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Feb 25, 2014

Watch your language: why the climate change case has to be personal

In his winning entry for the Gavin Mooney Memorial Essay Competition, Sydney GP Tim Senior argues at Inside Story that language has been getting in the way of action on climate change.


“I don’t believe in climate change.”

I’d just got back from Darwin in early October, and I and many of my GP colleagues had been closely following the news of the bushfires in New South Wales. We’d had our first warning of high fire danger in late September. As I returned to work in Campbelltown, in south-west Sydney, a grey haze of smoke hung in the air. Each breath I took left a metallic reminder of the bushfires at the back of my throat. My patients were coughing more than usual. Those with asthma were getting through more inhalers. On behalf of patients, I’d been writing letters to the Department of Housing asking for modifications to keep people healthy and safe in the weather extremes they were experiencing. It was what had been predicted. It was what was happening. So I was surprised to hear my patient say it.

“Oh,” I said. “I definitely do.” We’ve known each other a while, and I know her daughter, granddaughter and great-grandson well, too. We’d gone through quite a lot of medicine together, revealed enigmatically in small episodes like a slow-moving TV drama. This could become another storyline.

As I asked a bit more, and we discussed it for a short time, I realised that it wasn’t that she didn’t believe in climate change, it was that change in climate as we tend to hear about it wasn’t a thing she experienced. Bushfire smoke and unseasonable weather definitely were. And they did affect her in numerous ways.

If I said I was going to write about climate change now, you’d expect me to write about carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, of concentrations in parts per million. We might mention farting cows, and have a little chuckle before getting back to the serious business of the perils of allowing average temperature to rise more than 2 degrees. We’d talk about sea-level rises and debate whether these would be measured in centimetres or metres. We would talk about glaciers and Greenland, polar bears and parasites. And my essay could be confined to the environmental (green-coloured) pages of the newspaper, where it can do no harm to the parallel worlds of business or politics.

My patient’s experience is very different. She’s experiencing the smell of the air, and her lungs are bringing back up the fine particles of smoke blown across from the Blue Mountains. Her skin feels the change in temperature of 10 degrees from one day to the next, and the pain in her joints tells her this is an unpleasant and undesirable phenomenon. Her jangling nerves still remind her that she slipped on her steps at a time of heavy rainfall, suffering a nasty fracture of her arm.

Perhaps it’s not that she doesn’t believe in climate change. She’s suffered the effects of it more than I have. Perhaps it’s that there are no polar bears to be worried about in Campbelltown. There are no glaciers, shrinking or otherwise, in Queen Street. Almost no one ever experiences the actual average global temperature. The way climate change is talked about just has no bearing on her life.

“For those stuck in the middle of an environmental emergency, it’s not helpful.”

If I am honest, it doesn’t on mine, either. To a lesser degree, I experience some inconveniences. My trains are delayed because of bushfires and I’ve had roads near me blocked by floods, both of which have prevented me from making it to work. I observe changes in the timing of blossom coming out in our garden. I choose to link this to climate change, though, and I choose to worry about it on behalf of my children and their children to come. I am in a privileged position, being paid above average, having a house in working order, and having no concerns about where my next meal is coming from. What else do I have to worry about, apart from climate change? Contrast this with my patient. She has some very real fears about affording the cooling at home, and she worries about her granddaughter’s health problems after getting out of a violent relationship. This doesn’t leave much room to worry about polar bears and ice sheets. The irony here is that those, like my patients, who will be most affected by the changes in the climate, those least able to adapt, are those who are already struggling and therefore not worrying much about climate change as we conventionally talk about it.

What’s going on here? Those of us who talk, write and campaign about climate change are often dismissed as being out-of-touch, latte-sipping, inner-city types. After all, the inner city is where the Greens have most of their support. In his book The Lucky Culture, journalist Nick Cater describes this familiar bogeyman for the Right wing — the university-educated, left-wing elite — talking to itself through the ABC. The stereotype is designed to dismiss these views and make them seem irrelevant, and to ensure that the political and economic changes needed to reduce the effects of climate change don’t find traction in the wider community.

It’s easy to rebut the stereotype. I don’t drink lattes and don’t live in the inner city, but I am passionate about doing something about climate change. However, I wonder if there is a kernel of truth in this stereotype. The truth isn’t in the claim that there is a new left-wing ruling elite who think they are morally superior, as Cater claims. In fact, I’d suggest that the Left are more riven with self-doubt than the Right, who may see themselves as the rightful rulers. The truth is in the language we use. You can almost guarantee that anyone talking about climate change in the terms I’ve described — sea-level rises, ice sheets, average temperature rises, greenhouse gasses — is not in the groups who will suffer most of the effects, either now or in the future. Those affected now talk about bushfires. They talk about floods, hurricanes, drought, crop failure, increasingly salty water, rising food prices. “Ah, yes, you see,” we shout back. “Climate change. I told you so.” For those stuck in the middle of an environmental emergency, it’s not helpful.

This big-picture language distances us from those most affected. And it’s a pattern of behaviour. We see it in the way we talk about the so-called social determinants of health. I’ve never heard my patients talk about social determinants. I’ve never heard them mention the term “food security” either. But I’ve witnessed the tears after another racial bullying episode at work. I’ve heard people reluctantly admit that they’ve not eaten for a few days so the children can. I’ve seen stress that makes people sick from constant arguments with the housing department about getting repairs for the draughts through the house. I can go home, though, and have a sip of chardonnay, debrief with my wife, perhaps write another article for Croakey about the social determinants of health. My patients, meanwhile, have no escape. No need for the words when you live inside it.

*Read the rest of this article at Inside Story


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27 thoughts on “Watch your language: why the climate change case has to be personal

  1. Daly

    Thank you Tim for a very thought provoking contribution to the debate.
    It is precisely because those most affected have no voice in this issue that as a society, not just an economy, we need to ensure the best public policy for all Australians is implemented. That is current and future Australians.

  2. Coaltopia

    “hear the voices of marginalised and vulnerable communities” – they finally managed to get funding for the Torres Strait seawalls – and Fiji kindly agreed to take Kiribati refugees as a last resort after NZ and Australian (?) rejection.

    Bangladesh and other countries won’t have that luxury. The possibility of the globe only being able to support one billion (rich?) people is quite.

  3. Tamas Calderwood

    And yet there hasn’t been any actual global warming for 16 years… remarkable…

  4. rhwombat

    Calderwood: the channel billed cuckoo of climate change.

  5. Ted Parker

    “In fact, I’d suggest that the Left are more riven with self-doubt than the Right, who may see themselves as the rightful rulers”.
    Only fools are certain, intelligent people are always uncertain. Life is not black and white and is far more complex than the simplistic drivel from Cater, Bolt, Akerman, Newsverylimited.

  6. Tamas Calderwood

    Ah… yeah…that graph doesn’t show any warming JamesH… which is kind of my point…

    You may have noticed a bunch of recent academic papers that are trying to explain the “warming pause”? No?

  7. Jimmyhaz

    Surely denialists have moved beyond the intellectually bankrupt ‘warming pause’ by now. The ‘warming pause’ only exists if you intentionally frame the graph to be as misleading as possible.


    Does that look like no warming to you? Dips, spikes and plateau’s have been around since records started. They are identical to the temperature variation that we are seeing now.

    It doesn’t matter what the short-term global average temperature is, the only thing that matters is that it is constantly trending up in the long-term.

  8. fractious

    How surprisement, Tamas can’t see the upward slope in the link JamesH posted. Of course, if you plot the trend for 30 years (the minimum period accepted as meaningful by anyone even vaguely informed on the subject – heck even that charlatan Watts allowed that) this is what you get:


    Go on Tamas, tell me you can’t see the slope, I dare you.

  9. fractious

    Tim Senior, thanks, an interesting post with a different angle on why many cannot accept or deal with what’s happening. As someone who works full time for a very ordinary rate these days, I can fully appreciate why those who visit your clinic are so preoccupied with day-to-day stresses that they have no time for big-picture items like climate change, not to mention other, linked processes like continued and accelerating biodiversity loss (bye bye Cumberland Plain Woodlands, thanks to NSW Inc’s Growth Centres “plan”, for example).

    Thanks to State and Federal policies and their fanatical obsession with cutting government expenditure, the predicament of the people you talk about is only going to get worse – cuts to public health funding, cuts to (if not abolition of) funding for state and federal climate change/ environment departments, cuts to (if not abolition of) grants for reveg/ rehab projects, cuts to low-income super contributions, proposals to reduce or remove penalty rates and so on. Thankfully I have no-one directly dependent on me so I can be relatively free to move if the need arises – those who have families and/ or big mortgages and who are on low incomes will not be so lucky, and to be frank not being in calamitous debt comes higher up the scale of priorities than most other things.

    That’s why it is critial that those who can do something do it, and that especially includes multinationals who employ staff here and those here who makes a motza in the process. What these organisations (and the likes of Tamas) need to remember is that this isn’t just about now, it’s about what sort of planet we pass on to those who follow.

  10. wayne robinson


    My previous comment was apparently rejected.

    Anyway. The graph does show warming of the lower atmosphere. It’s just not statistically significant over the period considered.

    ‘Global’ in ‘global warming’ doesn’t just refer to the lower atmosphere. It also refers to the oceans, the cryosphere and the ground.

    The ‘pause’ was due to cherry picking the data set of global atmospheric temperatures, starting with a warmer El Niño year and finishing with a cooler La Niña year.

    In this period, the oceans continue to warm. The Arctic icecap continues to melt.

  11. michael crook

    Ignore Tamas, it is far more productive than wasting time responding. I think that Tim is being too hard on those who do actually have a view of the world as it really is, not as the commercial media and self interested politicians portray it. The task of the “well informed” then becomes one of informing our fellow citizens who may not have the opportunity to inform themselves. This is called leadership, and is absolutely essential if we are to counter lies being peddled by the mouthpieces for the corporations.

  12. Tamas Calderwood

    Wayne – the argo buoys show ocean warming of 0.02c per decade for the upper 2kms. Not much warming there either. So where is this dangerous warming?

  13. AR

    rhW – at least a cuckoo lays eggs even if to the destruction of its host. Somehow I doubt that such as Tamas breed, Nature could not be so ironic.
    re the graph, Tamas, do you not understand what the green line indicates?

  14. Jimmyhaz

    You’re being intentionally disingenuous Tamas.


    There’s your dangerous warming, on a constant upward incline.

    Stop cherry-picking facts that are totally meaningless on their own to support your agenda. You may as well be arguing that the earth is cooling because the arctic sheet ice grew one year out of the past 30.

  15. hippiesparx

    If, after 150 years of agitation, the masses cannot see the harm the corporate state is doing to them I don’t see why we should wring our hands about their fate.
    Let them die of asthma if they’re so stupid that they vote Liberal.
    Idiots are a drain on positive energies and to what end?
    So they can survive and breed?
    Great result.
    Just what the world needs, more idiots.
    The west of Sydney and similar fools are why we are suffering Abbot.
    Sorry, but I hope they all die, along with Abbot.
    I have no sympathy.
    Horses to water etc.
    Island states are more deserving of latte class support than brain dead bogans.
    Poor bastards are undeserving of their fate, unlike the bogan in the a/c house with the 56″ plasma and V6 commode in the carport.

  16. wayne robinson


    The oceans to a depth of 2000 metres corresponds to 200 atmospheres of air. In addition, the heat capacity of water is greater than that of air (adding the same amount of heat to the oceans as to the atmosphere results in a smaller increase in temperature).

    0.02 degrees of warming in the oceans per decade is an enormous amount of heat. If the same amount of heat was going into the atmosphere it would correspond to 8 degrees of warming.

    It’s simplistic to assume that the temperature of the atmosphere corresponds exactly to the temperature of the atmosphere. As an example, the Gulf Stream warms northwestern Europe as Arctic winds blow across the Atlantic south of Greenland, picking up heat and moisture. But if you attempted to go swimming in the North Atlantic in the northern part of the Gulf Stream, you’d freeze very quickly.

  17. Patriot

    Sorry, but it’s all over for the CAGW brigade. People are wise to the con now. Give these fringe dwelling loonies 10-15 years and the few remaining faithful will be a doomsday cult going to door to door begging for donations to carry out their wacky “research”.

  18. Jimmyhaz

    Is this one of those things that if you repeat enough becomes true?

    The science is entirely there, AGW is real, accept it and move on.

  19. Tamas Calderwood

    So what about all these recent academic papers that talk about the warming pause? Are they all cherry picking too? Don’t tell me you guys haven’t seen them…

    Wayne: 2/100ths of a degree per decade isn’t a lot of warming. The variability totally swamps the tiny signal.

    Game over guys. Global warming can’t be a crisis if the globe is not warming.

  20. wayne robinson


    The Earth is warming. Even during the so-called ‘pause’ (created by cherry picking the data set by starting with a warm El Niño year and ending with a cooler La Niña year), the trend line for lower atmospheric temperatures is positive (it’s sloping upwards to the right). The oceans are warming, even with the figures you cite (and the Argo figures are based on newly developed technology for a much shorter period than atmospheric measurements). And the Arctic icecap continues to melt.

    Care to modify your last claim? It’s similar to your previous claim that fossil fuels are becoming cheaper and more abundant because the price of fracked natural gas in America is dropping (there’s not the domestic demand for it and America lacks the infrastructure to export it to world markets it’s a question of supply and demand) and fossil fuels are forming a larger percentage of GDP (cheaper should mean less).

  21. JohnB

    Trolls aside, the experience of reviewing how climate change is represented during discussion is interesting and, to me, somewhat novel.

    As an engineer, I probably typify the type of person that Tim wrote about – I tend to want to know about things instead of necessarily to experience and thus to develop a personal knowledge of them.

    Thanks, Tim, for suggesting a change of perspective.

    Seemingly, only death will change certain trolls’ perspectives – not experience, not argument, and certainly not knowledge about.

  22. Scott

    Wayne…you can’t just take a temperature range, plot a slope and go..”look, its sloping upwards, it must be warming” (well, I guess you can if your maths knowledge is restricted to Year 12)

    What you are describing is a very simplistic OLS trend, which doesn’t take into account errors or any concept of statistic significance. Most experts acknowledge that there has been a pause in statistically significant (at the 95% level) warming in the atmosphere over the last 10-15 years (hence why there is such a focus on sea warming, clouds and atmospheric particles which were never majorly considered in earlier climate models. The pause led scientists to wonder where the heat was going)

    But your lack of statistical skills is not uncommon. One of the major issues with Climate Science is that the statistical knowledge of most of the “experts” in the field is ordinary. It has led to the overestimation of climate sensitivity; which, if you have been paying attention, has been reducing over the years as the statisticians point out the errors in the previous papers.

    It is no surprise that most of the current crop of skeptics (mosher, mcintrye etc) have advanced mathematical/statistical training that the climate guys lack. And why they continue to gain traction at the expense of the established climate science group.

  23. wayne robinson


    I was taking issue with Tamas’ claim that the Earth isn’t warming. It is – just not statistically significantly over the periods considered, including the ‘pause’ generated by cherry picking the data set or the Argus measurements of ocean temperature which by definition is over too short a period, since 2003, to reach significance.

    Everyone knows that trends have to be assessed over longer periods.

    What makes you think that is was statisticians who caused climate scientists to review their estimates of the climate sensitivity to greenhouse gases? Reference please. There was an article in ‘Science’ I think last year that reduced the sensitivity of climate to a 1.9 to 2.9 degree Celsius increase with doubling of CO2 from pre-industrial levels based on what happened in the past in the paleontogic record.

    Also, what makes you think that climate scientists only turned to the oceans in desperation in order to explain the ‘pause’? The data for the oceans until recently hasn’t been available, so scientists were concerned with the subsystem (the atmosphere) for which the data is available.

  24. Scott

    Why hasn’t the info been available Wayne? Because it wasn’t considered relevant. It has been only since the pause that scientists have been saying…”Hey, my model stinks. Why is that? Could there be a heat sink somewhere?
    I might throw some dollars at deep sea temperature research”
    As for the statisticians causing the scientists to review their climate sensitivity, one of the main items to come out of the “climategate” reviews (the Oxburg inquiry) was that statistical methods being used were inappropriate in some cases (for example, the Michael Mann “hockey stick” which overestimated the degree of warming compared to the past). The head of the Royal Statistical society said at the time “We cannot help remarking that it is very surprising that research in an area that depends so heavily on statistical methods has not been carried out in close collaboration with professional statisticians”
    That was in 2010. Since then, the statistical work has been a lot better and, as you note, the sensitivities have been going down. You do the math.

  25. wayne robinson


    Scientists don’t decide to throw research money at a line of enquiry. They have to submit a research proposal and get the money that way. Approval depends on whether their research is technically feasible. It wasn’t possible to measure deep ocean temperatures till recently. Measuring oceanic temperatures previously was crude (throwing a bucket on a rope overboard, measuring the temperature of engine intake water in ships cruising the oceans).

    Anyway. The ‘pause’ isn’t real. It’s an artefact of cherry picking the data set. If you look at the atmospheric temperature record for the past 60 years there have been other similar decade long ‘pauses’ or even declines, in a background of steadily increasing temperature.

    To give an analogy. If you have a fair coin, you’d expect equal heads and tails if you tossed it enough times. If you had a rigged coin, which gives 60% heads/40% tails, and tossed it 10 times, you wouldn’t be surprised if you got 5 heads and 5 tails (it’s similar to getting 4 heads and 6 tails with a fair coin) and it doesn’t tell you whether the coin is fair or rigged. To do that you’d need to toss the coin many times.

    Suppose you toss the coin 60 times and record whether head or tails with each toss. And arbitrarily pick a toss with a tail to start a sequence. And then scan the data and pick a tail to finish with. Doing that would increase the number of tails and make it appear the coin is fair.

    That’s exactly what was done with the ‘pause’ – starting with a warm El Niño year and finishing with a cool La Niña year. Data mining.

  26. wayne robinson


    I’ve just noticed that the president of the Royal Statistical Society you refer to is David Hand, the author of the book ‘the Improbability principle’ (strongly recommended as a good read).

    Anyway. He was commenting on the ‘hockey stick’. He’s stated that if the appropriate statistics had been used, a ‘hockey stick’ still have been generated, albeit with a less dramatic warming in the 20th century.


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