A Brief History of Climate Terminology
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A reflection on the connection between language and politics in climate discussions.

A Brief History of Climate Terminology

by Gia Rose Phillips See Profile
Sydney NSW, Australia
21st Jun 2019
A Brief History of Climate Terminology

There has been a recent push in climate discussions to reconsider the language writers, journalists, and activists are using to describe the state of the environment.

This appears to be a response to the increasing awareness of scientific findings revealing that: climate change isn’t just happening, but happening at an unprecedented rate.

The shift in terminology is designed to capture the scope and urgency of the crisis at hand and to urge politicians to implement more immediate measures. However, it also demonstrates how political wordplay has been used to moderate the public’s reaction to empirical findings.

Georg Lakoff in, ‘Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment’, published in Environmental Communication, explains how the words used to describe climatic phenomena determine how people understand and respond to them. This associative principle is known as framing. It relies upon certain words activating a predictable ‘schema’ — an individual’s existing association to a word. An example of this can be seen in how your mind responds to the word ‘emergency’ as opposed to ‘change’.

In 2002 Frank Luntz, pollster and political advisor for George W. Bush applied the same logic of framing to climate change. He suggested the Bush government use the term ‘climate change’ as opposed to ‘global warming’ when discussing environmental policy as it didn’t exhibit the same ‘catastrophic connotations’. This stance was tested by a study conducted by Yale University which revealed that people were more likely to fear and take part in action against ‘global warming’ rather than ‘climate change’ because of its more placid connotations.

Meanwhile, on the 22nd May, not long after the UK declared an environment and climate emergency, Guardian editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, announced on ‘The Guardian’s Today in Focus’ podcast a revising of the official ‘reporting’ language that will be used going forward to describe climate change.

She stated that “climate change will now be (referred to as) climate emergency, climate crisis or climate breakdown”. She then went on to say that “global warming will now be global heating”, and “climate sceptic”  will now be replaced by the term, “climate science denier or climate denier”.

The stated rationale behind her decision was to produce a more accurate group of terms to describe the ‘climate crisis’. In doing so, the chosen words are particularly interesting for two reasons.

Firstly, the new terminology pays homage to Swedish 15-year-old Greta Thunberg’s speech made at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Katowice, Poland, back in 2018 (COP24), on behalf of Climate Justice Now. It was during this speech that she popularised the motto, ‘we can’t solve a crisis without treating it as one’ — again, bringing us back to the ‘framing’ of the issue at hand.

Secondly, it illustrates the division between ‘science’ and ‘politics’ or ‘scientific consensus’ from the ‘public consensus’ by disentangling the muddling of scientific and reporting terminology.

A Brief History of the Scientific Terminology

Climate change is a scientific process that’s frequently used as a misnomer to describe ‘global warming’. More specifically, what we refer to when we speak of ‘climate change’ is ‘anthropogenic climate change’. Here, ‘anthropogenic’ refers to the human activities which are hastening this unique period of warming.

People sometimes believe that ‘global warming’ became obsolete when the term ‘climate change’ emerged, however, these are two different scientific phenomena.

‘Global warming', or ‘global heating’ refers to "the long-term trend of a rising average global temperature”. ‘Climate change’, however, refers to “changes in the global climate which result from the increasing average global temperature”.

Put more simply, global warming, sometimes referred to as, ‘human greenhouse gas emissions’ or as aforementioned, ‘increasing average in global temperature’ leads to the broad run-on of the effects of climate change.

The term, climate change’ first emerged in Gilbert N. Plass’s article ‘The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change’, published in August of 1955. In 1971, Barrett and Gast further published a letter in the journal, Science, which was titled ‘Climate Change’. This was then followed by the founding of the journal Climate Change in 1977, which is still actively publishing today.

The term ‘global warming’ emerged in the early 1970s. By 1975, geophysicist and author, Wallace Broecker, was using this term to describe his theorising of how the natural cooling trends would collapse under the globally rising temperatures.

Despite continued pushbacks from climate skeptics, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed in 1988. The IPCC consists of an international group of 1,300 independent scientific experts working under the auspices of the United Nations. Ultimately, the IPCC works to “provide policymakers with regular scientific assessments on climate change, its implications and potential future risks, as well as to put forward adaptation and mitigation options.”

This is just one of the many organisations and political bodies working in a ‘non-prescriptive’ manner to research and report on the known factors driving climate change and the ongoing impacts and risks it poses.

Understanding the ‘framing’ of the terminology used to describe the human accelerated phenomenon, anthropogenic climate change, is a large step in the process of responding to the risks we face. Framing can be used to not only express an adverse political position but to further contribute to the moulding (or muddling) and perpetuating of what researchers refer to as ‘social facts’ — meaning an idea that we ‘mobilise around’ in the same way red is a universal colour symbol for stopping.

However, there is an increasing push for scientists operating in a field with a growing awareness of the importance of ‘framing’ and tailoring ‘science communication’ to consider the most effective ways to disseminate their findings.

Take your next step in understanding by measuring your environmental footprint.

Gia Rose Phillips

About Gia Rose Phillips

Georgia Rose Phillips is a Sydney based writer (fiction and nonfiction), critic and editor who holds a first class Honours degree in English Literature & Creative Writing. She is currently a PhD candidate on a full scholarship in the Creative Writing Program at UNSW. In 2018 her work, Holocene: A Short Story , was shortlisted and then highly commended for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize. She is currently working on her debut novel and a collection of short stories.

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