The consequences of climate change are already so obvious, it is hard to deny the extreme situation the planet is facing a climate emergency situation. The growing number of natural disasters, outbreaks of forest fires, and the extinction of hundreds of species are some of the most alarming indications of a phenomenon that threatens the survival of the planet and with it, the human species.
According to one of the most recent reports released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global temperature of the Earth’s surface has already seen a 1ºC increase since pre-industrial times. If this pace continues, the temperature increase could hit 1.5ºC by 2030. While this temperature increase might seem trivial, it could have terrible consequences for many natural ecosystems, species, and populations across the globe.
In addition to the environmental ramifications, this change also entails social repercussions. For example, increased temperatures and rising sea levels would contribute to the transmission of diseases; the destruction of habitats would precipitate the forced migration of various populations; and changes to ecosystems and ground soil could cause a food crisis.
The change is occurring so abruptly, so violently, that the IPCC issued a warning last year stating that we only have 12 years before the situation becomes irreversible.
Society-at-large has begun to rally together to force governments and institutions to step up and recognize the drastic measures that are required to decarbonize the atmosphere and move towards sustainable models for industry, energy production, and consumption.
Global warming and climate change
It has recently been asserted that the terminology used to refer to the climate change phenomenon needs to undergo a change. This claim has been supported by various ecological movements and scientific experts. Faced with the speed with which climate change is occurring and the possibility that humanity will soon reach a point of no return, a chorus of voices is demanding that the terms climate crisis or climate emergency are used in lieu of climate change. What is the history of the terminology used to date?
Although ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ are frequently used interchangeably, they mean different things. According to Fundéu BBVA, global warming refers to the rise in the Earth's temperature and the effects that this might cause. Climate change, on the other hand, refers to general changes in the weather system: from atmospheric pressure to the frequency of extreme events, precipitation, etc.
Over the course of Earth’s history, there have been numerous climatic changes that have impacted the planet to one extent or another. Modern day references to climate change normally refer to anthropogenic climate change, meaning climate change caused by human activity and directly related to the emission of greenhouse gases.
The study of modern day climate change began in the 1950s, although it was in the 70s and 80s when the term went mainstream. At the time, the term ‘global warming’ was more commonly used, but as research into climatic changes and their ramifications progressed, the term ‘climate change’ was increasingly adopted in order to raise the importance of the profile of climate change.
Some sources suggest ‘climate change’ to be less dramatic, associating a more casual — and less causal — aspect to the phenomenon. Other experts assert that ‘global warming’ had a more ‘catastrophic connotation’ whereas ‘climate change’ seemed to refer to a ‘more controllable, less emotional’ challenge.
From circumstantial change to an extreme situation
All of this has prompted a new change in terminology: to restore the sense of urgency to the climate change debate. The term 'climate emergency' represents the reality of this phenomenon, a change in climatic conditions that is threatening the survival of the environment and with it, humanity — not just in the distant future, but immediately.
This proposal would not imply the censoring of the term ‘climate change,’ rather new terms would be preferred when the goal is to raise awareness about the magnitude of the situation. It would therefore be preferable to use options like “measures to fight against the climate crisis” or to “end the climate emergency” instead of “fighting against climate change.”
The world population is embracing climate-related activism. For months, “climate strikes” have been organized. Students have been mobilizing to increase awareness about the seriousness of the problem and voice their concern about the threat to their future. Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager and the climate crisis spokesperson receiving the most media attention, entreated the public to use terms that better reflect the actual situation.
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres picked up the gauntlet and used this terminology during the recent Climate Action Summit in New York when he stated that “the climate emergency is a race we're losing, but it's a race we can win.”
The media is also embracing the new terminology. The British newspaper, ‘The Guardian’, Spanish news agency EFE, and Spain's ‘La Vanguardia’ newspaper have already updated their style guides to encourage the use of climate ‘emergency’ and ‘crisis’ to define the current environmental situation.
This movement demonstrates how the words we choose to describe events in our lives have a significant impact on how we think about those events and the way we react. Perhaps a change in terminology can cause a change of perception of the problem, making those who have the power to implement the measures needed to avert a catastrophic end aware of the urgency to do so.