Aug 1, 2019

As the climate changes, so do our words

Amy Harder, author of Generate

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

Updated 20 mins ago - Politics & Policy

George Floyd protests: What you need to know

Photo: David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

Clashes erupted between police and protesters in several major U.S. cities Saturday night as demonstrations over the death of George Floyd and other police-related killings of black men spread across the country.

The big picture: Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody is the latest reminder of the disparities between black and white communities in the U.S. and comes as African Americans grapple with higher death rates from the coronavirus and higher unemployment from trying to stem its spread.

Massive demonstrations put police response to unrest in the spotlight

Washington State Police use tear gas to disperse a crowd in Seattle during a demonstration protesting the death of George Floyd. Photo: Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images

The response of some officers during demonstrations against police brutality in the U.S. has been criticized for being excessive by some officials and Black Lives Matter leaders.

Why it matters: The situation is tense across the U.S., with reports of protesters looting and burning buildings. While some police have responded with restraint and by monitoring the protests, others have used batons, tear gas, rubber bullets and other devices to disperse protesters and, in some cases, journalists.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

U.S. cities crack down on protesters

The scene near the 5th police precinct during a demonstration calling for justice for George Floyd in Minneapolis on Saturday. Photo: Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

Major U.S. cities have implemented curfews and called on National Guard to mobilize as thousands of demonstrators gather across the nation to continue protesting the death of George Floyd.

The state of play: Hundreds have already been arrested as tensions continue to rise between protesters and local governments. Protesters are setting police cars on fire as freeways remain blocked and windows are shattered, per the Washington Post. Law enforcement officials are using tear gas and rubber bullets to try to disperse crowds and send protesters home.