What Happens to Animals When the World is on Fire? – Framing Animals as Individuals in Climate Communications

Harley McDonald-Eckersall As the current and future impacts of the climate crisis become more apparent, the existential threat it poses to all life is increasingly unignorable. Communicators who seek to capture both animal and climate justice face an ongoing challenge: how do we represent animals other than humans as individuals with value within a discourse that often frames them as part of the problem? The challenge lies both in countering the heavily entrenched dominant narratives of human supremacy and exceptionalism, and in representing animals as more than either a ‘problem’ and contributor to the climate crisis (in the case of farmed animals) or as passive victims (in the case of wild animals). In this post, I will explore the ways we unintentionally reinforce dominant narratives of animals as lesser than humans, and provide advice for recentring and reemerging other species in climate communications. While the words that we use can seem irrelevant or unimportant in the face of the very real physical danger we face as a result of anthropogenic climate change, it is important to remember that our world is constructed through implicit and explicit stories (ACF 2016, p. 26). What we believe shapes what choices we make and what actions we take. Communication has the power to shape how we see the world. By understanding the implicit assumptions in our messaging, we can begin to deconstruct them and build new narratives grounded in common values (ibid). In the case of animals, how we communicate influences whether we are entrenching their status as fundamentally less worthy of life and freedom than humans, or whether we are challenging that at its core and redefining what it means to fight for true climate justice for all. How Climate Communication Can Erase the Animal While animals are undeniably equally impacted by the climate crisis than humans, narratives around resilience, adaptation and mitigation all too often focus on the latter while ignoring the former. Although there are many segments of society where this erasure takes place, one that is often unexplored is how the language used in climate communications reinforces a hierarchy of value that places humans at the top and all other forms of life below. The most common ways that this dominant narrative is maintained is through the normalisation of framing that de-individualises animals, the use of language which reinforces the notion of animals as existing for humans and relying on stories that feature animals as the ‘problem’ or cause of a problem. De-individualising A key way that we can reinforce a frame of animals as existing for human gain is through the use of language which erases the animal subject in preference for a homogenous species or subtype. One particularly entrenched feature of communications is the use of ‘mass nouns’ (Stibbe 2012)  to refer to animals, for instance referring to a population of cows destined for slaughter as cows or referring to animals killed for food using the umbrella term, ‘meat.’ Similarly, the use of industry terms such as ‘livestock,’