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The evolving lingo of climate change » Yale Climate Connections
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The evolving lingo of climate change » Yale Climate Connections


Words matter – especially with a topic as complex and critical as climate change. Language can be used for motivation or demotivation, to clarify or obscure a threat or to make it clearer. Moreover, when it comes to our human-altered climate, there’s a perennial tug-of-war between scientists’ desire for precision and nuance and the need to make key points understandable to policymakers and the public.

Here’s a brief history of some terms and phrases that are being used to fill the ever-growing linguistic gap in relation to climate change.

The problem is apparent

Climate science wasn’t always front-page news. In fact, British climatologist Hubert Lamb once summarized a long-held view of his discipline as “The dry-as-dust bookkeeping branch of meteorology.” Scientists began to unravel the history of ice ages as far back as the early 1800s, but well into the 20thcentury, it was generally assumed that the current climate was more stable.

After regular monitoring of carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa in Hawaii in 1957, long-term concerns about greenhouse gases began increasing. Global temperatures weren’t yet climbing in a sustained way, though. In fact, the Northern Hemisphere was cooling due to the sun-blocking aerosols that were spewed in the industrial boom following World War II.

In the 1970s scientists began to study both these cooling and warming factors. Usually, they were classified under the broad heading “Astrophysics”. Climate change. The first prominent appearance of this term Global warmingWas in a 1975 Science paper by Columbia University scientist Wallace Broecker entitled “Climatic change: Are we on the brink of a pronounced global warming?”

As global temperatures began to rise sharply in 1980s, the focus shifted towards greenhouse gases. At this point, environmental regulations began to restrict sunlight-blocking aerosols while allowing carbon dioxide, and other invisible greenhouse gases, to grow unconstrained.

The United States made global warming front-page news. in 1988When a major congressional hearing occurred, it coincided with the ravaging wildfires in West. Journalists of the time referred to the problem as either global warming, or the greenhouse effect. Scientists already began to favor this idea. Climate Change – a more versatile term that could embrace past, present, and future events, whether natural (such as ice ages) or human-caused.

The launchThe Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC), was established in 1988 and became its first major institution. assessment in 1990-91, further solidified the use of “climate change” in scientific parlance.

Meanwhile, “global warming” remained – and still remains – in wide popular use as shorthand. It’s an accurate term as far as it goes, but too narrowTo communicate all the threats that extend beyond higher temperatures. Scientists and activists have already done this. advocatedFor the term Global heating, a label that subtly implies human activity is behind what’s going on.

Politics enter the picture

Virtually all of the world’s nations, including the United States, signed on to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a treaty finalized at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The treaty’s objective – “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” – still guides all UNFCCC activities. These include the annual Conference of the Parties.COP) meetings that have included COP15 (Copenhagen, 2009), COP21 (Paris, 2015), and COP26 (Glasgow, 2021).

Some of the many signatures by participants at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro who signed the Earth Pledge, promising to “help make the Earth a secure and hospitable home for present and future generations”. (Image credit: UN Photo / Michos Tzovaras)

Given that the UN had succeeded in addressing ozone loss with the UN, Montreal ProtocolThe hopes were high in 1987 that the Rio Agreement could bring about the same results for climate change. However, pushing in the other direction were the world’s massive fossil fuel companies, politicians allied with them, and a contingent of think tanks, often peppered with a few iconoclastic scientists.

These naysayers were often referred to as climate-change skepticsA phrase that refers to the following: rankled many researchersSkepticism was seen as an integral part of all science by those who believed it to be. Soon, alternative labels like contrarians were created. Some observers, especially climatehawks (activist-oriented stakeholders that include some scientists), felt that these terms were not sufficient to convey the distance the naysayers have from the growing mainstream of climate science.

News stories in the 1990s often paired quotes from a mainstream scientist with those from a skeptic – a distorted “both sides” approach that obscured the larger asymmetry. This type of pseudo-balanced reporting is now obsolete largely evaporatedAccording to a 2021 study, it was.

Taking a page from the use of “Holocaust denier” for those who make the incredulous claim that the Holocaust never happened, the term climate denier got increasing tractionThe 2010s. Since climate itself isn’t being denied, a more precise variant is climate-change denier.

Climate-change denial is highlighted in this protestor’s sign from the March for Science in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 2018. (Image credit: Adam Fagen / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Mainstream media outletsfor example, the Associated Press) have often veered away from the climate-denier label, perhaps in part because there are multiple modesClimate science rejection and opposition. Occasionally, for instance, ​some ​scientists on the fringe of the debate have claimed​ ​that carbon dioxide doesn’t cause global warming at all – a clear case of denying established science. Others accept some of the basic precepts of greenhouse-gas warming but assert that the amount of warming would be on the reassuringly low side, or that various feedbacks (sometimes unspecified) would “balance out” greenhouse warming, or that human adaptation would make the whole thing a minor concern.

Many of the most prominent and outspoken climate-change contrarians from the 1990s have either died or been out of the discussion. Some of the most vocal naysayers have been discredited by the constant advancement of climate. Yet there’s still huge financial incentive for those invested in fossil fuels (financially, emotionally, and/or politically) to downplay or dismiss climate-change science.

The thorny topic of geoengineering – what many consider to be the last-ditch form of climate action – has its own lingo. This term was popularized in the 2000s and 2010. It is used to refer to two types of activities: solar radiation mitigation, or SRM (i.e. blocking sunlight from cooling Earth) and carbon dioxide removal (i.e. The process of removing carbon from the atmosphere, whether by natural or artificial means, is called SRM.

The term has changed over the years. Climate intervention strategiesThis alternative term has gained popularity for these activities. It’s also becoming more common to see SRM described as solar geoengineering and CDR simply as carbon removal.

The linguistic revolution

Climate change has been discussed in traditional and digital media in a way that has not changed since the late 1980s, when it first became a hot topic.

The impetus for this was the blockbuster IPCC report2018 report that described the potential consequences of 1.5 degrees Celsius increase in temperature over preindustrial levels. The report stressed the need to cut global carbon dioxide emissions by nearly half by 2030, compared to 2010 values, in order to preserve a two-thirds chance of keeping long-term warming to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial values (with the potential for some brief OvershootIn some cases, it may be higher than that threshold. This would allow you to stay within the range. reduce the oddsSome of the worst effects of climate change are the destabilization and destruction of Antarctic Ice Sheets, as well as other potential consequences. Tipping pointsThese have dire global consequences.

It’s the 2030 framing used in this report that has fostered widespread adoption of the “ten years to act” concept.

It was in existence from the 1990s through the 2000s. widely assumed by diplomatic bodies that 2°C of warming was a suitable and reasonably practical target. In fact, the 2°C goal was central to the nonbinding Copenhagen Accord2009. However, leaders and activists from developing countries, including some of the world’s most vulnerable small island states – their very existence threatened by sea level rise they had no role in creating – were already pushing for a more stringent target, 1.5°C.

The 2015 Paris Agreement aimed for a compromise, calling to “limit global warming to well below 2, and preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.” The IPCC’s subsequent report lent immense momentum to the 1.5°F goal (even though the planet’s nation-by-nation emission-reduction goals continue to fall short of the mark).

Many scientists and activists were also inspired by the 2018 IPCC report. This prompted the spread new, more dire terminology. Climate crisis, climate emergency, Climate breakdown. Two other terms, both famously employed by United Nations secretary general António Guterres, have also gained currency: Existential threat(2018) Code Red for humanity (2021).

UN Secretary-General António Guterres addresses a virtual ministerial plenary meeting on September 30, 2021, in advance of that November’s COP26 meeting in Glasgow. (Image credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten)

The Guardian, one of the world’s most widely read legacy-media websites, drew global notice in 2019 with its decisionTo vote for the new terms

The Guardian has updated their style guide to include terms that better describe the environmental crises facing the globe. Instead of “climate change” the preferred terms are “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” and “global heating” is favoured over “global warming,” although the original terms are not banned.

Katharine Viner, Editor-in-Chief explained: “We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue … The phrase ‘climate change,’ for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.”

2020 style guide revisionThe terms were also added by the Associated Press but they were not mandatory.

Terms Climate crisisAnd climate emergencySome scientists, policymakers, and others may use them. They are acceptable.

Declaring human-caused climate change to be an emergency might seem odd given that it’s been under way for decades (a lumbering emergency if ever there were one). The designation does have a practical side. It means that there must be a response, and it must be done quickly. Cities, states and nations can use the designation to support a variety actions, including those that have declared a climate emergency.

Although many cities had declared climate emergency up until 2018, momentum increased in 2019-2020, when Argentina and Canada, Japan, and even the European Union, followed suit. More than 2,000 jurisdictions from 35 countries had declared climate emergencies by October 2021, which is more than a half a billion people. had declared a climate emergency. Over 11,000 scientists joined the effort to create a climate emergency. 2019 paper in BioScience asserting “clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.”

Students organized a climate strike on March 15, 2019, which included demands to declare climate emergencies (as shown in this photo from Melbourne Australia). (Image credit: Takver via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)

As for “climate breakdown,” the climate itself doesn’t break down like a washing machine or a bicycle might – but the phrase does bring to mind a metaphorical monkey wrench of human-produced greenhouse gases torquing the finely tuned mechanisms that preserve the climatic envelope to which people and ecosystems have adapted for centuries.

The phrase “existential threat” can be interpreted in a wide range of ways. Does it mean that everyone would literally cease existence? Or is the threat instead to civilization “as we know it,” a terrifying but not identical concept? The possibility that high-end climate scenarios might someday trigger a mass extinction event can’t be entirely ruled out, as notedThe MIT Climate Portal. It is more likely that there will be an existential threat to certain cultures, such as the indigenous peoples of small island countries or polar regions. This could also lead to major disruption to many aspects of other societies.

When is the best time for each of these terms to be used? There’s no rulebook, of course: the terms are so fresh that their usage is still being worked out in the marketplace of language.

Protestors outside the Copenhagen COP15 Meeting on December 12, 2009. (Image credit to Bob Henson

Considering each term’s origin and usage, one might argue that the physical manifestations of climate change (observed and predicted) have prompted a global climate crisis and led to local, regional, and global climate emergencies.

The toolbox of terms that we use to talk about climate change is just that, a toolbox. Greta Thunberg is a Swedish climate advocate made this point vividly when she addressed the UN’s 2021 general assembly in September:

“Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah … Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises.”

In short, words indeed matter – but actions matter even more when it comes to addressing the calamities of a human-warmed atmosphere.


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