Genevieve Guenther


Deep dives into the language of climate politics and expert guidance for effective climate communication.

“Fossil-fuel propaganda is spun out of six key terms that dominate the language of climate politics: alarmist, cost, growth, ‘India and China’, innovation, and resilience. Together these terms weave a narrative that goes something like this: ‘Yes, climate change is real, but calling it an existential threat is just alarmist. And, anyway, phasing out coal, oil, and gas would cost us too much. Human flourishing relies on the economic growth enabled by fossil fuels, so we need to keep using them and deal with climate change by fostering technological innovation and increasing our resilience. Besides, America should not act unilaterally on the climate crisis while emissions are rising in India and China.’ This narrative is designed to encourage the incorrect and dangerous belief that the world does not need essentially to stop using fossil fuels—either because climate change won’t be that destructive or, in some versions of the story, because the world can keep using coal, oil, and gas and still halt global heating anyway.”

“Moving forward, journalists—and citizens as well—should recognize that oil and gas producers increasingly sound like climate advocates, using the same words and phrases that call for the end of the fossil fuel era. This is their new greenwashing strategy. It is all the more important never to take anyone’s words at face value, but to interpret them in the context of an entire statement—whether an industry advertisement, a think-tank report, or a text from U.N. climate talks—assessing that statement in relation to both the latest climate silence and actual industry investments. Propaganda shouldn’t be amplified. It should be exposed.”

“The IPCC’s statement signals the time for playing pretend is over. No country or leader can excuse more new coal, oil or gas development with fossil fuel producers’ false promises of magically effective technologies to reduce or recapture fossil energy emissions. The world must halt new fossil fuel development and dismantle current fossil energy infrastructure in a way that is fair to workers in the industry and people in the developing world. And this must be done now, so we can give our children a livable world.”

“The genre that offers us [a] pattern of extended political struggle is, of course, the epic. Its sweeping, episodic, iterative form attempts to narrate the labor of overthrowing an old or illegitimate order and building a new world. It tells stories about fighting to shape history. (If the idea of shaping history seems impossibly naive to you, then you may be part of the problem.) For all its oppressive uses as the literature of empire, the epic can equally be the literature of resistance.”

“The models saying ‘we need CDR’ are not establishing scientific facts. They are positing political futures…The whole idea of carbon removal was developed to keep the fossil-fuel system going.”

“‘Driving’ signifies something very different for the American worker at a big-box store who is forced to commute in her car to the mall versus the private equity manager speeding a gleaming Lamborghini around the cliffs of the Italian Riviera. One act is the expression of entanglement in an exploitative economic system that makes it impossible not to emit carbon; the other is the expression of the injustice of that very system.”

“I will admit that nihilism and despair are very attractive—sexy, even, considering also they’re the affects that all too easily signify ‘intellectual sophistication’ in the Anthropocene. Embracing cynicism and hopelessness allows you both to look tough, as if you have the backbone to face devastating truths about global warming, and to take yourself off the hook of the duty to work toward resolving the crisis.”

“Newspapers and television news programs should not only inform news consumers about the climate crisis, but also acknowledge the climate crisis in their business practices. Making ads for fossil fuel companies is a betrayal of the public and a dereliction of duty. It’s flat-out a form of climate denial.”

“As rhetoricians have known for thousands of years, communicators must appeal to the imagination, using vivid images that conjure visceral emotions, to move people to act. In the case of the climate crisis, communicators should help voters feel a complex of three specific emotions: fear of climate breakdown, outrage that powerful actors are blocking the passage of effective climate policy, and desire for a transformed global economy. Fear motivates us to protect ourselves and the people we love; outrage empowers us to experience the climate crisis as a political problem with clear antagonists; and desire enables us to accept the costs of decarbonization as greatly outweighed by the benefits of preserving the living world.”

“More than 7 in 10 Americans (72 percent) say that if there is a connection between an extreme weather event and climate change, they want to hear about it in the news, including 85 percent of Democrats, 59 percent of independents, and 62 percent of Republicans.”

“Climate change requires us to keep two perspectives in mind at once: we must feel and accept the essential limits of the planetary system on which we entirely depend, and we must embrace our capacity to remake our collective fictions and thereby redistribute social and political power. In that double consciousness we may find an idea of humanity that will save us.”

“To think of climate change as something that we are doing, instead of something we are being prevented from undoing, perpetuates the very ideology of the fossil-fuel economy we’re trying to transform.”

“Stories about the effects of climate change on vulnerable communities are not universally understood as evidence for the reality and the danger of climate change [because] the dynamic of racial othering still structures political identifications in America.”