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The Language of Diplomats in Times of Climate Change and Populism

27 Jan 2022
By Mirjam Gruber
President Joe Biden at COP26, November 2021. Source: The White House

The power of language has long been recognised — while populists often employ radical and emotionally driven language, diplomats must be thoughtful and cautious in their communication. Is this compatible in times of climate change?

While the United Nations  Climate Change conference in Glasgow and its results were criticised by environmental activists and also by scientists as damaging for climate protection, some participants of the conference seemed satisfied that a common agreement was found at all. For example, the global coal “phase-out” was modified to a “phase-down” due to pressure from China and India, which many described as too vague and too unspecific. However, looking at other international papers, many agreements between different international actors seem to fit this description of vague and unspecific.

In fact, a well-known feature of diplomatic semantics is that many issues are not addressed at all, and others are not clearly stated. Reasons for this vary, but one primary goal is to maintain international relations peacefully and prevent escalations of conflict. Sometimes, therefore, adjectives or articles are deliberately omitted from conversations or documents, general paraphrases are used instead of concrete ones, or specifics are left unspecified. In principle — when in doubt — diplomats formulate sensitive issues too cautiously rather than too aggressively. This is also called the jargon of diplomats, because it helps to communicate in difficult situations and can help to find solutions to pressing issues.

Indeed, leading negotiations and engaging in persuasion are essential abilities that diplomats must master. In this respect, language is a major tool for diplomats. But of course, it is not just diplomats that know and use the power of language. Understanding language as a social, cultural, or psychological phenomenon is one of the main research fields of linguistics scholars. The study of linguistic aspects of social phenomena or issues has now become a part of many disciplines, such as political science, sociology, or psychology. The role of language and how it is framed has an influence on the perception of social phenomena, and thus it can shape the representation of these phenomena. Especially nowadays, when people receive an incredible amount of information through digitalisation and more concretely social media and so are exposed to fake news, misinformation, and disinformation, the linguistic dimension can be a central aspect in the studies of social and individual behaviour.

Many examples can be found in the scientific literature that examine the influence of language on the behaviour of individuals, on the polarisation of society, or on the perception of social issues. However, just as diplomats use language selectively to achieve their goals, so do other actors. For example, in migration studies, the role of far-right and right-wing populist actors came into focus as they have strongly influenced the migration discourse in many countries. For instance, scholars claimed that the, “strong anti-immigration and anti-refugee rhetoric orchestrated by the Law and Justice Party (PiS) across the Polish public sphere has also played a pivotal role in increasing levels of xenophobic, as well as outright racist sentiments, in wider Polish public discourse and society.” Similar developments have been observed in many other countries, such as the USA, UK, and Australia.

Furthermore, right-wing populist actors are also increasingly shaping public discourse on other issues, such as climate change. This is exacerbated by the spread of fake news, such as the denial of anthropogenic climate change, which has even been fuelled by former US President Donald Trump. In the current discourse on the COVID-19 pandemic, fake news as well as conspiracy theories are a major problem — which can also contribute to the polarisation of society. Even though rising populist movements in industrialised Western nations often do not have a great deal of formal power, they have the potential to substantially impact policies through influencing political and public discourse.

Due to the rising populist influence in many regions of the world, as well as the fast dissemination of fake news and the global challenge of the climate crisis, language and its power must become the centre of attention not only in research, but also in public discourse. While political parties, social movements, think tanks, and the media are already the subject of environmental and climate research, the role of diplomats and diplomatic jargon should become more central.

This is where so-called climate diplomacy comes in. The current climate crisis requires the international community to tackle this problem via the implementation of climate change policies —  and not only on a global level, but also a national and local level. To do so, a common and conscious language is an important ingredient. Indeed, thoughtfulness and sensitivity in communication is essential to define common goals. On the other hand, regarding climate change, the international community has already agreed to implement the goals of the Paris Agreement. In this phase, it is particularly important to rely on science and to generate strong implementation measures that are based on scientific evidence and research.

At this point, it should also be mentioned that climate change itself is already a term that has been politically framed. In fact, some media outlets have decided to speak of  the “climate crisis” or “climate emergency” to better reflect the scale of the issue. Such framing in the sense of promoting unified and strong communication based on scientific evidence is especially important in times when fake news or, more specifically, the denial of climate change, is actively and strongly fuelled by some actors, such as far right political parties such as the Alternative for Germany, fossil fuel and coal industries, or media outlets.

In diplomacy, however, things often go in a different direction. When diplomats or ambassadors shift from using terms such as “climate change” or “climate crisis” to “promoting biodiversity” when communicating with policy makers, the urgency of the climate crisis suddenly sounds less critical and does not directly imply a serious threat. So, what is the goal behind changing such terms?

Maintaining a dialogue with all possible actors is, of course, very important. However, in the case of an issue where science is very strong and individual nations — as well as the international community — have promised to act and to comply with agreements, concise and assertive use of language might help to implement policies which are urgently needed in the fight against climate change.

Diplomacy is certainly a difficult area in international relations, and it requires extreme sensitivity and empathy — and often uses language as one of its key tools. These linguistic evasions from the concrete to the non-concrete offer advantages, but can also have disadvantages. In today’s world, we can and should discuss the impact of diplomatic jargon in relatively new areas of international cooperation — the fight against climate change — and the direction in which the further development of diplomatic language should go, taking into particular consideration the potential rising populist influence in public discourses.

Mirjam Gruber is a political scientist at the Center for Advanced Studies of Eurac Research.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.