Essay | Climate change to climate crisis: An evolution in rhetoric

A collage of words and phrases used in relation to climate change, including "global warming," "environment," and "fossil fuels."

"Climate Change" by www.scootergenius.com (Kevin Smith/Flickr)

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges to global governance in the 21st century.

According to a study conducted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the planet could see a greater increase in global temperatures in the next 50 years than it did in the last 6,000 combined.

Climate change has already started to affect global affairs and today strains relations between countries.

Countries in the Middle East are fueding over water, a decline in agricultural output is fueling hunger and poverty in Latin America, and changing weather patterns are contributing to rapid urbanization worldwide, which in turn reinforces the problem of climate change.

As demonstrated by publishers and magazines like the Council on Foreign Relations and Foreign Policy, climate change is a foreign policy issue and will require multilateral cooperation to mitigate, or it will continue to affect international relations for years to come.

Interestingly, the language used to refer to this global phenomenon has shifted over the years. It was first referred to as "global warming," but this term has been phasing out in the past decade or so in favor of "climate change" which is an all encompassing term that better describes the worsening environment.

However, there has been a third term that has gained popularity in recent years: the "climate crisis." Other related terms include the "climate emergency" and "climate catastrophe." These terms put more urgency on the situation so that people can better understand the stakes of climate change.

Various organizations have made a point to replace outdated terminology with more accurate ones in regards to the environment.

For example, in 2019 The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, published an article addressing the fact they are updating their "style guide" to “to introduce terms that more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world.”

These changes came less than a year after the UN secretary general António Guterres first used the term "climate crisis" in a speech in September of 2018.

The Guardian made six main language changes on the environment. For example, "climate crisis" will be used instead of "climate change" in order to more accurately reflect the seriousness of the situation. Also, "climate denier" will be used instead of "climate skeptic" to be more specific, as well as "greenhouse gas emissions" in place of "carbon emissions." 

The Guardian stands as an example of how language can have power in society and can affect public opinion, and prompts other news sources to make similar changes. 

In addition to rhetoric changes in the media, new words have even been added to the dictionary.

In the month prior to the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26) in November of 2021, The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) released an update on climate terminology.

According to the Oxford Monitor Corpus of English, a source that analyzes trends in the English language, the term "climate crisis" made its first appearance in the dictionary in 2021 and the term became 20 times more popular from 2018 to 2020. Also, while the OED usually doesn’t usually include chemical formulas, it recently added CO2 to the dictionary because of its frequent use in society today.

"Global heating" is another addition to the dictionary –– despite "global warming" already existing –– because of how it reflects a more urgent and accurate connotation. Additionally, terms like "eco-anxiety" and "climate refugees" have been added as well.

The update on the Oxford English Dictionary is a telling sign of the urgency of the climate situation and better equips people to add to the discourse on environmentalism. 

It has become clear that the climate crisis is a problem that cannot be solved by one actor alone.

It will require global governance and the participation of leading international organizations, individuals, and states. The window for action is closing, and measures need to be taken immediately to mitigate the climate crisis.

Language and rhetoric hold a lot of power in our society and should be used with caution and good intentions. News sources can learn from The Guardian, which made a point to switch to more effective and informed language when referring to the climate crisis.

This switch in rhetoric has many political implications, which consequently affects the economy and society as well. Despite clear scientific evidence of a worsening environment, climate change continues to be one of the most polarizing issues in the world today.

There is a clear partisan divide over environmental regulations in the United States. Presidential candidates often address energy and environmental issues during their campaigns, and how their policies will (or will not) affect the economy. 

In an interview for The Journal of Critical Thought and Praxis, Dr. Danielle Endres, Associate Professor of Communication and faculty in the Environmental Humanities Masters Program at the University of Utah, introduces climate change rhetoric as a social phenomenon.

She states that “Climate change is not only a material phenomenon; it is also a social phenomenon. We cannot hope to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, slow the warming of the planet, and adapt to the changes already in effect without broad societal change.”

The science itself is rather straightforward, but it is what we do with the science that is causing extreme deliberation in our society.

Increased environmental regulation is necessary to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis. New environmental organizations, regional responses, and improved education methods are just a few ways in which we can halt or even reverse the effects of climate change in our generation.

The climate crisis is one of the largest and most consequential problems that we have faced as a society and will require collective action to overcome. Changing the way in which we refer to the changing climate will determine the methods we use to effectively respond to the situation –– rhetoric holds power and it is time that we yield this tool to create a more environmentally-conscious society. 

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