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'Climate Strike' Wins 'Word of the Year' by Collins Dictionary

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'Climate Strike' Wins 'Word of the Year' by Collins Dictionary

More than 7.6 million people joined a climate strike during September's week of global action, making the week of strikes one of the biggest protests in world history.


Now, it turns out the that movement is big enough to change the English language. Collins Dictionary has chosen "climate strike" as its Word of the Year 2019.

Collins defines "climate strike" as "a form of protest in which people absent themselves from education or work in order to join demonstrations demanding action to counter climate change," CBS News reported.

The dictionary first registered the word in 2015, when it was first used to describe protests coinciding with the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. But its usage spiked this year with the rise of the global movement inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. Collins said its usage increased by 100 times in 2019.


"Climate strikes can often divide opinion, but they have been inescapable this last year and have even driven a former word of the year – Brexit – from the top of the news agenda, if only for a short time," Collins' language content consultant Helen Newstead told The Guardian. Brexit was the word of the year in 2016, according to BBC News.

The word of the year is chosen from a shortlist of 10 new terms that Collins lexicographers notice proliferating in newspapers or online, BBC Newsround explained.

This is the second year in a row that the final pick has reflected environmental concerns. 2018's word of the year was "single-use," referring to often-plastic products that are designed to be used once and then thrown away, where they can end up in the ocean and threaten marine life.

Both "climate strike" and "single-use" have seen a four-fold increase since 2013, as news stories and programs like BBC's Blue Planet II have raised awareness of the multiple crises facing Earth's ecosystems, the dictionary said.

"Climate strike" wasn't the only environmental word on the 2019 shortlist. Another contender was "rewilding," defined as "the practice of returning areas of land to a wild state, including the reintroduction of animal species that are no longer naturally found there."

Some consider rewilding as one solution to the climate crisis, CNN pointed out. One group has argued that returning a quarter of the UK to nature could draw down 47 million tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere each year.

The other words on the 2019 shortlist were bopo, a body positivity movement; cancel, for ceasing to acknowledge someone publicly as a form of censure; deepfake, a false image or video that appears unedited or the act of making one; double down, to increase one's commitment despite opposition; entryist, someone who joins a political party to change it; hopepunk, an artistic and literary movement that promotes positive action despite difficult circumstances; influencer, someone who uses social media to promote brands or lifestyles; and nonbinary, for a gender or sexual identity that refuses the binary categories of male or female, homosexual or heterosexual.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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