Climate Change or Language Change?

Most of us have grown up hearing the phrases “climate change” and “global warming” in the news for as long as we can remember.  These terms, which have become entrenched in public discourse over several decades, do not adequately reflect the severity of the crisis the planet is facing today.  “Climate change” is inherently passive and simply implies an adjustment to the earth’s climate, perhaps caused by nothing in particular, while “global warming” sounds intrinsically non-threatening, hardly instilling the sense of urgency now required when addressing the climate crisis. 

The terms “climate emergency,” “environmental crisis,” and “ecological breakdown” to name but a few, are more suitable for describing what is happening to the planet, and are the preferred terms of environmental activists and many organisations concerned with such matters.  Regardless of whether one thinks it is important to change the language we use when talking about topical environmental issues, it simply makes sense to update any language that no longer adequately reflects what it is supposed to be describing.  Changing the way we talk about what is happening to the environment is not a trivial political matter that can be confined to one section of society particularly concerned about the environment; it is imperative the language we use around such issues changes to reflect the reality in which we are all living.  In May, The Guardian newspaper updated its in-house rules regarding the language it adopts when providing coverage on the environment.  If more major news organisations adopted a similar style guide, this new language would be gradually phased into public discourse, so that the newer terms become the automatic go-to phrases, rather than “climate change” and “global warming,” which by now should have acquired an archaic status.

Dr Wallace Broecker is often credited with coining the phrase “global warming” in his influential peer-reviewed 1975 paper: “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” (New York Times).  Nearly forty-five years on, the planet has changed significantly; in terms of global temperature, the five warmest years recorded have all been after 2010 (NASA).  These terms are being used in a context completely different to the one they were created for; they seem almost like euphemisms now, and a new, updated set of terms is needed because we have progressed beyond “climate change” and “global warming” to a critical state whereby urgent action is required to prevent the planet reaching an intolerable condition. 

It is reflective of a growing impetus to address the rapidly worsening climate emergency that the fastest-growing environmental organisation in the world today is called “Extinction Rebellion.”  The name of the group refers to the possibility of mass extinctions in the future caused by the climate crisis, whereas “Greenpeace,” formed in 1971, is suggestive of an idealised environmental haven we should strive for.  This is not to pit one organisation against the other or suggest the superiority of one, but the stark semantic differences between the two names seem to be testament to the changing times.

Regularly hearing the word “emergency” being used to refer to the planet is sure to have more of an impact on the collective public consciousness than “change.”  Of course, changing the language we use when talking about environmental issues is not even close to being one of the most important ways of addressing the threats the planet is facing.  Alone, it won’t do anything to alleviate the very real pressures the planet is under; however, the discourse surrounding the earth’s conditions needs to change and then be consistently enforced to hasten a change in public perception and signify that we have entered a new phase of environmental activism.  Now more than ever, we shouldn’t be cloaking the severity of the climate emergency by using outdated language that fails to convey the reality of the planet’s condition. 

Featured image by Lucy Shell. 

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