Per Capita Davis: A change is coming in how we talk about climate
Climate scientists, even a half-century ago, predicted adverse effects from “climate change,” including sea-level rise, an increase in global temperature and melting of glaciers, to name a few.
But right from the get-go, they predicted that among the first and most obvious “changes” would be an increase in extreme weather events. Why? Because the oceans are absorbing 90 percent of the heat trapped by our greenhouse gas emissions and warmer oceans inevitably alter weather patterns and amplify “normal” storms, hurricanes, heat waves and droughts into “extreme” events.
There’s been a strident continuum of denial progressing, if that’s the right word, from out and out denial that climate is “changing,” to “OK, it’s changing, but humans aren’t the cause,” to “OK, OK, we are the cause, but the situation is not urgent.” This latest evolution comes with a subtitle: “Sure, there’ve been plenty of extreme weather events, but even scientists say this storm or that drought can’t be directly attributed to climate change, and besides, it will cost too much to stop it.”
Well, the deniers have been wrong all the way along. Science now agrees that hurricanes, as an example, have always happened and will continue to happen, but they are now able to, through the science of extreme event attribution, provide judgment on the degree to which climate “change” amplifies individual weather events. And there’s a consensus that negative effects of increased CO2 in the atmosphere and the de-icing of the northern parts of the planet will swamp any potential agricultural benefits.
In a way, one has to admire the sunny optimism of the climate deniers, always looking for a bright side or silver lining, but realistically, in my view, this has to be viewed more as one covering one’s ears and singing “LALALALALALA” to block out what they consider unpleasant noise.
You may have noticed and wondered about the quote marks around the words “climate change” in the above paragraphs. I have, for a while now, taken the advice of a friend a year or so ago and begun using the term “climate crisis” to replace the softer, less urgent, less precise sounding “climate change.”
Correspondingly, I have previously adopted softer words like “skeptic” to those who oppose actions and policies to attack the climate crisis. I don’t do so lightly, but given the long history of what I consider to be intellectual dishonesty, of not changing one’s view in light of new information, but instead finding some way to rationalize facts and warp them into a preconceived conclusion, it’s appropriate to use the term “denier.”
Word choice is important. A representative from Telemundo put it succinctly: “The use of clear and accurate language in covering critical subjects such as the climate emergency is not merely an option for journalists, it’s their duty.” That goes for columnists, too.
The Guardian recently announced that instead of “climate change” they would use “climate emergency,” “climate crisis” or “climate breakdown.” Lest you think this new vocabulary is only being taken up by left-leaning (whatever that means) media outlets, it can also be found at the TED Radio Hour, in CNN headlines, Noticias Telemundo (the top provider of Spanish language news in the United States), and in the name of a new committee established by the House of Representatives.
Very importantly, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg in Sweden sparked a worldwide movement of young people in part by pleading, “It’s 2019. Can we all now please stop saying ‘climate change’ and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown and ecological emergency?” Our youth are speaking truth to power.
Public Citizen, a “nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that champions the public interest,” recently coordinated the writing and delivery of a letter to all TV networks demanding that their newsrooms “call the climate crisis transforming the earth exactly what it is: a climate crisis … the words your reporters and anchors use matter. What they call something shapes how millions see it — and how entire nations act.”
As reported by Grist, information developed by Public Citizen said that “less than 10 percent of articles from the top 50 papers in the US” used the terms “climate crisis” or “climate emergency” and identified the New York Times and the Chicago Sun-Times as leading the way. In terms of TV news, only 50 out of 1,400 news segments in 2018 used either term, but, on the bright side, there were 150 mentions just in the first third of 2019.
If you read this column on a regular basis, it’s no secret that I’ve had a long argument with myself about whether to use “change” or “crisis.” Some say “change” (and “warming”) is too well known and it’s a mistake to switch now. Some also argue that the word “crisis” is too scary, makes people uncomfortable and will alienate those who are trying to make up their minds about how they feel or think about the issue.
I think “crisis” more accurately reflects where we are in terms of creating the urgency needed to replace complacency, and I’m replacing “skeptic” with “denier.”
— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third
Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to email@example.com.
Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise
Published online on July 17, 2019 | Printed in the July 17, 2019 edition on page A4
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