The urgency of climate crisis needed robust new language to describe it | Paul Chadwick

Changes to how the Guardian writes about climate announced by Katharine Viner prompted a discussion with readers

Initial reader response was positive to the Guardian’s recent changes to the way it will refer to climate. “This is an epic struggle of ideas, crucial to our future,” wrote one aye-sayer. The announcement by editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, of five changes to the style guide generated reaction in media and science. For each change (in bold below) I asked Viner for her reasons, which follow here in italics. She began by reiterating that “none of the old terms is banned. If in a particular circumstance the original term is clearly more appropriate, then it should be used. But the preference is for the new terms.”
Use climate emergency, crisis or breakdown instead of climate change
Huge-scale and immediate action is needed to slash emissions but they are still going up – that’s an emergency or crisis. Extreme weather is increasing and climate patterns established for millennia are changing – hence breakdown.
Use global heating instead of global warming
Global heating is more scientifically accurate … Greenhouse gases form an atmospheric blanket that stops the sun’s heat escaping back to space.
Use wildlife instead of biodiversity
Biodiversity is not a common or well understood term, and is a bit clinical when you are talking about all the creatures that share our planet.
Use fish populations instead of fish stocks
This change emphasises that fish do not exist solely to be harvested by humans – they play a vital role in the natural health of the oceans.
Use climate science denier or climate denier instead of climate sceptic
Very few experts are, in good faith, truly sceptical of climate science, or of the necessity for strong climate action. Those arguing against it are denying the overwhelming evidence that the climate crisis exists.

An ugent global issue … Extinction Rebellion protest in London on Friday.
An ugent global issue … Extinction Rebellion protest in London on Friday. Photograph: Ollie Millington/Getty Images

Readers took the discussion further, and I put some of their suggestions (bold) to Viner for her responses (italics).
Wildlife” is insufficient to describe “biodiversity”
A reasonable argument … biodiversity is not banned, if it’s clearly the best term, then use it … wildlife is a much more accessible word and is fair to use in many stories.
Carbon emissions” should be “carbon dioxide emissions”
“Carbon dioxide emissions” is technically correct, but a commonly used shorthand, “greenhouse gas emissions”, is even better if we’re talking about all gases that warm the atmosphere, ie including methane, nitrogen oxides, CFCs etc.
Consider “climate instability” instead of “climate heating”
“Global heating”and “climate breakdown” serve the same purpose as “climate instability”.
Not heating, overheating
“Overheating” implies a judgment about how much is too much. I think that judgment is captured by “climate crisis, emergency, breakdown”.

I support Viner’s direction of travel. She is harnessing the power of language usage to focus minds on an urgent global issue. One challenge for the Guardian and the Observer will be to weigh, in specific journalistic contexts, two sometimes competing aspects of terminology used in public debates: language as description, and language as exhortation.

• Paul Chadwick is the Guardian’s readers’ editor


Paul Chadwick

The GuardianTramp

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