It’s Time to Update Climate Terminology


The name of something holds a lot of power. It is the first impression of a concept; the initial introduction between a person and an idea. It has the ability to influence the way someone perceives a certain issue, solely based on how it sounds. For activism as critical as the Climate movement, names like global warming are undermining its integrity, primarily in the context of climate change deniers.

Over the recent winter holidays, the US has undergone intense, once-in-a-lifetime blizzards throughout the country. Buffalo, New York has received the worst-end of it, with nearly 132 cm of snow and 37 confirmed fatalities over the last week. This marks the harshest storm that the region has faced since 1977. In the face of such extreme cold weather, climate change deniers insist that there lies proof against global warming, since the earth continues to experience such icy winter weather when it, according to the movement, “should be getting hotter.” 

This circumstance emulates the pivotal role that accurate and up-to-date terminology plays in climate advocacy. While it is common to see terms like “climate change” and “global warming” used interchangeably, doing so can provoke misinformation and cause confusion. In fact, they have two different scientific definitions. Global warming is the rise in global temperatures as a result of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, while climate change refers to shifts in earth’s climate patterns over a long period of time, but is not exclusive to heat.  

While global warming was a breakthrough term in the past, it is not consistent with the current political and environmental state of the world. Sure, global warming remains a true consequence of the climate crisis, but its continued blanketed use is perpetuating the beliefs of climate change deniers. Namely, said deniers see a winter storm such as the one in Buffalo, New York, and their anti-climate change views are reinforced by witnessing new levels of cold winters, not hot. From their perspective, the cold-wave can confirm that global warming, and thus climate change, is not real. The danger in this scenario emerges when such people begin to spread misinformation about the issue that causes more people to have poorly-educated opinions on the climate crisis. 

Language should change and progress alongside with the understanding of the issue concurrently. As climate scientists learn more, language used in the media needs to adapt to be consistent with their findings. While the heating of the Earth’s surface is a very real phenomenon seen as a result of climate change, it is far from being the sole evidence that the climate is changing; other proof is seen through precipitation levels, frequency and strength of natural disasters, and increasingly arid land. Therefore, using global warming as the blanket term for climate change has immense potential to harm the integrity of the movement. 

Some institutions have decided to revamp their terminology regarding climate in even more progressive ways. The Guardian news outlet, for instance, released an article a few years back where they announced that they would be shifting their terminology surrounding climate to “more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world.” This included terms like “climate emergency” and “global heating” over the passive term of “climate change.”

The role that terminology plays within a movement should not be understated. The name of a movement is the first interaction that it has with a citizen and beholds the potential to attract or push away supporters. The term global warming, while a true phenomenon, undermines the ability of the climate movement to gain the alliance of many as a result of its blanketed usage across several environmental issues. I urge people to be more mindful of the terminology they choose when describing any issue that they care about, not only climate, due to this radical power that words possess to sway the opinions of the masses.  

Featured image by: United Nations

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