The case for a new word to replace climate change.
“It’s 2019. Can we all now please stop saying climate change,” tweeted Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old Swedish environmental activist this past Friday on May 4th. The response to her tweet was overwhelming with 72,000 likes and 24,000 retweets.
I agree with Greta, it is time to put aside ‘climate change’ and find a word that clearly defines what is occurring. We need to find a word that defines the current climate situation and when we hear this new word, we are reminded that we need to act.
Lack of clarity
Why do we keep using ‘climate change’ when the intention behind using this word was to downplay the significance of the human impact on the environment? In 2002 Frank Luntz, a political strategist wrote a memo advising President Bush: “while global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change sounds more controllable and less of an emotional challenge.” President Bush heeded the advice and utilized the softer descriptor: ‘climate change.’
‘Climate change’ did not gain traction until various events over the years demonstrated the reality of ‘global warming’: snow in the tropics, a series of U.S. congressional hearings on global warming being cancelled due to snowstorms and so on. Incredibly, the climate skeptics used these incidents as arguments to prove that global warming was in fact a hoax and gained supporters for this myopic and misleading line of thinking. Language expert, Professor Mike Hulme at the University of Cambridge agrees that ‘global warming’ is more effective in evoking emotions and creating a sense of urgency, but also states that the term ‘global warming’ also confuses people because it triggers thoughts about warmth, and it sort of lends itself to misinterpretation when it also impacts the cold.
So, neither ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’ clearly defines the urgent nature of our current crisis.
Why not use the term climate crisis?
This is a word that has started to replace climate change. TED Global speaker, Per Espen Stoknes, who is a psychologist with PhD in economics, a Norwegian politician for the Green Party and author of “What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming”states that to create engagement it is advisable to move away from the language of doom, because it desensitizes toward action. He said, “Climate change is usually framed as a looming disaster, bringing losses, cost and sacrifice. That makes us fearful. But after the first fear is gone, my brain soon wants to avoid this topic altogether.”
The word that has circulated as a contender is ‘climate disruption.’ This is a personal favorite or mine and Dr. Stoknes. He used this in his book and TED talk, and he believes that ‘climate disruption’ is the best word to frame the human impact on climate.
‘Climate disruption’ accurately explains what is happening to the world’s ecosystem — that it is being disrupted by human greenhouse-gas emissions. Currently, manmade CO2 accounts for around three-quarters of the warming impact of the world’s ecosystem, and the key source of CO2 is the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas.
As Dr. Stoknes states in his book, “The simple point is that we’re way outside any condition humanity has experienced or really understand. During the last hundred years, humanity has rapidly created a climate break with the past, disrupting the slow and gradual evolutionary changes.”
‘Climate disruption’ is a term you cannot dismiss like climate change. “Climate change leads to thought such as: What’s wrong with change? It’s natural. Are you against change?” ‘Disruption’ has a different connotation, because we have throughout the years heard about disruption in the business world, where big behemoth companies like Kodak was toppled by the disruption of the digital camera. We all know and feel the impact of disruption as we are facing the impact of disruption as a result of digitization, AI and robotics and know we need to change. To use the descriptor of ‘disruption’ to climate will exacerbate the crucial need to be resilient and change our behavior now in order to break new ground and create new paths and solutions. And not just for business, but also with regards to our personal responsibility to climate.
Disruption evokes the urgent nature of the issue and the necessity of disrupting current systems and the “take-make-dispose” economic model to one that is regenerative by design – a model that retains as much value as possible from products, parts and resources to create a system that allows for long life, sharing, digitization and resource recovery.
Lastly, climate disruption can easily be expanded to also define a person that wants to change the system — climate disruptor. We need climate disruptors i.e. leaders that are willing to stand up against the system and provide hope and have the will to lead the process of changing the current system, a system that has caused the devastation to the world’s ecosystem.
Greta Thunberg is a climate disruptor and is breaking ground around the world with the School Strike for Climate where the doors of power are opening and listening to her talk about the importance of laying the foundation of building a sound climate future.
We need more climate disruptors, like Greta Thunberg to ignite action. It is the youth of today that will change the current system, and it takes many climate disruptors to change the system in order to create a better future.
As Greta stated a months ago in the As Greta stated a months ago in the Guardian Podcast with Global Environmental Editor Jonathan Watts,
“I have spoken to many politicians and they always say that they can’t do anything without the people’s will and today you do not get votes by having radical climate politics. That needs to change. There are of course, lot of politicians that do not want to do anything, because they benefit from not doing anything. But we have to put pressure on them, so that they will do these things.”
It is important to move away from ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ as they are limited and switch to a word like climate disruption to define the current state of climate affairs.
A word has meaning, and it is important to choose a word that can gain traction with the general public and hopefully get the doubters sitting on the fence to step up and support the efforts to decrease CO2 emitted into the atmosphere.
Climate disruption and climate disruptor go hand -in-hand and create urgency, without the doom and gloom of ‘crisis’ or the haziness of ‘change.’ Climate disruption establishes an expectation that change is coming and the world will not be the same – and that the young climate disruptors bring the hope that we can finally change the world for the better!
Torund Bryhn, project manager & researcher for Beyond Acronyms, a project researching to find the right words to gain public acceptance for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), Thought Laboratories