Picture: 123RF/INK DROP
Picture: 123RF/INK DROP

London — Every few years there are calls to replace the term “climate change” with something that aims to emphasise the urgency of the problem (“climate crisis”, “climate emergency”) or describe the alarming phenomenon driving up average temperatures (“global warming”, “global heating”). Many of these calls come from a good place.

As a whole, humanity has failed to grasp the scale of the challenge facing us. The story of our changing climate can get technical; the emotional power of language can, so the thinking goes, serve as an accessible counterpoint to a diet of data.  Others come from a defensive place, such as when climate sceptics latch onto semantic debates to further their agenda.

“They only changed the term to CLIMATE CHANGE when the words GLOBAL WARMING didn't work anymore. Come on people, get smart!” future US President Donald Trump tweeted in 2014. Nevertheless, “climate change” remains a sticky term.

Scientists favour the inclusivity of the phrase. “Warming” might easily explain heatwaves and wildfires, but it doesn’t seem to account for polar vortexes, longer droughts or changing agricultural yields. This is why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is called the IPCC, not the IPGW.

The terms “crisis” and “emergency” have political connotations, but the words still don’t find much favour among politicians.  Unlike in previous US presidential election cycles, climate concerns are now front and centre for Democrats vying to take on Trump in November. Presidential candidates are all trying to outdo each other with more ambitious plans.

Nevertheless, a Bloomberg analysis of primary debates indicates that candidates continue to use — including at this past weekend’s debate in New Hampshire — “climate change” more than 80% of the time.“

Climate change” wasn’t always the top choice. Its earliest ancestor was “climatic change”, a phrase that was even adopted by a scientific journal launched in 1977. According to Google’s Ngram, which counts mentions in books going back to 1800, “climatic change” was beaten by “global warming” in 1988.

Five years later “climate change” took the lead. It’s stayed there ever since. That is not to say that other phrases don’t deserve to be a part of the lexicon. If anything, it’s healthy that every so often we discuss and debate just what we should call this growing problem. A richer climate vocabulary can lead to a deeper understanding.

If, however, you’re hoping to replace “climate change” altogether, tough luck. “Words are like harpoons,” science writer John Horgan says. “Once they go in, they are very hard to pull out.“

• Rathi writes the Net Zero newsletter on the intersection of climate science and emission-free tech.


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