Why The Guardian Is Changing How It Talks About Climate Change

The importance of language: ‘climate change’ vs ‘climate emergency’

Tabitha Whiting
May 20 · 4 min read
Photo by Karsten Würth (@karsten.wuerth) on Unsplash

“It’s 2019. Can we all now call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?”

— Greta Thunberg

On Friday 17th May 2019 The Guardian, one of the largest news outlets in the UK, announced that it is changing the way it talks about climate change.

They want to ensure they are reflecting the situation accurately, and so are advising against the use of passive terms which do not demonstrate how urgent and catastrophic our environmental position is. Changes include using ‘climate emergency, crisis, or breakdown’ instead of ‘climate change’, ‘global heating’ instead of ‘global warming’ and ‘climate denier’ instead of climate sceptic’. You can see the full announcement in the below screenshot:

Credit: https://twitter.com/LeoHickman

Language is important. The words that we choose to use shape the way that we think and how we understand the world around us. And so for a major news outlet like The Guardian, with the power to influence thousands of readers, thinking deeply about the language used is crucial.

Climate change has been seen as a ‘debate’ for too long. Believers sit on one side, and deniers on the other side. News outlets have indulged this depiction, inviting climate deniers to speak alongside climate scientists in print or on television, in an attempt to maintain balance.

The Guardian itself discussed the language used around climate change in 2010. At this time, the newspaper was moving away from the use of the term ‘climate denier’ — which seems ironic now, given this recent announcement. The Guardian’s Environment Editor at the time argued:

“Sceptics have valid points and we should take them seriously and respect them.”

To call these people deniers, they argued, “is just demeaning and builds differences”. In topics of opinion, it makes complete journalistic sense to depict different perspectives. But climate change is not opinion. Climate change is conclusive science, and so-called ‘deniers’ are generally either uninformed, or have ties with the fossil fuel industry.

Even more disturbingly, it isn’t just news outlets fueling this image of climate change. In 2017, after a year of Donald Trump being President of the United States, the US government removed the term ‘climate change’ from all government websites. This includes the Department of Environment. They replaced the phrase ‘climate change’ with ‘weather extremes’, which effectively takes human blame entirely out of the equation.

If we can’t even admit that climate change is real and happening now, and that humans have played a huge role in global warming, and use accurate, scientific language to do so, then what hope do we have of averting climate disaster in the coming years?

And so, I applaud The Guardian for finally taking a stand against this ridiculous practice. I hope many other news outlets follow their lead.

However, whilst I agree that accuracy in our language regarding climate change is crucial, I also think there’s a balance to be had. Because language shapes the way we understand our world, I also think it’s important for influential people and platforms (like The Guardian) to inspire hope where they can. Psychological studies have shown that for people to be motivated to act by a message, they need to recognise that a problem is immediate, local to them, and will impact people. But, they also need to feel some level of positivity from the message — to feel that all is not lost, and they can do something to fix the problem.

So, if we want to reduce climate denial and increase the number of people actively working to prevent climate change, I think we need two things. First, we need to be more explicit about what climate change is, and how it will impact individuals. Kudos to The Guardian for starting a positive trend in this aspect. Second, we need to see more positive, inspiring stories about how we can overcome global warming, and what our world would look like if we did. Let’s use the power of language and storytelling to start telling the story of the future that we want to become reality.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.”

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Interested in how positive language can inspire change? Read my previous post: ‘Why We Need To Change The Way We Talk About Climate Change’.

Want to be inspired by a positive climate change post? Read my previous post: ‘Surviving Climate Change: What Would A Low Carbon Future Look Like?’

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Tabitha Whiting

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Ramblings on communication and our climate crisis🌱

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