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Why we need to speak of climate crisis, not climate change

In this case, semantics do matter.

By Petra De Sutter and Zakia Khattabi

The word “crisis” comes from the Greek verb “krinein”, meaning “to judge” or “to decide”. In this sense, we can think of crises as “moments that are decisive” – and the world has recently been dealing with several. From the global pandemic to the energy crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine, governments have responded promptly to these events with coordinated international responses. Yet when it comes to responding to the climate crisis, such decisiveness seems harder to muster, leaving in its wake an atmosphere of gloom.

People often do not speak in terms of a crisis when it comes to the climate. To an extent this is understandable. Crises are often focused on isolated short-term events, while climate change has been manifesting itself over longer spurts and waves. Nonetheless, every corner of the world is facing its brutal consequences: one third of Pakistan was flooded; the Horn of Africa is experiencing a severe drought; in Europe glaciers are melting and breaking down, and wildfires have destroyed valuable ecosystems. 

Consistently talking about climate change as a “crisis” would therefore open the door to a better understanding of the problem and its solutions. In this case, semantics do matter. Not to fuel fear, but to create a new sense of urgency, which is crucial to generate international action and cooperation.

Ever since the Nineties, when the UN convention on climate change was adopted, there have been ongoing discussions about who has responsibility for dealing with the various problems it poses. We only have one planet, but we seem to be living in different worlds when it comes to climate change.

Will this year’s Cop27 summit of the UN convention end this division? The answer is quite simple: it should, because responding at speed is vitally important. The tangible consequences of the climate crisis come at enormous economic, social and human costs, which have already been felt for decades in the most vulnerable countries and communities. 

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Scientists have made it crystal clear that we need to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels to avoid some of the worst effects of the crisis. Moreover, “climate action” is not merely a matter of prevention anymore. In addition to the necessary efforts regarding mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions), we have to work out how we will adapt to the changes in our climate that can no longer be avoided. We will also have to discuss how to address loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change. 

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As nations meet in Sharm el-Sheik for Cop27, many will still be recuperating from the effects of Covid-19 and the energy crisis, while hunger and poverty infringe human dignity in too many parts of the world. In this context, old and new grievances at the international level will be accentuated in Egypt. Discussions will be difficult.

Nevertheless, we have to raise our ambitions. We have to decide on the work programme to urgently scale up mitigation ambition and implementation in this critical decade. We must move forward in our common understanding of the global goal on adaptation, finalise the operationalisation of the Santiago network (by which developing nations can be linked up with the necessary technical resources) and make progress in the Glasgow Dialogue (established at Cop26 last year) between parties and organisations on averting, minimising and addressing loss and damage. 

While not perfect, Cops are a place for countries to hold one another accountable, as well as for numerous other stakeholders to challenge countries at the international level. This transparency and broad participation are essential to ensure the credibility of the international climate negotiations.  

So, to those who wonder whether Cop27 matters: yes, it does. Will everything be solved? No. But the climate crisis has been showing its true form for some time now. Biodiversity is declining and the climate is changing. We cannot look away. Our message is to address the climate crisis head-on and tackle it together, whatever it takes.

This article is a part of a series exploring what we need from Cop27. See more in the series here.

[See also: What would make Cop27 a success?]