Never write the word gaseous in a subject headline.
Or, bad word alert! On climate talks and climate walks.
My hairstylist’s actual name is Clipperton. He is charming and funny and fast. And he always sweetly forces me to endure a blow out just so that he can tell me I’m a Charlie’s Angel, even though we both know I’m a Murphy Brown. But if I’m honest, 72% of the reason I go to him is because his name is Clipperton. I mean, how could any other name make the cut?
Words tell us how to feel about things. Finding the right handful of words to name something is a challenge and an art and a puzzle all wrapped in a strip mall escape room (and why people paid us gobs of money (worth every penny and then some) to brand them at my former company).
Unfortunately, a lot of our climate words are wrong. Some of these words are just bad-luck wrong and others are devious wrong, contrived by manipulative forces to make us see things differently. Here are three that have driven me batty of late.
Where there’s smoke, there’s dire: Natural Gas
I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t think about what natural gas was until about eight years ago. I saw the words natural and gas cozied up next to each other, but I didn’t process. When I renovated, I put in a gas stove because my fancy chef friend told me it was much better than electric, and he was the truest Cordon Bluest person I knew. I cannot tell you why I didn’t think about the word gas, even as I was taking courses in environmental policy. I was reading papers about resource management, but energy was still something I thought best left to the people from university who could drink all the beer and had the iron rings to prove it. When I finally learned that natural gas was just methane with a light skein of greenwashing, I felt like the dumbest branding savant in the world. But I’m not alone. Writes Rebecca Leber in Vox:
When the climate communications group Climate Nexus conducted a poll of 4,600 registered US voters last fall, 77 percent had a favorable view of natural gas, far higher than when asked about their views on methane. Less than a third were able to link that natural gas is primarily methane. In the same poll, a majority incorrectly answered that they think methane pollution is declining or staying about the same.
Leber, along with many others, have proposed rebranding natural gas as methane gas or fossil gas. I like the latter because it is so dead clear.
The reason for the disconnect is embedded in the very name, “natural gas.” The word “natural” tends to bias Americans to view whatever it is affixed to as healthy, clean, and environmentally friendly. Natural foods, natural immunity, and natural births are among the many buzzwords of the moment.
“The idea that we ought to do what’s natural, we ought to use what’s natural, and we ought to consume what’s natural is one of the most powerful and commonplace shortcuts we have,” said Alan Levinovitz, a religion professor who wrote Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Facts, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science. “The term influences people’s attitudes toward natural gas. People are going to be more likely to see natural gas as better than it is; they’re more likely to see it as safer.”
Beyond deleterious planetary effects, the research on gas in the home is increasingly alarming. It’s like living with a smoker. It exacerbates childhood asthma. It is, quelle surprise, bad to burn things inside your home, even with a vent as comically huge as Gwyneth Paltrow’s. Bad words, cleverly inserted into the omelette of our vernacular.
Nothing but net: Carbon Offsetting
Offsetting technically means to have a countering effect in equal measure. But offsets, when preceded by the word carbon, don’t always do this. In fact, most don’t. They need additionality, which is to say we must be able to prove that the emissions reductions go beyond the compensatory matching, and represent an additional reduction in carbon from the atmosphere. If a company was going to plant that forest anyway, selling offsets to make someone feel better about their plane travel does nothing. If anything, it leads to licensing effects wherein people feel at greater liberty to fly, having bought the privilege. I love the word offsetting when it comes to printing or highlights. But in this context, it feels like reaching for legitimacy. We’re buying credits! Call them bonus points or carbon coupons or frequent buyer miles or indulgences. Don’t get me wrong, I still like to donate to organizations when I fly, but not as an offset — instead, as a thing to do that reminds me of how much I’m contributing to planetary emissions. No cancelling-outs allowed.
(More: Dr. Kate Ervine, who I interviewed a few years ago, is great on this.)
To jeer is human: Protest
I like the word protest in the context of pushing back against the wrongs of the world. I hate the word protest in the context of climate gatherings. It’s alienating and just a misnomer. To speak out in service of something is to support what’s good and true as much as it is to counter what’s bad. Protest positions the thing being railed against as normative, when it should be normative to want a healthy, livable planet or to protect women’s bodily autonomy. Call it a march, a rally, a party, or a wild rumpus, because that is the energy. (Except when your eight-year-old and his besties just wanna peel off for popsicles. See photo).
At last weekend’s rally for climate, we came together to demonstrate power, to show that a huge swath of us want change, want to protect this beautiful province, want to joyfully reclaim the streets in service of planetary positivity.
As we massed at Queen’s Park my lovely friend Laurna asked if this gathering would move any deep blue minds. Nope. Doug Ford doesn’t hang out at QP on a Saturday to hear new perspectives. BUT a march is a thing that seeds joy, knowledge, and coalition-building muscle. Good things that came of it:
We showed our sweaty little kiddos that we get to take over the streets for peaceful demonstration. We showed the city that people care about these issues and will loudly proclaim as much.
I ran into a digital engagement acquaintance and traded extremely useful tips and open rates to the beat of a delightfully loose jazz band.
40+ climate and social justice orgs cross-permeated and started building up their organizational heft anew after years of Covid Zoomery.
We got to hang out with our friends on a gorgeous day, making silly signs, decorating our cargo bike, and generally having too much fun.
Needless to say, nothing about these benefits speaks to protest, even as our last minute NoMoDoFo cargo bike sign garnered many a photo op. For more on the joy of protest, here’s a Medium comic of mine from years ago.
Strangely, it was my second time traversing a closed-to-traffic Yonge (rhymes with dung) Street in as many weeks. Two weeks earlier I ran the half marathon, which snaked a similar path down Canada’s longest road. I found myself looking down at the beautiful city as the route sloped gently to lake level, a sea of people in earnest shades of neon stretching before me. A view never appreciated by those who are incredibly fast, which I am not.
Walking Yonge Street with the climate marchers, I couldn’t help but compare crowds. I loved that both the run and the march occupied the streets so colourfully. But my first thoughts were judgy ones — why so many runners compared to marchers? Of course, this thought leads back to the value proposition of a protest, doesn’t it? A run is a challenge to oneself. A climate march can be a scary-sounding thing. Which is all the more reason why we need to rebrand it as the powerfully cheerful and restorative thing that it is. It’s not about ineffective anger and railing against. It’s about productive, coming together for! With less stress about getting a personal best, and more drums and naked people. What’s not to love?
What are the climate words that vex you? Let a wordnerd know.
S. answered me so beautifully, and captures exactly how I feel — it’s the knowledge that you are small that gives you the power to go big with a lightness that is necessary:
How do I see myself in the world? With little kids, I used to panic about climate change. It sort of hurt me physically. They’re a bit older now but my perspective has changed. I see myself as completely insignificant, and the entire universe at the same time. (You know that old ocean and wave metaphor, but the ‘insignificant’ part is more like a part of a bit of salt in the infinite ocean 😂) And looking at the night sky, knowing that nothing really matters, I feel like I can take on anything in life with this loose, light fun-ness. I no longer feel angry at humans or guilty for being one. I’ll do everything I can to positively affect and protect my world but it’ll all just be what it’s going to be. I don’t feel like that’s defeatist, I think it’s realistic and it makes me feel calm.
I love this article: “Spinoza argues that there is great power in understanding that our actions are part of nature. For then we understand that everything that happens is nature changing itself.”
If you’re here thanks to Substack’s interview with me, welcome! What’s this newsletter all about, and who is the whackadoodle behind it? Here’s my climate journey. And please introduce yourself. And thanks Nhung Lê for this very serious illustration of me in my pandemic chair.
Cut your home carbon. My wonderful friends Richard and Tim have been helping bring carbon emissions down all across Toronto, guiding people through the not at all simple task of heat pumping it up. They helped me install mine, which I drew about here, and they’ve used my home to crunch the numbers. Short answer: $ saved, emissions reduced. Ask me about my heat pump, or check out their new site!
Chris Turner. I usually hate Climate Optimism Content, but Chris Turner does it right, which is to say, thoughtfully and from a place of deep research and context. I am looking forward to his new book.
Terrorists go ecofascist. Not good. Basically, just the frightening extension of the overpopulation argument to the most extreme elements of society, as if it were not bad enough to begin with.
I don’t know what to say about Buffalo, because there is nothing more to say. Toronto’s fondness for Buffalo extends to my family — we take day trips there to go to the Albright Knox, and we do the Ted’s Hot Dog thing because my son’s name is Ted and he once liked hot dogs. It’s easy enough to go about your busy, busy life and not think about the nearby horrors because you just can’t. But they nevertheless find their way in, and you are confronted all over again with the insanity of a densifying pattern that never breaks. I still think about Parkland all the time, no doubt because that shooting took place so close to my home, and the kids and parents remind me of my friends and parents. My son doesn’t understand why I hate toy guns of all kinds, and even dislike the neon Nerfery of weekend park fun. But guns and terrorists and planetary destruction all come from the same bitter root. And until we uproot that bitterness, we won’t solve much of anything.
Thank you so much for reading. As always, let me know how to make things better. As always, have a beautiful weekend.