The conversation surrounding climate change is always evolving, as is the terminology. From the greenhouse effect, to global warming and climate chaos to climate crisis, language and terminology constitute a vital part of the global debate. As part of World Rainforest Day, we look at the crucial role that language has to play as the world strives to unite to address climate change.

Is climate change the same as global warming?

‘Climate change’ and ‘global warming’ are two of the original – and key – terms used when discussing the ongoing climate crisis. These competing phrases were first coined by Wallace S. Broecker in a 1975 scientific paper*, although Broecker could not have foreseen either term becoming so popular and widely used that they would be added to the dictionary.

In fact, little to no thought was given as to how the terms would help the wider world understand the issue and both have since proven to have their shortcomings. Climate change by its very nature suggests something gradual, which need not be an immediate concern. In contrast, global warming suggests that the weather will merely get warmer, when in fact this ‘warming’ involves numerous extreme weather variations.

The greenhouse effect

The term ‘greenhouse effect’ was first used by Swedish physicist and physical chemist Svante Arrhenius in 1896. As the phrases climate change and global warming failed to convey the seriousness of the situation, the term greenhouse effect was recycled by communications teams as a useful metaphor to allow even those new to the field to understand how the earth’s climate was being affected. However, as language is constantly evolving, this term didn’t remain in the spotlight for long.

Why the language used is so important

In 2019, The Guardian newspaper decided to amend its editorial style guide, introducing new terms that more accurately depicted the most pressing environmental crisis facing this generation. Of the terms chosen, climate crisis has been the one most widely adopted.

Climate change can seem an abstract concept, as activists are asking people to take immediate action to prevent something experts anticipate will happen in the future. The language used needs to resonate, to speak to each person’s values and beliefs, as well as being engaging and inspiring action.

Who communicates the message can also have a significant effect. When environmental broadcaster David Attenborough spoke about his concerns, it had a dramatic effect within the UK as he is a uniting figure with far-reaching appeal.

Coming together in the fight against climate change

Human beings are natural storytellers. From birth, we learn about the world through the medium of stories and language. We are used to a clear narrative structure, shared by cultures across the world: good pitted against evil, a struggle and finally a resolution. The problem when telling the story of climate change is that we are both the problem and the solution, the hero but also the villain.

Language and the story of the climate crisis need to continue to develop, promoting a united narrative whereby there is strength in numbers. In this way, the acts of the few can help to develop a sense of shared purpose and identity for the masses.

As language specialists, we understand the power of words at Albion Languages and how it can be harnessed. If you would like to speak to our expert team about how to best use that power for your business goals, please get in touch.

*Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?
Wallace S. Broecker