The Language of Climate Change

Many think tanks and NGOs in the United States and Europe — Sierra Club, Earthwatch, 1Sky — wield multimillion-dollar budgets with the aim of reducing environmental degradation and climate change on a global scale.

Yet a glance at the websites of these institutions makes it immediately obvious that very few offer materials online (or offline) in the foreign languages spoken by corporate leaders, civil servants, and citizens’ groups in countries the United States expects to make changes in environmental policy. We find nothing on these institutions’ websites in Chinese, Russian, Hindi, or Arabic.

Although English-language prescriptions may have some value in communicating with highly educated, English-speaking researchers from other countries, those individuals aren’t the key figures driving reckless, damaging development and building of factories and coal plants. Nor are they likely to be the decision-makers in the government’s response. To address issues like poisoned groundwater, increased numbers of coal plants, and disappearing forests, one must engage directly with local government and local industry, and make the case in their common language. In some nations, even the elites don’t consider this local language important for intellectual discourse.

In a nutshell, getting serious about combating climate change isn’t about bringing English speakers from developing nations to listen to Harvard professors; it’s about talking to players at the local level in the languages they best understand.

Even highly educated civil servants in Japan find Japanese summaries of English proposals far easier to comprehend. And although educated Indians may wince at the suggestion, at the local level we need to get information out in Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi, Sindhi, and Bengali.

Someone may ask if we really need to translate our ideas into dozens of languages to be effective. The answer is simple: Yes, eventually we must, if we are to pull the world back from the brink of environmental destruction. In the short term, however, we should focus on key languages such as Chinese, Russian, Arabic, and Hindi.

Translating English-language documents doesn’t imply people in these countries have a greater responsibility for global warming. Indeed, because the United States has the much larger carbon footprint, U.S. NGOs have the greater responsibility to invest in the dissemination of information about global warming.

Translation isn’t simply communication. It’s also the basis for cooperation as U.S. NGOs work with their counterparts overseas to refine the language and implement the recommendations. Translation is more than linguistic; it’s cultural. Anyone who has engaged civil servants and corporations on the ground in Asia soon learns that it’s not enough to make a proposal in the native language. A proposal has to be formatted in a specific form that can be processed by government, NGOs or companies internally. Translation, and translation that is relevant for the task at hand, is a key step in building partnerships.

Yes, it will take extra effort for the Brookings Institution and the Earth Institute to put up websites in Chinese, Arabic, and Russian. But that’s what has to happen if we want to start reaching people who can effect change.

And if we don’t, well, those in the developing world who complain that the developed world is simply not living up to its side of the bargain would have a point.

Emanuel Pastreich is the director of the Asia Institute at the Solbridge International School of Business in Daejeon, South Korea and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.