Language and Climate Action: An Interview with George Lakoff

By Alexandria Herr


Why is it so difficult to act on climate change? Despite growing public awareness of the current climate crisis, the topic of climate change continues to thwart political and social systems across the globe, as it has for over 30 years. The reasons for this vary, but cognitive linguist and philosopher George Lakoff suggests that an inability to act on climate change may be ingrained into our most fundamental linguistic and cognitive systems. Lakoff is an emeritus professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the best-selling author of Don’t Think of an Elephant and Metaphors We Live By, and Co-host of the FrameLab Podcast. He is an expert in understanding how language is framed to suit personal and political agendas. In this interview, I turned to him to shed light on the linguistic and cognitive barriers to climate action, and what should be done to overcome them.

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I'm really excited to talk to you because I’ve listened to your past lectures and conversations about climate change. I'm interested in understanding how your ideas on climate change have changed over the last few years. In 2019, the topic of climate change has gained serious traction in the media, perhaps more so than the few years before that.

True, but people are not yet talking about climate disasters, and that really is what is approaching. The term ‘climate change’ itself is a right-wing term. It was invented by Frank Luntz, a right-wing framer. He thought global warming sounded too dangerous, so he wanted to make it sound nicer. The word ‘climate’ sounds nice – like palm trees or something – and the word ‘change’, well, ‘change’ just happens. It's not a big deal. Nothing you can do about it. Not humanly-caused. So, the term itself is a right-wing position that people on the left just innocently adopted instead of saying, well, this is a climate disaster that’s approaching.

Your work is deeply invested in the power of stories and metaphors in informing people's worldviews and behaviour. You’ve written about how the American political system is essentially divided into two central metaphors: that of the ‘strict father’, generally aligned with the Republican party, and that of a ‘nurturing parent’, generally aligned with the Democratic party. In that vein, what stories and metaphors do you think we need to tell about climate change, and which do we need to retire?

Oh boy! That is a hard question. The issue of strict father morality assumes an authoritarian worldview in which your party controls things. Climate is not controlled, therefore it's not something that can be allowed into that worldview. It is inconsistent, not only with the way that people understand the world, but the way in which they understand themselves. The strict father worldview versus the nurturing parent worldview are not just mere beliefs, they are self-defining. They define who you are as a person, what you consider is right and wrong – as deep as you get in terms of self-definition. One of the problems we have is that one of the major forms of self-definition, not only in this country, but in the world, is inconsistent with dealing with climate change. That is very hard to overcome.

Given this self-defining aspect of worldviews, how do we try and change people's minds about an issue that they don't agree on – for example climate change – without attacking the beliefs we all have about ourselves as good people?

That's a difficult question. First of all, everyone assumes that they’re good people. Nobody says, ‘I'm evil, I'm Satan.’ They assume that what they do and what they believe is right, and they have a worldview that allows them to do that. So, depending upon whether you've grown up in a certain religion, or a certain political persuasion, there are notions of right and wrong that come with your experience that are taken to be absolute – not defined relative to a worldview. That is a part of the way we think, and it’s not something that can be easily changed. We must realise that the way you think is not the only way to think.

You've spoken before about the flawed idea that people are essentially reasonable and responsive to facts, given that most of our thoughts are subconscious and that we rely on our worldviews to filter information. In light of this, what would be your main advice to scientists who are trying to communicate climate change?

Well, I would first try to understand what it means to have alternative facts, which you have heard discussed. In reality, all that an alternative fact is, is an idea about the world that is a consequence of a worldview. When you have different worldviews, you have different entailments of those worldviews. If having one worldview says that something must be true of the world, then that thing becomes fact. But if it's not the case given another worldview, then it’s an alternative fact. So, when Kelly-Ann Conway came out with the notion of alternative facts, she was right, she couldn’t describe what they were, but the idea is that these alternative facts arise from our worldviews and that those worldviews differ. So, given a certain worldview, there are certain things that must be true. That's a fact relative to the worldview. You can have alternative facts with alternative worldviews.

In a way, this can be a powerful political tool, but I think part of the reason people are wary of this reasoning is because usually it's associated with fascist governments or Orwellian dystopias.

That's a problem. I have a paper on what Orwell didn’t understand. Orwell didn't understand that he framed things, that everybody frames things. This is something that was discovered by my colleague, Charles Filmore, who showed that every word is defined relative to frames, that you can never get away from frames. Every idea that can be expressed in language is part of a frame. Frames organise your thoughts, everybody's thoughts. Democrats are framing things as much as Republicans. It's extremely important to understand how different frames fit or don't fit your values, what frames you are using. If you're using language or using ideas, you can't escape it, you're using frames. You may not know that you are, they may be subconscious, but they're there. Framing is natural.

How should we attempt to speak to groups that have worldviews that are inconsistent with climate action? Is it about framing climate change in a way that makes more sense to people that have that worldview, or is it about trying to activate a different frame entirely?

Well, the frame is not defined well enough. For example, when parts of Antarctica melt into the ocean, the ocean is going to rise. Climate change is an instance of a lot of different things, not a single physical system, but many, many different ones operating around the world simultaneously. But people don't grow up learning about systems, and systems thinking.

There is systemic causation going on there, but systemic causation is hard to understand because languages and ordinary conceptual systems use direct causation. There's an intermediate concept that isn't there. The way that we have learned to structure our conceptual systems doesn't allow us to see systemic causation, because the system itself isn't in our direct experience. There are systems, like climate systems for example, and political and social systems, that are at work but not seen. They’re not experienced directly. They can’t be experienced directly.

Let's go into systemic causation a little bit, because I think it's such a powerful concept when it comes to climate change communication. Given that we don't have linguistic structures that easily express systemic causation, could you talk a little bit about the challenges of using systemic causation to communicate climate change, and how it can be done better?

Well, think about it from the point of view of physics. If you're a physicist, you understand that there are physical systems. You describe those physical systems and you can mathematicise those systems. People who study physics don't think of it in terms of systemic causation. It's just physics. In physics there are general principles, not specifics, the idea is that the specifics are instances of the general. Climate change is an instance of a lot of different things, not a single physical system, but many, many different ones operating around the world simultaneously. But people don't grow up learning about systems, and systems thinking.

Could you elaborate on what you mean when you talk about systems thinking? I think that term may be unfamiliar to a lot of people.

Yeah, most people are [unfamiliar with it]. Systems thinking means that you have a notion, not of direct causation, but causation that is the result of a systemic organization of the world. Physical, or social, or intellectual. It could have to do with the organization of ideas, it could have to do with the organisational social or political life. The idea of systems thinking is really important. It’s a mode of thinking that is absolutely crucial to the future of the planet. And that mode of thinking isn't taught in schools. It's not noticed. It's not in the press. The very idea that the absence of a concept that we desperately need is crucial. There isn't even the concept of the absence of a concept. People just think; they don't realise that they’re thinking within a conceptual system, and the idea that there are concepts that you need that aren't there is not in the ordinary conceptual system. It’s that hard.

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My conversation with Lakoff was sweeping; he has an amazing ability to connect Newtonian physics and Orwell nearly in the same breath. What struck me of Lakoff’s understanding of what we need moving forward, however, was that in Lakoff’s view what we lack is not scientific understanding or additional policy measures, but rather a new way of thinking about climate change. Filling in the missing intermediate concept of ‘systems thinking’ is a daunting task indeed, but it points to a way forward — a common understanding that could help us build a better collective future.


Alexandria Herr is a PhD student at UCLA’s Institute on Environment and Sustainability. She is a freelance writer and a former head editor of Anthroposphere. You can find her on twitter at @HerrCaitlin


Artwork by Sapphire Deanna


This article is an online feature of Anthroposphere Issue V.

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