The climate crisis is no longer a future problem — we need to tackle it now, and every day matters.
[Alex Kirby | Climate News Network]
Talk about climate change, and there’s a good chance that people will know what you’re referring to, even if they don’t share your concerns about it. But for one UK-based newspaper, The Guardian, “climate change” is now frowned upon, though it’s not formally banned.
The Guardian’s house style guide recommends that its journalists should instead use such terms as “climate crisis” and “global heating”.
The newspaper has updated the style guide to introduce terms that it thinks more accurately describe the environmental crises confronting the world. So out goes “climate change”, to be replaced by the preferred terms, “climate emergency, [climate] crisis or [climate] breakdown”. “Global heating” replaces “global warming”.
“We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue,” says the editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner. “The phrase ‘climate change’, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.”
The United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, spoke of a “climate crisis” last September, adding: “We face a direct existential threat.” The climate scientist Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a former adviser to Angela Merkel, the EU and the pope, also uses the term.
In December Professor Richard Betts, who leads the UK Met Office’s climate research, said “global heating” was a more accurate term than “global warming” to describe what is now happening. British Members of Parliament recently endorsed the opposition Labour Party’s declaration of a climate emergency.
The scale of the climate and wildlife crises has been starkly spelt out by two chilling reports from the world’s scientists. In October 2018 they said carbon emissions must halve by 2030 to avoid even greater risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. In May 2019 they said human society is at risk from the accelerating annihilation of wildlife and destruction of the ecosystems that support all life on Earth.
Other terms have also been updated by the Guardian. It now refers to “wildlife” rather than “biodiversity”, “fish populations” instead of “fish stocks”, and “climate science denier” rather than “climate sceptic”.
The BBC has put a formal end to a practice widely used for 30 years: it accepted last September that it gets coverage of climate change “wrong too often”, telling its staff: “You do not need a ‘denier’ to balance the debate.”
Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who has inspired school strikes for the climate around the globe, said recently: “It’s 2019. Can we all now call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?”
The update to the Guardian’s style guide follows the recent addition of the global carbon dioxide level to its daily weather pages. “Levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have risen so dramatically – including a measure of that in our daily weather report is symbolic of what human activity is doing to our climate,” said Katharine Viner at the time.
“People need reminding that the climate crisis is no longer a future problem – we need to tackle it now, and every day matters.”
The Guardian provides thorough coverage of the global environment, objective reporting and informed and pointed comment. The Climate News Network has since its start been part of the Guardian Environment Network. The newspaper is one of the best-respected and most widely used international sources of information on the crises of the climate and the natural world.
Many of its competitors will be keen to see what difference in people’s perceptions of the crises follow from the name changes, and whether clearer and more deliberately assertive language prompts bolder action.
“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 the US-based Earther website in an email.
FACTS – AND OPINIONS
“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’).”
Several decades ago people didn’t talk much about climate change: they knew what was happening as global warming. When that was junked, to recognise that some parts of the globe were actually cooling as others warmed, it was certainly a move to something more scientifically accurate.
Climate deniers, though, said that there was no evidence of warming, and that by using the phrase “climate change” scientists were admitting that they had got the science wrong.
Remember the no-nonsense approach of the nursery rhyme character Humpty Dumpty: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean − neither more nor less.” Words can be slippery, and dangerous.
Alex Kirby is a former BBC journalist and environment correspondent. He now works with universities, charities and international agencies to improve their media skills, and with journalists in the developing world keen to specialise in environmental reporting.