Monday 9 July 2012

The discourse of climate change

Something must be done? or We must do something?

It is government policy makers who have the most power to solve the problem of climate change, so the reports they receive about our current scientific knowledge of climate change are all-important.  Kjersti Fløttum and Trine Dahl argue that the language used in advisory reports can differ in ways that have not been recognised so far, and that these differences are important as they could influence the decisions that policy makers take.

Fløttum and Dahl analysed the language used in two recent influential reports. One was from the World Bank: the World Development Report, 2010  (WDR). The focus of this report is on economic growth, the economic impact of climate change and how to aid communities affected by climate change. The other report was from the United Nations Development Programme: the Human Development Report, 2007-2008  (HDR). In this case the focus was on human rights and the effects of climate change on people’s way of life.

The analysis focussed on the overview sections of the reports, where scientific evidence is presented and suggestions made for government policy. The researchers found that even though the writers were reporting on the same subject matter, the language used in the overviews represented different ‘voices’ and therefore told different stories.

For example, the WDR report used more directives (e.g. action must be taken; swift action is needed), which resulted in a more commanding and action-oriented tone.  The writers of the report also used can with a high frequency, mainly with the meaning of ‘being able to’ (e.g. high income countries can and must reduce their carbon footprints). This also gave an action-oriented emphasis to the report.

In contrast, the HDR overview featured a much greater use of we and our (for example, the risks could be greater than we understand). It was not always clear whether we referred to the whole of humanity, to unspecified experts, or to the authors, but using this pronoun gave a more inclusive feel to the text that helped to engage the reader. And whereas the WDR report brought in scientific ‘voices’ (e.g. economists continue to disagree on the economically or socially optimal carbon trajectory), the HDR overview brought in the voices of well-known and respected individuals. It referred, for instance, to Martin Luther King’s words we are faced now with the fact that tomorrow is today, pointing out that these words still have a powerful resonance.

Fløttum and Dahl conclude that it may not be surprising that the reports of the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme differ, given the differences between the two institutions. Nevertheless it is important, they argue, to understand how the use and manipulation of linguistic features helps to create different stories about the same topic, as this can help unveil the complexity of the discourse on climate change.
Fløttum, K. and Dahl, T. (2012) Different contexts, different ‘stories’? A linguistic comparison of two development reports on climate change. Language and Communication 32:14-23.

doi: 10.1016/j.langcom.2011.11.002

This summary was written by Jenny Amos

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