Wordsmithing the Climate Crisis

International dialog bogs down in linguistic nuance

[Editor's note: Terra Associate Editor Lee Sherman is reporting from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Warsaw, Poland, on research by Gregg Walker, Oregon State professor of speech communications.]

Warsaw's massive National Stadium held 10,000 delegates and observers from around the world for the United Nations climate change conference in November.

Warsaw’s massive National Stadium held 10,000 delegates and observers from around the world for the United Nations climate change conference in November.

 

I’m sitting at a laptop that’s locked onto a long table of laptops in the vast IT space in Warsaw’s national stadium. Hunched at row after row of computer tables are a couple hundred people from all over the world. Side by side, we’re sending emails and reading the latest updates on the mega-conference in which we are participating: COP19, the 19th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Gregg Walker, the Oregon State University speech professor I’m shadowing, calls it a “climate change city.” That’s exactly how it feels. Just like in a city, the energy here is driven, determined. These 10,000 representatives of nations from the mightiest to the tiniest, along with the scientists and activists with non-governmental organizations, university students and academics like Walker, are here for nothing less than saving the planet and its inhabitants from climate devastation. The mission couldn’t be more urgent. As one delegate said today, “Climate change isn’t waiting.”

Ironically, averting the biggest global crisis ever to face humanity sometimes means parsing the minutia of language. Yesterday I sat through a meeting on an adaptation report in which the delegates debated the merits of the verb “urge” versus “encourage” in Paragraph 10 and critiqued the appropriateness of the adjective “serious” to modify the noun “shortfall.” It was excruciating.

Meanwhile, a stunning photo exhibition in the halls of the plenary sessions literally looks you in the eye, like the conscience of the convention. Titled Arbores Vitae, the photos of Jan Walencik document the “last √čuropean primeval forest”–the Bialowieza. The photographer brings the viewer into the untouched and teeming swamp where bison, wolves, pygmy owls, black storks and wolves live as if the world were brand new.

The delegates hurry down the hallway to their meetings as the images look on silently.

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