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27 October 2021

Our words for describing the climate are changing – can they spur us to action?

These small shifts may seem academic, but grasping the urgency of the environmental emergency in time requires good storytelling; it requires language.

By Pippa Bailey

I had an amusing conversation recently with a colleague who couldn’t remember whether it was New Statesman style to capitalise “Remainer” (it is). You may be questioning my sense of humour at this point, and fairly. But there was a time when these questions passed our desk with such regularity that we didn’t have to think about their answers. Today the language of Brexit feels as though it belongs to another era.

The nature of my work as this magazine’s chief sub-editor (the person responsible for making sure commas are in the right place) is that my memories of political shifts are often marked by new and alien language. A few years ago, it was about Brexit. Last year, as the pandemic began, we had to decide whether to write “front line” as two words or one, and whether we would use “coronavirus” as a synonym for “Covid-19”. Now, we are having these discussions about the climate.

The language around the effects of human activity on the planet has long been contested. The Republican pollster Frank Luntz once advised the Bush White House that it should use “climate change” instead of “global warming” because it sounded less alarming. Today we debate how to make the issue sound more alarming. In 2019 the Guardian updated its style guide to prefer “climate emergency” or “climate crisis” over “climate change”, which sounds too gradual, controlled.

In the 1980s “greenhouse effect” was the most common phrase used to refer to our changing climate. From the late 1990s it was overtaken first by “global warming”, then by “climate change”. While the latter is still the most frequent in general usage, between 2018 and 2020 the use of “climate crisis” increased nearly 20-fold, and “climate emergency” 76-fold.

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The shift from mild language to that conveying peril is reflected elsewhere in the Oxford English Dictionary’s October update – which, ahead of Cop26, is climate-themed. The definition of “climate refugee” is a neat illustration of the way our relationship with the environment has changed: its primary meaning, dating to the late 19th century, was once someone who travelled abroad in search of more agreeable weather; in 2021 it is “a person forced to move to a different home, region, or country because of the effects of climate change”. It is no surprise that alongside new entries for “food insecurity” and “water insecurity” comes one for “eco-anxiety”. There are also fresh meanings for words that have come to be associated with the climate, such as “unsustainable” and “overconsumption”. The addition of “degrowth” and “natural capital” reflects how economic orthodoxies are being challenged.

Such slight changes may seem academic, particularly when compared to the scale of the crisis (or should that be emergency?). But language matters. One study found that people are more likely to fear, and campaign about, “global warming” than they are “climate change”. In another, participants were more likely to perceive urgency and risk, and more likely to accept restrictions on their lives, after reading articles that described efforts to curb emissions as a “war” rather than a “race”.

In April last year the climate action group Fridays for Future released a video in which a family placidly goes about their morning routine – alarms, breakfast, packed lunches – while their house burns around them. “Our house is on fire,” reads the text. “React.” It’s a metaphor of particular interest to we nerdy former English students. The word “ecology”, from which we get the combining form “eco”, entered English in the mid-1870s from the German word “Ökologie”, coined by the zoologist Ernst Haeckel a decade earlier, and derived from the Greek “oikos”, meaning house or dwelling. The metaphor of the natural world as our place of shelter is built into the very words we use to describe it.

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Compared to those in other parts of the world, we in the UK are still living relatively comfortably. The image of a polar bear stranded on melting ice is far removed from our situation, and allows us to believe that our planet’s crisis is somehow distinct from us, happening elsewhere. Grasping the urgency of the climate emergency in time requires imagination and good storytelling; it requires language.

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This article appears in the 27 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Our Fragile Future