Future tense: how the language you speak influences your willingness to take climate action

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The language that you speak may affect your approach to climate change.
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Astghik Mavisakalyan, Curtin University; Clas Weber, University of Western Australia, and Yashar Tarverdi, Curtin University

Does the language we speak influence how much we care about the environment? Our new research suggests that the answer is yes.

Speakers of languages without a distinct future tense, such as Finnish, care more about the environment than speakers of languages with future tense marking, such as French or English. Their respective countries also have stricter climate change policies.

Read more:
We need to talk about how we talk about climate change

This is surprising. You might suppose that different languages are just different ways of encoding the same information. Surely when an English speaker says “It will snow tomorrow” and a German speaker says “Es schneit morgen”, they are saying exactly the same thing. Why should it matter which symbols we use?

The answer may lie in the fact that language is deeply intertwined with culture and reflects an entire way of perceiving the world, a so-called Weltanschauung (world view). This view goes back to the German Romantics, and was later popularised by the linguist Benjamin Whorf.

The Whorfian view of language was for a long time met with suspicion by linguists and cognitive scientists. But it has recently experienced a resurgence. Excitingly, it has now reached other sciences, such as economics.

Whether languages come with their own world view is an elusive question that has been the springboard for more concrete concerns from economists: does language influence tangible outcomes like saving rates or the representation of women in the labour market? Again, the answer seems to be yes.

Our research shows that the way in which a language refers to the future has a bearing on environmental behaviour and policies.

Being present

Some languages, such as Finnish or German, don’t require speakers to talk about the future in a distinct way. Rather than saying “We shall go to the movies tomorrow”, they treat tomorrow as if it were today: “We go to the movies tomorrow.”

These languages are described as “present-tensed”. (True, German is able to mark the difference with the auxiliary verb “werden”, but it isn’t obligatory and sounds artificial in everyday conversation.)

On the other side are languages, such as English or French, that do require a distinct future tense marking. These are called “future-tensed” languages.

Our research, published in the Journal of Comparative Economics, shows that speakers of present-tensed languages are more likely to engage in green behaviour.

According to our estimates, a change from a present- to a future-tensed language results in a 20% decrease in an individual’s propensity to help safeguard the environment. What’s more, speakers of future-tensed languages are 24% less willing to pay higher taxes to fund environmental policies. These estimates are based on the World Values Surveys, a collection of nationally representative, individual-level surveys conducted in nearly 100 countries.

A similar effect can be seen at the national level. Countries that speak a present-tensed language generally have stricter climate change policies.

This becomes clear by comparing countries’ scores on the CLIM index, which assesses the level of international co-operation, domestic legal frameworks, and fiscal and regulatory measures concerning climate change. The maximum score is 1, the minimum 0, and a higher value indicates stricter climate change policies.

CLIM index scores around the world.
CREDIT, Author provided

While it is true that the UK, a country with a future-tensed language, has the highest CLIM index score, other future-tensed countries (such as the United States and Australia) score 15% lower on average than present-tensed ones.

If we allow ourselves to use a hypothetical example, this suggests that if Greece were to switch from a future- to a present-tensed language, the stringency of its climate change policies would be at the level of Sweden.

What’s the explanation for this?

There are two potential mechanisms by which these effects might arise.

First, it may be that language merely reflects these societies’ underlying cultures. Put simply, some cultures care more about the future, and these cultures may also be more likely to speak a present-tensed language (which treats the future in the same way as today).

The second possibility is that language may itself influence our thinking and behaviour. Talking about the future as if it were today might make the future feel closer. Humans have a known tendency to “discount” the future – we’d rather have $100 today than in a year’s time.

So by making the future seem closer, present-tensed languages might make people care more about it. This in turn might make them more willing to bear present costs, such as higher prices for green products, for the sake of future benefits like avoiding climate change.

It’s also possible that both mechanisms work together: language might serve as a cultural marker, and at the same time shape our behaviour too. Indeed, there is evidence that this is the case.

Read more:
Thomas Piketty, climate change and discounting our future

Our results may have practical implications. In the short term, it seems unlikely that countries will eliminate the future tense from their language. But there may be other opportunities.

For instance, environmental campaigns in future-tensed countries might try to counteract the linguistic effect of future tense and portray the dangers of climate change as particularly urgent and pressing. And when deliberating about investing in otherwise similar countries, international organisations might decide that their investment has a better payoff in present-tensed countries.

The ConversationFinally, we might even suggest that international climate negotiations should be conducted exclusively in Finnish – although we might be waiting a while for everyone to catch up.

Astghik Mavisakalyan, Senior Research Fellow, Curtin University; Clas Weber, Lecturer, University of Western Australia, and Yashar Tarverdi, Research fellow, Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Queensland’s new land clearing bill will help turn the tide, despite its flaws

Anita J Cosgrove, The University of Queensland; April Reside, The University of Queensland; James Watson, The University of Queensland, and Martine Maron, The University of Queensland

Queensland’s Labor government this month tabled a bill to tighten the regulation of land clearing. Queensland is by far the worst offender in this area, following a litany of reversals of vegetation protection.

After a period of tightened laws between 2004 and 2013, the Newman government set about unwinding key reforms during its 2012-15 term.

Following these changes, land-clearing rates quadrupled to almost 400,000 hectares per year, to the dismay of conservationists, with rising concern about the impacts on wild animal welfare and wider ecological impacts.

Read more:
Why aren’t Australia’s environment laws preventing widespread land clearing?

The state’s Labor government, which retained power at the November 2017 election, made an election promise to tighten vegetation management laws. However, the bill is likely to be fiercely debated after the parliamentary committee tables its report next month.

Although the bill promises a steep reduction in land clearing, albeit without any firm target, there is likely to be a significant gap between what the government has promised and what its legislation may deliver in reality.

To explain why, let’s look in more detail at what the proposed legislation does, as well as what it doesn’t do.

High-value agriculture

The 2013 amendments legalised the clearing of mature forest for large-scale crop-growing developments. The bill will once again ban it, fulfilling Labor’s election promise, but it remains a major point of friction with agriculturalists.

This will not stop the roughly 114,000 hectares that have already been approved from being cleared. It would, however, stop any more approvals.

About 10% of clearing of mature forest is due to high value agriculture approvals.

Self-assessed clearing

Up to 67% of clearing of regulated vegetation is occurring under self-assessment provisions. No permit is required for this, provided that landowners follow the code and give notice of their plans.

Of this self-assessed clearing, about 60% is for “thinning”. The government has now recognised that “thinning is not a low-risk activity” and is removing the main provision that allows it, but is keeping some self-assessed thinning provisions, such as for advanced regrowth.

Other types of self-assessed clearing would continue, particularly the clearing of mulga forests for livestock fodder, albeit under a tighter code. This was a major concession to agricultural interests.

As the bill has not banned self-assessment outright, future land-clearing rates will ultimately depend on how stringent the new codes turn out to be in practice.

“Area Management Plans” are an older, parallel mechanism for allowing self-assessed clearing. Clearing under these plans accounts for up to 38% of clearing of regulated vegetation. The new legislation would phase out existing plans, but would retain a provision to make new area plans, including for thinning.

Google satellite image of remnant forest that was legally thinned under a self-assessable code in 2015. The top half shows intact forest, and the lower half thinned forest.


The government promised to protect “high conservation value regrowth”. This includes threatened ecosystems and species habitats that are needed for recovery. The new law would expand these definitions to regulate clearing of regrowing forests older than 15 years, and of regrowth alongside streams in all Great Barrier Reef catchments, not just the northern ones as at present.

This will bring more than a million hectares that are currently exempt under regulatory control, a major step forward. However, the bill excludes regrowth that has been “locked in” as exempt on property maps. Clearing of regulated regrowth may also still proceed under a new self-assessable code, which apparently lacks protections for endangered species habitats or ecosystems.


Exemptions pose a major stumbling block to the government’s promise to “protect remnant and high conservation value regrowth”. An area currently exempt on a regulatory map can be reclassified, and the government plans to do this for more than 1 million hectares of high conservation value regrowth. However, areas that have been “certified exempt” on a property map cannot be reversed – this represents 23 million hectares (13% of the state’s area). The government has reaffirmed its commitment not to reverse these exempt areas.

What’s more, the bill allows ongoing locking in of exemptions. This is a significant issue because more than 60% of all tree clearing is exempt. Most of this is in already locked-in areas, and a large fraction includes advanced regrowth of high conservation importance.

It remains to be seen how much the A$500 million Land Restoration Fund will protect these locked-in areas.

Read more:
Land clearing isn’t just about trees – it’s an animal welfare issue too

In light of these loopholes and exemptions, the new law looks set to fall short of what the Queensland government has promised. This is primarily due to ongoing reliance on self-assessed clearing and exempt areas. However, the proposed legislation and funding together should go some way towards turning around Queensland’s soaring land-clearing rates.

Tree clearing will continue to be a hotly contested policy space, and not just in Queensland. New South Wales recently trod the same path, placing a heavily reliance on self-assessed codes. These were recently challenged successfully in court. A similar challenge is under way in the Northern Territory, citing the greenhouse emissions caused by a large-scale clearing approval.

The federal opposition has also pledged to tighten land-clearing controls in national legislation. The tide may well be turning, albeit only slowly so far.

The ConversationThe authors acknowledge the contribution of Dr Martin Taylor, Protected Areas and Conservation Science Manager at WWF-Australia and Adjunct Senior Lecturer at The University of Queensland.

Anita J Cosgrove, Senior Research Assistant in the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland, and Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.