Why words matter when we talk about climate change

Silly talk of 'climate alarmism' doesn’t help, nor does defeatism

Two lemurs eat iced fruit to cool off at the Rome Zoo as temperatures touch 40°C during a heat wave in July. AFP
Powered by automated translation

Words matter. Most people understand that, but in the past few days a well-known British newspaper columnist tweeted something very odd.

The columnist wondered why people in Britain are worried about climate change when this summer has been miserably rain-filled in England. “They chose the wrong year for climate alarmism, didn’t they?” she wrote.

Hilarious? Not really. The writer chose the wrong year for what some call “climate change scepticism”.

But words matter here too. That sanitised word “scepticism” is often camouflage for science denial. There are still some in positions of influence who choose to confuse, either deliberately or ignorantly, the weather (which varies daily) with climate (long-term weather patterns). Changing weather is normal. Climate change – as most nine-year-olds can explain – is often disastrous.

Words matter again, because those who suggest that scientists are “climate alarmists” are simply unable to understand facts. The findings of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are clear. Climate change is a real and present danger to us all. The IPCC has 195 members and the UN points to thousands of people from all over the world who contribute to its work. Yet in 2023, these international scientists are sometimes derided for “climate alarmism” even though the IPCC is clear that a humanitarian disaster will eventually follow unchecked global warming.

That’s what makes the UAE’s role in hosting Cop28 this year so important. And that’s why the UAE has the most difficult diplomatic task of bringing nations with diverse interests and problems together to reach consensus.

If you are part of a problem, you can also be part of the solution. And we are all part of this problem

Yet again words matter.

I first heard the words “global warming” in the 1990s, but the phrase was coined much earlier. Credit is given to a Columbia University geochemist Wallace Broecker. Back in 1975, he used the phrase to describe an increase in the Earth’s average surface temperature caused by greenhouse gas emissions. In previous decades, scientists talked loosely of “inadvertent climate modification”. Following Mr Broecker, that phrase became more seriously “climate change” in a landmark 1979 US National Academy of Sciences study on increasing emissions of carbon dioxide.

Then came what is possibly my favourite and most striking phrase about the human effect on weather patterns. The Rocky Mountain Institute co-founder Hunter Lovins linked climate change to new weather patterns by calling it “global weirding”. These “weird” changes included rising sea temperatures, the prospect of flooding and extreme weather of different kinds in different locations.

Prof Lovins pointed out that whatever was happening to the climate did not necessarily mean warmer weather. Instead, historic weather patterns were being disrupted by human activity in “weird” ways. There would be, Prof Lovins predicted, more extremes, more and heavier rain, sometimes greater heat and severe droughts, stronger winds, changes in ocean temperatures, shifting currents and the cracking of the ice shelf.

The “global weirding” phrase is not popular with IPCC scientists, but it does colourfully sum up disrupted weather patterns.

Whatever name you call it, what is striking is that humans have woken up only slowly to the threat. Since phrases such as “global warming” and “climate change” were first coined in the 1970s, we have had half a century to consider what to do about it. As a result some now speak of a “climate emergency”.

News broadcasts over the past two years include those familiar yet frightening tales of wildfires in Canada, Australia and Greece, heatwaves in Europe, floods in Pakistan, drought in the Sahel, and the threat to the existence of low-lying islands in the Caribbean and the Maldives through rising sea levels.

Talk of “climate alarmism” therefore is not just disingenuous. It is dangerous. Alarm is a reasonable response to something that is profoundly alarming. But hope is also reasonable. Those who criticise the very idea of the UAE as an oil-producing state hosting a climate conference are mistaken.

We are all part of the global warming problem, both as consumers and as producers. If you believe the solution is “Just Stop Oil”, as some British climate activists say, then without a clear transition you might as well say stop the economy, stop air traffic, stop automobiles and reinvigorate that old 1960s musical, Stop the World – I Want to Get Off.

True, we have to move faster. But we also need to move on new technologies for transportation, for making concrete, cement, steel, road building, plastics, and many other processes for the things we need and do every day.

Silly talk of “climate alarmism” doesn’t help. Nor does defeatism. And neither does the complacency of those who either do not see the problem, do not care, or prefer cheap jibes to real changes in behaviour. If you are part of a problem, you can also be part of the solution. And we are all part of this problem.

Words, therefore, really do matter. The words that matter most would be those signalling broad agreement in the final communique of the parties at Cop28 at the end of 2023.

Another word also matters a great deal. That word is worth repeating. It is “hope”.

Published: August 02, 2023, 7:00 AM