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Changing the term “Climate Change”

Why media organizations are switching to terms like “climate crisis”, “climate emergency” and “climate breakdown”

Words matter. So do definitions. Would you say we’re facing a climate change or climate crisis?

Words matter. So do definitions. Would you say we’re facing a climate change or climate crisis?

This May, the UK newspaper the Guardian updated its style guide so that “climate emergency, crisis, or breakdown” will take the place of “climate change”. The Guardian says this change comes from a place of prioritizing precise science and effective communication. They argue that “climate change” sounds too passive and gentle for the apocalyptic truth it is. The Guardian also acknowledged a number of influential people – Greta Thunberg, António Guterres – who use “climate emergency” instead of “climate change”. While “climate change” is not banned by the Guardian, it is clearly marked as outdated.

The Guardian created a domino effect. About a month later Noticias Telemundo, a US Spanish news channel, decided to switch to using “climate emergency” instead of “climate change”. Noticias Telemundo shares their reasoning with the Guardian, saying that both scientists and linguists agree that “climate emergency” is the more accurate term. They also say that “climate change” softens the truth of the facts and does not serve as a realistic indicator of the state of the world today. Another Spanish news agency, Agencia EFE, has switched terms as well.

At this point, the question becomes inevitable: Is A\J going to be the next domino in this chain of changing terms?

My colleagues and I discussed the idea. Almost immediately, someone brought up that “climate change” is a nebulous term. It can mislead people into believing climate change is less dangerous than it is and needs to be bundled in with words like threat multiplier before it gains any teeth. Even then, we must explain how and why the threats will multiply.

One of the things in our conversation that stuck out was why climate change was originally adopted as a term. “Global warming” sounded more urgent, but it didn’t address the rising sea level or how some areas would see more extreme cold weather events. “Climate change” better encompassed the effects of the human-created heating of the planet, but still doesn’t convey the magnitude of disruption it will cause. Shouldn’t its name should be as terrifying as its effects? We use terms like “housing emergency” and “economic crisis” for issues that are of comparatively minor consequence. Why do we act like these issues are frightening while minimizing the biggest issue of the twenty-first century?

During our discussion, one of my colleagues worried that changing terms would explode into a mess of hashtags and political correctness, with things like “#climate apocalypse” appearing on social media, making it difficult to know what term to use at what time. Another concern was brought up: A\J tries to stay emotionally neutral so as to inspire and not deflate spirits. Would changing terms creating a feeling of despair in our readers? While both of these issues may yet become a problem, A\J is focused on educating people about the environment. The people we need to reach are not the ones who understand “climate change” and intuit the iceberg of meaning beneath that term. We need to reach those that don’t see the part of the iceberg that’s underwater. And to do that, our language needs to evolve to better reflect reality. We unanimously agreed to add “climate crisis, emergency, and breakdown” to our lexicon in recognition of the urgency we need to address the climate emergency. While “climate change” might hang around a bit, it’s definitely out of style.

Right now, our words should represent the times we live in. We aren’t living with climate change, like it’s some kind of mild allergy or an unappealing mould on the ceiling; we’re living in a climate crisis.

Consider this our official announcement of a change in terms.


Is your friendly neighbourhood media organization next in the domino chain? Share this article with them and find out!

Lauren is an editorial intern with A\J. She is an aspiring creative writer and recent University of Waterloo graduate.