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Climate Change Tracker: Why words matter

The first step to tackle the climate crisis is to change the language we use to describe it

A photographer documents a California wildfire in October.
A photographer documents a California wildfire in October. (Photo: Getty Images)

“The impending catastrophe of our times—a drastic modification of the world’s climate and a steep rise in global temperatures—seems minor when you call it ‘climate change’. The term does not reflect the enormity of the existentialist threat." In an editorial on 25 November, Hindustan Times (HT) declared that the paper would henceforth refer to climate change as “climate crisis", because change is too vague a word to describe what’s going on. It’s a laudable linguistic shift, like The Guardian’s in May. That publication also changed the terms “climate skeptic" to “climate denier", “carbon emissions" to “greenhouse gas emissions" and “global warming" to “global heating", among others. Oxford Dictionaries announced this week that its 2019 word of the year is “Climate Emergency". According to it, the use of the word has gone up by 10,796% since 2018.

Language is important because words are sensitive things. Remember US President Donald Trump saying that if the climate is changing, then it can change back? If words are ambiguous, climate science isn’t. It is very clear that the planet is facing a dire future. As the HT editorial points out, the last five years have been the warmest on record, and 20 of the warmest years occurred in the past 22. Similarly, countless reports, based on solid scientific data—which is only getting more refined and accurate with each passing year—have pointed out that warming oceans are killing fish populations, and as the Arctic melts rapidly, coastlines around the world can see an over one metre sea-level rise in less than a hundred years. Our Himalayan glaciers are disappearing, water stress and extreme weather events are on the rise. The connection between all this and the heating planet is well established.

The Mint Climate Change Tracker is now also a weekly podcast. Click to hear the first episode and subscribe to the podcast

On 26 November, the UN Environment Programme (Unep) published its annual emission gap report. Now in its 10th year, the report evaluates the gap between national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and actual work done. As usual, the results are bleak. The report categorically states that the 2015 Paris Agreement aim to limit rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, is fast slipping away (we are currently above 1 degree Celsius).

The report found that instead of levelling out and then decreasing, global GHG emissions have actually increased by 11% since 2010. The report further said that even if countries meet their 2015 nationally decided contributions (NDC) for 2030, emissions will still rise. In fact, by that year, emissions can be 38% higher than where they need to be for the more optimistic 1.5 degrees Celsius target. Seven large economies—the US, Brazil, South Korea, South Africa, Australia, Canada and Japan—are not even on track to meet their targets.

In a scenario where every half a degree rise will trigger global upheaval that we cannot even imagine, it is imperative that the language we use to apprise countries and citizens of the looming threat keeps track. That it conveys the gravity of the situation. That’s why words matter. We are indeed staring at a crisis, and it is we—nations, companies, industries—that have to change.

Next week on Climate Change Tracker, we look at the ways in which climate denial works. Follow the series with #MintClimateTracker . The Mint Climate Change Tracker is now also a weekly podcast. Click here to hear the first episode and subscribe to the podcast.

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