The most renowned institution responsible for studying climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has estimated that we only have 11 years to prevent an irreversible catastrophe. This fact reveals just how fast time is running out and how critical it is to take steps to mitigate the impacts climate change has on our planet — not only in the long term — but in the immediate term too.
For some time now, notable voices from within ecological movements, institutions, and the press have begun to use expressions like “climate crisis” and “climate emergency” to describe the urgency of the current situation. The intention behind this change of verbiage when referring to climate change is to raise awareness about how important it is to implement measures that will prevent the drastic climatic changes threatening the Earth’s ecosystems and their inhabitants.
A semantic change to change the world
Words matter. The way we describe a phenomenon alters the general public’s perception of that phenomenon. This communication technique, known as framing, is frequently used — especially in political communication.
Framing consists of controlling the rhetoric about a specific topic in order to define how it is perceived by society. There are some famous cases, like inheritance tax in the United States, which taxes property that has been inherited after the owner’s death. In this case, those opposing the tax began to use the term “death tax” instead of “estate tax” which had been the standard term previously used. Since then, public opinion against inheritance tax began to grow. How the emotionally charged term “death tax” influenced public opinion was studied: opposition to the tax grew by up to 10 percent.
In Spain, those originally opposed to a law called the “Citizen Safety Act” managed to have it popularly referred to as the “Muzzle Act” attributing it with a negative connotation.
This is why there is now a movement underway to change the way we refer to climate change. The intention behind designating climate change as a “crisis” or “emergency” is to emphasize the extreme nature of the situation and the scant time to react.
Even the expression we use today to refer to climate change has changed over time. During the 1950s and 60s, when the rising global temperature began to get noticed, the term that was widely used was “global warming.” This was the most frequently used term throughout the 1980s and 90s. With the observation that other atmospheric phenomena — not temperature alone — were changing, the expression “climate change” began to be adopted. It includes other variables like rainfall, atmospheric pressure, wind, aridity, and extreme natural events.
Some sources suggest that the change was influenced by the Bush administration, specifically by Vice President Dick Cheney, who had access to reports that asserted that voters perceived the terms ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ differently. While the former gives a catastrophic connotation, the latter seems to describe a phenomenon that is “more controllable and less emotional.”
Be that as it may, what is being advocated for now is terminology that more accurately describes the current situation, that makes a stand for activism, and emphasizes the urgent need for action.
More than enough reason to be alarmed
Other than the 11-year countdown estimated by the IPCC, there are other reasons that worry those who are demanding uncompromising action to curb the environmental crisis. Earth’s surface temperature has not stopped rising since the industrial revolution and could hit the 1.5° mark in 2030.
From an urban perspective, this increase might not seem drastic, but it could have devastating consequences for many of Earth’s ecosystems. This difference in temperature would impact various regions with climates that are sensitive to change. For example, the Arctic could see a significant portion of its ice cap disappear. Between 2007 and 2018, the amount of arctic ice had already suffered a 20 percent drop compared to the previous decade. If this accelerated loss of ice continues, sea levels will increase, which will have the knock-on effect of displacing thousands upon thousands of people around the world. In addition, extreme climatic conditions like tidal waves, flood, and cyclones would occur more frequently and with greater, more destructive force.
NASA satellites have observed how the Arctic ice mass has reached minimum levels in 2019
Arid regions would also be particularly impacted, growing in size and experiencing more droughts, forest fires, and desertification.
And of course, biodiversity both on land in the oceans would be impacted. An increase of 1.5° represents the loss of between 70 and 90 percent of coral reefs, and the annual volume of fish caught would fall by 1.5 million metric tons. With a temperature increase of 2° from industrial times, the insect population would fall 18 percent, vertebrates by 8 percent, and birds would lose 5 percent of their population.
A 2° rise of temperature would not only result in devastating environmental impacts; there would be social and economic ramifications as well. In just a few years, we would confront the displacement of millions of people, a food shortage crisis resulting from the natural destruction of crops and livestock, increased transmission of disease, and exacerbated poverty.
A thread of hope
Still, humanity has time to prevent these predictions before they become a reality. Current efforts focus on the decarbonization of the atmosphere by reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.
A commitment was made with the Paris Agreement, successor to the Kyoto Protocol and signed by 96 countries and the European Union in 2015, to set the global warming limit at 1.5° from pre-industrial levels. Although under the Trump administration, the United States withdrew from the agreement, the rest of the signatory countries continue to be committed to this goal.
The climate emergency is a race we are losing, but it is a race we can win
UN Secretary-General, António Guterres
The collective effort is beginning to make headway. For example, the European Union managed to reduce greenhouse gases by 21.7 percent in 27 years and is heading for a 40 percent reduction by 2030.
This data confirms that international agreements protecting the environment work and yield positive results. The Montreal Protocol provides yet another example. It was implemented to protect the ozone layer after a giant hole in the atmosphere was discovered in the 1980s and found to be contributing to the impact of ultraviolet radiation on Earth. The measures adopted in this agreement have served to reduce emissions harmful to the atmosphere, thus curbing the growth of the hole in the ozone layer, which is expected to begin to be restored in 2020.
Nevertheless, more measures are needed and more stakeholders need to become involved to secure the commitments made in the Paris Agreement. Efforts should focus on changing the energy model, moving from a fossil fuel-based model to one based on clean energy that does not emit harmful gases, a process called energy transition.
In this sense, there has been a lot of progress; a lot of resources have been invested into developing technology that assists with adapting to new ways of living that don’t involve the contamination of the environment.
But, in order to work, these measures have to be embraced by all countries and their communities, especially emerging or those least developed countries. These areas, apart from having fewer resources to combat climate change, would also be those that suffer the most from its consequences; they cannot be left on the sidelines.
Thus, the labels “climate emergency” and “climatic crisis” aim to impact the way climate change is perceived by society, to make the case for the much needed paradigm shift in our daily habits, to discredit those who continue to believe climate change is a conspiracy, and most of all to urge those who are in a position to do so to institute the required measures, urgently and on a grand scale.