Aug 1, 2019

As the climate changes, so do our words

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As climate change and our debate around it intensifies, so are the words we use to describe it.

Why it matters: The presidential election season is directing more attention to our words and characterizations as we follow debates and rallies around the country. Words are especially important on a topic like climate change that is less tangible than others, like healthcare.

Driving the news: Activists and many progressive politicians are calling climate change an emergency, while most Democrats say it’s a crisis. Certain media outlets are revamping their coverage and, in some cases, changing their style books.

  • Some Republicans, meanwhile, are slowly coming back around to acknowledging the problem publicly, yet are turned off by the intensifying language used by many on the left. Conservatives aren’t (for now) offering much in the way of new, big policies.

My thought bubble: I use words like issue or problem to describe climate change. Elevating that description to crisis or emergency doesn't really fit because it implies a sudden urgency that doesn't capture how long the problem has been developing or how long we'll live with it.

  • Some outlets are adopting words like climate crisis and emergency, such as the left-leaning British publication The Guardian.
  • I asked a spokesman for the Associated Press, whose stylebook is considered the standard across journalism, for a comment. He sent me the entry for climate change, which does not include the terms crisis or emergency. He declined to respond to a question about whether the AP would change its style.

One level deeper: I decided to consult the good ol’ dictionary for more insight.

  • Merriam Webster defines emergency as "an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action."
    • Quick take: Climate change is neither unforeseen nor requiring immediate action compared to, say, a flood or power outage.
  • One definition for crisis is an "unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending."
    • Quick take: This description is a little better, but it still doesn’t capture the hardest part: the long-term nature. We've been fueling climate change for decades and we will be dealing with it for centuries. Crisis implies an end would occur, which is unlikely here (to say nothing of the accuracy of the 12-year framing.)

If you think it’s a little simplistic pulling from a dictionary, I got the idea from the well-respected Congressional Research Service (CRS), which conducts nonpartisan research on behalf of lawmakers. The CRS did that in a report it issued in March about President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at America’s southern border.

The other side: The biggest drivers of Earth’s rising temperature — oil, natural gas and coal — also have huge benefits to the world. That point has often been absent in the discourse as the problem of climate change worsens.

  • This makes the problem of climate change even harder, as nations work to swiftly reduce their dependence on these fuels without raising energy costs on their people.

The bottom line: Climate change is like diabetes for the planet, which when left unchecked (like the path we’re on) can worsen emergencies like flooding and crises like heat waves. The best we can do is simultaneously cut carbon emissions and adapt to a warmer planet. That may not be the best description to grab headlines, win debates and rally activists — but it is the most accurate.

Go deeper

Why climate change is so hard to tackle: The global problem

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Democratic presidential hopefuls are calling for aggressive action to reduce heat-trapping emissions, while nations are facing pressure to ramp up commitments ahead of a major United Nations summit next month.

The big picture: Despite that fervor, progress on climate change remains elusive. We have cultivated a deep dependence on fossil fuels that have been driving Earth’s temperature up for more than a century, creating a problem whose mostly negative impacts are unfolding over more centuries.

Go deeperArrowAug 19, 2019

Democratic National Committee votes down climate-focused debate

Photo: Photo: Chris Conway/Getty

Democratic National Committee officials voted 17-8 on Thursday against a proposal to host a primary debate focused exclusively on climate change, according to HuffPost.

The big picture: Environmental activists, including the youth-led Sunrise Movement, have been pressuring the DNC for months to host a first-of-its-kind debate on the climate crisis. Top officials say it would open the floodgates to other single-issue debates on topics like health care and abortion rights, and also worry that it could harm the eventual nominee in the general election by alienating voters in states that rely on the fossil fuel industry, per HuffPost.

Go deeperArrowAug 22, 2019

DNC votes against holding a climate change debate

Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Staff/Getty Images

Democratic National Committee delegates voted Saturday against allowing 2020 presidential candidates to take part in a debate focused solely on climate change, the Mercury News reports.

Why it matters: This is a defeat for activists and the majority of Democratic presidential contenders, who have lobbied in favor of a climate-centric gathering. Already 12 official DNC-sanctioned debates have been announced, and CNN and MSNBC are scheduled to host presidential forums on climate change, though many argue that isn't enough.

Go deeperArrowAug 25, 2019