Leading article: When alarmist language is justified

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The Independent Online

Of course language matters. Examining the currency of political discourse has been recognised as a valuable exercise ever since George Orwell first turned the spotlight on it some 60 years ago with his invention of Newspeak. Since then we have gained many insights into social structures by examining the nature of the words we use.

But what are we to make of the latest offering from the progressive think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, on the language that the media, the Government and various environmental pressure groups use to describe global warming? The press release relating to this study has an arresting headline: "'Climate porn' turning off public from action". The "porn" in question is the alarmist language often used to discuss climate change and its consequences, which supposedly offers the public a thrilling spectacle but ultimately distances us from the problem. According to the IPPR, we are being conditioned to regard climate change as something beyond our capacity to deal with.

There are a number of flaws in this. One is the assumption that the threat climate change presents can be properly conveyed without the use of language that may alarm people. This is nonsense. There is a good reason climate change is reported in cataclysmic language - and that is because climate change presents a potential cataclysm for life on earth. Those who have paid attention to the accelerating developments in climate science over the past two years will know that the warming atmosphere now threatens the very habitability of the planet, on a much shorter time scale than was envisioned even five years ago. Global warming is an urgent problem. It is the duty of the media to convey that sense of urgency.

Another flaw in the report is the assertion that the media offers no facility for the public to deal with the threat on an individual level. This newspaper, for one, has repeatedly offered advice on how readers can help counteract climate change, from making sure their appliances around the home are switched off when not in use, to using long-life light bulbs. Our Green Pages are packed with advice on how individuals can live a more environmentally friendly life. And the rest of the media is catching up in this respect.

What gives the IPPR's game away is the use of the word "porn". Ostensibly, this describes the "secret thrill" of reading about one's own doom; in reality, its purpose is to trigger that thrill and make one read the press release. This is not a useful contribution to the debate. It is merely a cheap way of securing a headline, masquerading as a serious piece of analysis.