Last Friday, British daily newspaper the Guardian updated its style guide and is now recommending to its writers that they use “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” instead of “climate change” and “global heating” instead of “global warming.” As Editor-in-Chief Katharine Viner explained, “We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue. The phrase ‘climate change’, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.” This move follows the BBC’s issuance of internal guidance last year on how to report on climate change. 

Other terms that were updated include the use of “wildlife” rather than “biodiversity”, “fish populations” instead of “fish stocks” and “climate science denier” rather than “climate sceptic”. The update to the Guardian’s style guide follows the addition of the global carbon dioxide level to the Guardian’s daily weather pages.

As EcoWatch explained, the Guardian said the changes were in response to a number of political and scientific developments, among them:

  • The October 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that found that carbon dioxide levels needed to fall by nearly half by 2030 in order to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and avoid catastrophic impacts.
  • A May UN report warning that biodiversity and natural systems were declining across the globe, putting the human societies that rely on them at risk.
  • The use of the term “climate crisis” by United Nations Sec. General António Guterres and climate scientist Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, who has advised Angela Merkel, the EU and the pope.
  • The UK Parliament’s declaration of a climate emergency this month.

Additionally, not everyone felt that the Guardian’s terms were purely scientific. Prof. Richard Betts, Met Office Fellow, Head of Climate Impacts Research and Chair in Climate Impacts, University of Exeter, said:

“In my view, “Climate emergency” and “climate crisis” are a matter of opinion, not science.  They are to do with how people & society view climate change and whether / how to respond.  Individuals will have personal views on these but they are not scientific terms. “Climate breakdown” seems more like an attempt at a scientific term, but it implies a judgement on what an “unbroken” climate is.  Scientifically I don’t think there such a thing though.  There are ranges of climate conditions to which humans are adapted, and we will obviously be in big trouble if the climate moves out of those ranges, but that’s still not really the same as the climate “breaking down”.

Why This Matters: The way we talk about and communicate the urgency of climate change is critical. Twenty years ago, less aggressive terminology around climate issues was necessary to dissuade the public from tuning out of the conversation but we don’t have the luxury of time anymore. For the media, depicting an accurate account of how global climate change is affecting our planet might be viewed as a ratings-killer but the public relies on the information they see and read to shape their world view and they deserve the truth. As more global bodies like the UN begin to update how they relay the drastic effects of a warming planet, it’s certainly something for the rest of us to consider in our own communication.

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