should collectively feel about it.

Morris teases out these ideas and more in a conversation about climate change communication, what the Anthropocene actually is, and how the term came to be, and how journalists can do better.

Most people are familiar with ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change,’ or ‘climate crisis.’ What is the evolution of those words, and how intentional are they in their creation?

Global warming, as a term, gained popularity in the ’70s and ’80s, and was picked up in the popular press during this time. During this period of Cold War politics, the idea and image of the ‘global village,’ or of a new cosmopolitan globe, gained a lot of traction in the United States. The Cold War, in this way, played a huge role in shaping the dominant conceptualization of global warming that continues today. However, this poses significant challenges for climate politics in the United States—especially in a setting with increased right-wing resentment toward anything understood as globalist or cosmopolitan. 

In terms of the shift from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change,’ it’s not a straightforward story. It’s no secret that fossil fuel companies donate significant amounts of money to the Republican Party and lobby hard against climate policy. When it became clear to American fossil fuel companies that climate policy would significantly impact their bottom line, they began conducting public opinion research and determined that the term ‘climate change’ was less scary than ‘global warming’—as portrayed in the movie ‘Vice,’ if you’ve seen it—and so invested a lot of resources in various misinformation campaigns that began to shift the terminology.

That being said, liberals and some climate scientists actually support using the term ‘climate change’ because deniers—like Trump for example—consistently use cold spells or winter storms as evidence that ‘global warming’ is a farce. Other scientists propose ‘global weirding’ or even ‘climate changes’ as possible alternatives to try and address this problem of denial, stemming from a basic confusion of weather and climate. Regardless, fossil fuel lobbyists and Republican politicians like President Trump continually choose to use the term ‘global warming’ during cold spells and then ‘climate change’ in other contexts, depending on their misinformation objectives.

Like I said, not so straightforward.

Do people internationally use climate change?

Climate change and global warming are both used internationally. But climate change is more commonly used by international organizations. For example, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change both opt to use the term ‘climate change.’

What is the Anthropocene? Where does that get thrown into the mix?

The Anthropocene is a term that describes the supposedly new epoch we as humankind find ourselves in due to our own large-scale acts of environmental destruction. It was first suggested as a suitable term to denote the increasingly observable and convergent forces of global environmental change in 2000, by Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer. 

But, this idea is controversial in the geological community. It’s not so easy to determine the start and end to an epoch. What’s really interesting is how popular this term has become in the social sciences, and also the arts and humanities. It’s shocking how popular the idea of the Anthropocene has become in Europe, and increasingly in North America. Lots and lots of grants are being awarded to artists and writers engaging with this idea of the Anthropocene. A strange fascination with this idea of a ‘new epoch’ percolates across these artworks and texts, and this, to me, is concerning because it glosses over and obscures important differences and important histories. It’s perhaps no surprise that the idea of the Anthropocene has taken off in Europe and North America—it’s a sort of get-out-of jail-free card to say that we all are to blame for climate change instead of acknowledging the capitalist and imperial roots of the crisis. Not to mention, the formerly colonized parts of the globe are the most severely impacted by climate change. 

So, by saying that we all are to blame and that we all are equally experiencing climate change in a new epoch is a dangerous generalization that wipes away historical context. I worry that European and North American powers are once again perpetuating imperial violence and harm through the idea of the Anthropocene. And I explore this problem across the United States news media in my most recent paper.

Your research shows that 2014 is when this got mentioned more in media.

Yes, you can see it so clearly. Around 2014 and 2013, the term ‘Anthropocene’ began to appear more often in the U.S. media. Interestingly, it did not appear at all until 2006. Another anomaly that is very important is the fact that almost all of the articles—which were mostly op-eds, too, interestingly—were written by white men. Also, these white men cited and referenced the ideas of other white men. There is a real skew here. The opinions of men from Europe and North America are really steering this idea of the Anthropocene. 

Which leads to what you’re arguing, which is that we need a different or more accurate view of the situation. You talk about slow violence, how capitalism plays into that.

Yeah, the Anthropocene is defined in terms of a generalized ‘we’ that obscures important differences. The ‘we’ is the issue, because it’s generalizing and it’s not specific. It’s almost like a manifestation of the conceptual problems that emerged with the Cold War-era framings of global warming, where it was defined too broadly as an all-encompassing concept that overlooked specific, local environmental issues. And this also served to turn the anti-globalist Republican Party against climate policy. There’s been this continual move toward a broad and generalized understanding of environmental problems ever since the Cold War. This is a big problem. 

And the Anthropocene is a continuation of this—almost to an extreme: broad, no specifics, lets the capitalist class off the hook, and the United States and Europe in particular, but also Australia, too. You can understand why they would like it. It’s a way to get out of responsibility for addressing the specific reasons why climate change is occurring—reasons which demand fundamental change to both politics and economy. 

The idea of slow violence is a powerful counter to this evasion of responsibility. [Princeton University Professor] Rob Nixon coined the term ‘slow violence’ to describe long-term environmental harm originating with capitalist empire. Slow violence is continually obscured by decoupling source from harm. And the idea of the Anthropocene decouples source from harm even further through the mechanism of a generalized ‘we.’ Instead of confusing with generalities, climate change needs to be understood more precisely and more specifically. 

Which is where media ties in, because media doesn’t treat climate change or slow violence as a headline-triggering thing.

Yes, and that’s why a lot of coverage is focused on natural disasters, and also meetings of diplomats and new scientific breakthroughs, things that are understood as breaking news. Slow violence requires longer narratives. And sometimes these longer narratives can’t find a place in the national news. Although I genuinely think this can change.

Is news perpetuating slow violence by focusing on these trailblazing politicians or scientists, and not the issues at hand?

I would say it’s not helping. And it’s distracting more from recognition of the slow violence of climate change. But it’s difficult. Reporting on climate change is not easy. It’s a complicated issue. But it can be done better. Reporting can be improved, easily. But the Anthropocene frame is certainly not the way forward. Neither is the polar bear image, for that matter. Both of these frames—the Anthropocene and the polar bear—erase the specificity of harm and of source. 

University of British Columbia journalism scholar Candis Callison talks a lot about how reporters need to talk to and include more Indigenous perspectives and experiences. This is something reporters need to do and can do. Journalists covering climate change should talk to those who are most severely impacted, and that includes Indigenous people and low-income people of color—especially low-income women of color. Instead of just featuring the opinions of male scientists and politicians, other voices, different voices, need to be included. Journalists can do it. It’s just not the norm for climate journalism at the moment. But it fits within the reporter’s objective of identifying the source of the problem, identifying who is most affected, and then featuring different solutions to the problem identified. This can be done. 

If not ‘Anthropocene,’ what is the best language?

Definitely avoiding generalizations is what I think is super important, and not looking for a buzzword that can encapsulate everything. That’s why sometimes climate change is seen as tyrannical because it’s a concept that is too broad and, in that way, limits really specific investigations, understandings, and identifications of problems that are situated.

Climate change—broadly or globally defined in generalized ways—can distract from the situated nature and intimacy of slow violence, and can stall action and change. The emerging idea and journalistic frame of the ‘Anthropocene’ makes it all the more difficult to really understand in detail the particular source, impacts, and solutions that must be determined through the inclusion of local knowledges and experiences, as opposed to distant expert opinions. So, I would say that language needs to be a lot more focused and a lot more careful and a lot more situated. 

Anything to add?

I think it’s important to think about the impacts of the ‘Anthropocene’ as a concept and as an emergent news frame because it is taking off as a very powerful and a very well-funded idea. It’s clear from my research that the term is appearing more frequently in the American press, and I would like to continue with my investigations to keep an eye on this emergent news frame. The large number of grants and projects leveraging this idea of the Anthropocene is evident and growing across elite institutions in the United States, and I think it’s important to understand why it’s becoming so popular and reflect on the consequences. I think it’s important to realize that the idea of the Anthropocene is actually causing more harm than good in efforts to address the slow violence of climate change. And, in my opinion, I think the term should be discarded. But I unfortunately don’t think this will happen anytime soon.