How we talk about climate change is rapidly shifting as the ramifications of unchecked carbon pollution become ever clearer. The Guardian sped that shift along last week, when it updated its style guide to encourage reporters to refer to climate change as a “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” and using “global heating” in lieu of global warming.
The outlet is a leading voice on climate coverage, meaning the move is more than symbolic. The new language could have lasting impacts on readers and how they perceive climate change, and inspire others to make similar shifts in how they talk about climate change. And with a million species at risk of extinction and a decade of rising carbon emissions turning up the broiler on the plane, describing our situation as “crisis” feels inspired. At the same time, the Guardian’s word choice has the potential to alienate some readers, further locking in gridlock.
This isn’t the Guardian’s first foray into making its own climate change news. In April, the outlet announced it would show the daily carbon dioxide numbers next to the weather forecast to “maintain attention” on the risks of climate change. Several years ago, it made a “Keep It In the Ground” series about fossil fuels in partnership with 350.org, an activist group that makes a strange bedfellow for a news outlet. The company has also divested from fossil fuels.
The language shift, though, may be the Guardian’s most radical and polarising move yet. The outlet has a stated commitment to “upholding liberal values,” and many of its readers are likely to feel right at home seeing climate change described as a crisis. Outsiders may feel differently, however.
“We know from previous scholarship that the terms you use to describe phenomena like climate change matter a lot,” said Matt Motta, a postdoc at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania who recently published research on climate opinions. He noted that in America, the term “global warming” had become a source of polarisation for Republicans and that “[m]y suspicion is that if somebody were to take the Guardian terms and turn it into public opinion poll, you would find interesting results. My guess is climate crisis term would engender more opposition from conservatives.”
Terms like climate crisis and emergency connote a value judgement. Again, they reflect the paper’s values and in many ways are well borne out by the facts. Climate change is creating crises around the world, after all. But the terms still blur the line between subjective and objective, a move that could have unintended consequences.
“Scientists, the media, and policymakers must, of course, distinguish when we’re talking about the fact of what’s happening (‘climate change’) from the opinion about how bad it is (‘climate crisis’),” Peter Gleick, a climate scientist who co-founded the Pacific Institute, told us in an email. “Perhaps that’s a minor quibble, but when I speak in public, I try hard to present the ‘facts’ about climate change and then make clear those facts inform my opinion about how bad the problem is, and will be (we face a ‘climate crisis’).”
People who don’t share the opinion that climate change is a crisis are, by and large, conservatives, who deny the problem’s existence at higher rates than the general populace. Numerous lines of research show that the denial doesn’t stem from a lack of intelligence, but rather from a worldview that climate change—a global problem that requires cooperation and government intervention to solve—directly threatens. Now, I’m not saying we should coddle conservatives by beating around the bush. But Motta said finding terms that most people can relate to is the key way to building engagement on climate change. And there are terms that can convey the urgency of the issue without the added value statement of crisis or emergency.
“I have long felt that ‘climate disruption’ was a good descriptive term because it incorporates the human disturbance to the climate system without introducing value-laden terms like emergency or crisis,” Susan Hassol, a climate communication expert, told us in an email. “The problem with ‘climate change’ is that it refers to all changes in climate: natural changes of the past in addition to the current human-caused change. And of course the most common talking point among those who dismiss the science is that ‘climate is always changing.’ We should not be using the same term for both natural and human-induced changes.”
At the same time, we also can’t talk about finding the right words without acknowledging the how we ended up here. For the better part of four decades, a concerted misinformation campaign by fossil fuel interests, billionaires and conservative politicians has caused the world to delay action on climate change. It’s possible there wouldn’t be a climate crisis to talk about without those efforts, which are alive and well today. You need only look at conservative discourse around America's Green New Deal, which was to put it lightly, a huge pile of dog vomit.
Clearly the status quo hasn’t exactly been working, and ultimately everyone I spoke with said the new language was a step in the right direction in terms of conveying the urgency of our present situation. That doesn’t mean a few word changes are going to undo all those decades of inaction and denial, or that they won’t spark controversy. But they are a step toward being real about the situation humanity is facing.
Featured image: Brian Kahn/NASA