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The language of climate is evolving, from ‘change’ to ‘catastrophe’

“Climate emergency” was used just 17 times prior to January 2019, but 283 times since.

The language of climate is evolving, from ‘change’ to ‘catastrophe’
[Photos: Michael D/Unsplash, RugliG/iStock, PhotoMelon/iStock]

“Global warming” is out. “Climate catastrophe” is in.

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The language of climate change has shifted over time, according to data collected by language learning platform Babbel, and the Media and Climate Change Observatory (MeCCO) at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Particularly, the words and phrases more frequently utilized by media outlets reflect the worsening of the crisis, bringing more intense terms like “catastrophe” and “emergency” into the mainstream lexicon, as opposed to subtler choices prevalent at the beginning of the 2000s. Linguistic experts say the media’s choices, which have been influenced by scientists and organizations like the UN, are important because they convey to the public an increasingly urgent threat.

Babbel and MeCCO, a volunteer-led initiative that tracks climate terminology in the press and its impact on popular opinion, scanned news stories from January 2006 to October 2021 in major U.S. publications, including The New York Times, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal, and found some recognizable trends. Notably, “climate catastrophe” has been used 1.5 times more in 2021 than in 2020. They did the same study with British publications, including The Guardian, The Times, and The Sun, where this trend was even more apparent: they used it three times more.

Another noticeable pattern is the fading-out of “global warming” and “greenhouse effect.” Publications used “global warming” 157 times in October 2021, versus 378 times at its peak in June 2008, a fall of 141%—despite an increase in climate reporting. “Greenhouse effect” peaked in 2008 and 2010, then dropped off and never regained the same usage levels. Even the once-prevailing phrase “climate change” has dipped in usage, by 133% less than at its peak in January 2008.

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Word choices by the press in this field matter because they are influential on public opinion, says Todd Ehresmann, senior linguist at Babbel. “News outlets have a strict duty to accurately represent the true state of things,” he says. “By using phrases that reflect the urgency of the situation, media outlets are conveying the importance of addressing these issues.” As the climate situation has escalated, those more emphatic and urgent terms like “emergency” and “catastrophe,” as well as “climate crisis” and “climate breakdown,” are necessary.

Similarly, Ehresmann says “global warming” is no longer accurate enough. As temperatures have risen by 0.32 degrees Fahrenheit per decade over the past 40 years, a more accurate term is “global heating.” In 2018, a leading climate scientist at the U.K. Met Office declared that was the preferred term, and a German scientist, founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, agreed: “‘Global warming’ doesn’t capture the scale of destruction,” Hans Joachim Schellnhuber said. “Speaking of hothouse Earth is legitimate.” Meanwhile, “greenhouse effect,” prevalent in the early 2000s in the years following An Inconvenient Truth, is a clearly defined scientific term, but doesn’t have a sense of urgency or trigger an emotional response.

2019 seemed to be a shifting point for the linguistics of climate. The UN started to use more emphatic language, such as in the Secretary General’s address at the Climate Action Summit. Groups such as Al Gore’s Climate Reality project, as well as Greenpeace and the Sunrise Movement, petitioned news organizations to alter their language; there were even protests outside of The New York Times building to force the change. In May 2019, The Guardian officially changed its style guide. “The phrase ‘climate change’ sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity,” said The Guardian‘s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner. International newspapers such as EFE in Spain, and The Hindustan in India, also made official changes.

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Babbel did this research because, as a language app, it’s concerned with how popular speech continually evolves. And, media outlets are a “barometer” of why we tend to talk a certain way. “The language we choose conveys our attitudes towards the topic,” Ehresmann says. “By normalizing this language, we are galvanizing ourselves against the mortal threat of rising global temperatures.”

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