How word use evolved in climate ‘change’ vs. ‘crisis’

Aerial view of Tybee Island Beach. Mayor Jason Buelterman said they are proactively fighting the effects of sea level rise.

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Aerial view of Tybee Island Beach. Mayor Jason Buelterman said they are proactively fighting the effects of sea level rise.

Debate over environment sees terminology changing for some.

A few months into the 2020 presidential campaign the environment is emerging as one of the most discussed issues on the campaign trail. Six in ten Americans are concerned or alarmed about global warming according to researchers at Yale and George Mason Universities, and presidential hopefuls are taking notice.

Candidates have rolled out significant climate policy proposals, and although this week a panel of the Democratic National Committee denied a presidential debate devoted to climate change, CNN and MSNBC will host town halls on the topic in September.

As debate surrounding the issue has evolved, so have the words used to describe it.

Years ago before scientists knew what human impact would mean for the planet, they called it “inadvertent climate modification.” Now, environmental activists and some lawmakers say the planet is in trouble and they’re calling it a crisis.


The debate over dealing with our changing climate is divisive. We always try to present multiple points of view so that readers can reach their own conclusions. Today's story includes a climate activist, a Republican strategist who encouraged the use of the phrase "climate change," professors who track political speech and the mayor of Tybee Island, who is dealing with rising seas.

As our knowledge and understanding of theclimate  has deepened, so has the desire to give it a more accurate label — and possibly engage voters from both major political parties.

This spring when Spark Neuro, a company which monitors brain and nervous system activity to measure how people are feeling, tested words for environmental changes, “climate crisis” rose to the top. Gut reactions to “climate change” showed the term to be innocuous. “Global warming” was deemed alarmist. Neither term elicited emotional reactions from Democrats or Republicans. Climate crisis, however, “could strike a bipartisan chord as a more reasonable observation,” said the survey results. “To reframe the issue is to engage unconvinced voters, and… ‘climate crisis’ may hit the sweet spot.”

The words are a reflection of personal politics, said linguistic and political experts, but it is unclear if changing terminology equals action, specifically among the unconvinced.

“I think the change in terminology probably creates better headlines, but I don’t think it is changing policy much,” said Andrew Pieper, associate professor of political science at Kennesaw State University. “It is probably even hurting politicians because they have this huge incentive to avoid the language their opponents use.”

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Words matter and what we say conveys our attitude toward what we are talking about, said Sarah Blackwell, professor of linguistics at the University of Georgia. “Very rarely are words neutral. They are typically positively or negatively nuanced in some way,” she said.

“Inadvertent climate modification” never really took off, for obvious reasons. Scientists would later use “global warming” to describe surface temperature increases due to rising levels of greenhouse gases. They used “climatic change” or “climate change” to describe long-term changes in Earth’s climate, which include global warming.

For decades, despite its limitations, “global warming” was the term of choice in popular culture. Then in 2002, Republican strategist Frank Luntz suggested President George W. Bush only use the term “climate change”.

It was less ominous sounding, Luntz said. And it was a term supported by the scientific community, including NASA which uses the term “global climate change” in communications.

But words weren’t the only thing changing. In the 1990s, climate policies had been largely bipartisan, said politicians. A decade later, those policies had become partisan issues and the words a candidate or lawmaker used to talk about them became part of their personal branding.

“We used to think of culture wars and identity politics as only being about gender mores and traditional family values, but as the parties have become more ideologically split, every policy debate is potentially identity politics,” said Pieper of Kennesaw State.

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Tybee Island got swamped by Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Credit: Cheryl McDaniel

Tybee Island got swamped by Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Credit: Cheryl McDaniel

Combined ShapeCaption
Tybee Island got swamped by Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Credit: Cheryl McDaniel

Credit: Cheryl McDaniel

“In Washington they argue over the semantics,” said Jason Buelterman, mayor of Tybee Island. “All I can say is that from my perspective as a local official on a barrier island that is low to the sea, we have experienced the effects of sea level rise and we are dealing with it regardless of what they do in Washington.”

It’s hard to say how “climate crisis” originated. Al Gore was already making references to a crisis when his 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” was released. Environmental advocacy groups were also attaching more urgency to the climate conversation by using words that would serve as a call to action. Earlier this year, Gore’s Climate Reality Project launched an online petition asking news organizations to make the switch.

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In May, the Guardian updated its style guide to include “climate crisis” as the preferred term over “climate change.”

But some local politicians say altering the course of climate change will require much more than new terminology.

"I don't need fancy talk," said state Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, a self-proclaimed Gullah Geechee from coastal Georgia. "It is a crisis because unfortunately politics has become so divided and so partisan. We need to sit down in a bipartisan effort and get back to doing what we did and make sure we survive and leave something for the next generation."

“Change,” “crisis,” “emergency”? 

A Twitter roundup of how some 2020 presidential hopefuls are talking (or tweeting) about the climate:

“Climate change is real and we’re in the midst of a climate crisis.” Kamala Harris, June 27

“We should call our climate crisis what it is: an emergency.” Elizabeth Warren, July 9

“The climate crisis demands bold action.” Cory Booker, August 8

“President Trump’s failure to lead on the climate crisis is inexcusable — it endangers the future of our country and planet.” Joe Biden, July 1

“July 2019 was the hottest month in recorded history. Make no mistake: this is an emergency.” Bernie Sanders, Aug 6

“The climate crisis is the single greatest threat to humanity that exists. We should prioritize it in this primary.” Kirsten Gillibrand, July 18