research shows how activists and politicians speak differently about climate change

Environmental activist group Just Stop Oil has garnered public attention with a series of “art action” stunts targeting famous paintings and buildings with cans of soup and paint. They overrode the motorway portals, stranding drivers on the M25. Their message was strong, but was it clear?

Critics, including Labor leader Keir Starmer, denounced their actions: ‘I think it’s arrogant [of them] think they are the only people who have the answer to this. The outcry over Just Stop Oil shows that no matter any widespread agreement on the dangers of climate change, there is a mismatch between activists and politicians about how to address it. Our new research shows that this also appears in how these groups talk about environmental action.

Scientists and climate activists have been campaigning for years on the dire situation humanity faces. They may think their message is clear, but it has yet to galvanize politicians to take meaningful action to prevent climate catastrophe.

My colleagues and I decided we needed to take a closer look at how activist groups and politicians talk about the climate emergency. In a recently published article, we investigated what we termed the “divergent discourses” of these two groups. We have created two corpora: bodies or collections of words. One speech by politicians edited on climate by the House of Commons from 2013 to 2020. The other captured the language of activists in YouTube videos of 2019-20. This ensured that the corpora were around 30,000 words each.

Keywords and priorities

As part of our analysis we used software to compile keyword lists. They are words that occur in a corpus more often than they appear in general usage. We compared our corpora to the 2018 English Web corpus, a collection of 36 billion words representative of all text on the internet.

We then grouped the resulting keywords thematically. When we did this with individual keywords, we found that the activists’ discourse centered around ecological and social justice, using words like rights (as in human rights) and indigenous. Their communications often focused on human culpability when it comes to climate change, with keywords such as holocene (the geological era corresponding to the rise of human civilization) and rewilding (an environmental movement to stop human intervention in nature).

The speech of politicians focused more on topics such as industry, finance, politics and the economy, with keywords such as decarbonisation, underinvestment and constituent. Notably absent were words referencing the human role in climate change.

Messages from activists may not be as loud and clear as they hope, at least not for politicians.
Belinda Jlao/SOPA Images via ZUMA

The analysis with multiple keywords was particularly interesting. In activist discourse, we’ve found that phrases that appear disproportionately often fall into the categories of:

  • activism and action (climate justice, climate activist, climate action, awareness building)
  • nature (mother earth, sacred water, natural world, imitation of nature)
  • types of people (celebrity culture, indigenous communities)
  • human rights (clean drinking, basic human right)
  • negative effects related to climate change (climate crisis, cause of desertification, point of no return, plastic waste).

Politicians have placed much greater emphasis on finance, the economy and the energy industry:

  • energy (energy poverty, renewable heat, energy security, onshore wind, energy market, offshore wind, low carbon, big energy, carbon balance, solar industry)
  • action for renewables (renewable heat incentive, renewable target, climate change law)
  • finance and economics (capacity market, price block, energy bill, energy company, bill payer).

Alongside the focus on energy, fuel and money, people and nature don’t figure at all in politicians’ speeches. In fact, people are only present in the first 25 keywords in the role of “bill payer”.

Alok Sharma speaks on a podium in front of a blue wall that says United Nations Climate Change.
Alok Sharma was the chairman of COP26, the United Nations climate change conference which brings together world leaders to discuss the fight against climate change.
Robert Perry/EPA-EFE

Conversation about climate change

The phrase “climate change” itself was then examined more closely in a concordance analysis, where we looked at how each instance of the phrase is used in context. While both politicians and activists have used the phrase in a negative way – it’s something bad we have to deal with – there were differences.

Human responsibility was written extensively in the corpus of activists, for example, and the frequent constructions of the present tense communicated urgency. Politicians have used more passive constructs, which take them away from the problem. Their corpus also contained more frequent use of future constructions, pushing any required solution further forward.

Just Stop Oil and other activists are desperate to make it clear that climate change is a problem caused by and impacting human lifestyles. Meanwhile, our results suggest that politicians – at least in parliament where they can apparently make important policy decisions – focus more on the economic and industrial side of the environment, not the human cost. Both groups have work to do to improve communication and align their message if we have any hope of tackling the urgent task ahead.

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