Emergency. Crisis. Breakdown. These are the words the Guardian newspaper wants its reporters to use when describing the state of the global climate. “Climate change,” Katharine Viner, the editor-in-chief, said in May, “sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.”
News of the U.K. media outlet’s decision quickly spread throughout the industry. The Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the CBC launched internal reviews of the words they use to describe the climate. Here at Broadview, we did the same.
Although a wording change has no direct impact on carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere, words can shape ideas, and ideas can inspire action. Words like “crisis” and “emergency” most accurately capture a situation where we must halve carbon emissions by 2030 to avoid putting millions of people in climate-related jeopardy. These words have just enough edge to get our hearts pumping.
Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swede who launched the school strike for climate movement, is both adept at choosing words and at understanding their impact. In January, she told the World Economic Forum: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic .… I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”
Some argue that raising the rhetoric only causes people to tune out, shut down and become too depressed to act. We’ve all felt despair as scientists deliver reports indicating we’re headed toward the world’s sixth mass extinction. But the scary truth is that even faced with our own demise, we seem more prone to indifference. There’s nothing like the blaring of an emergency alarm to get people off the couch and out the door.
In our cover story, “The adults have failed us,” writer Alanna Mitchell uses the phrases “climate emergency” and “climate crisis.” We’ve chosen to adopt these phrases for all of Broadview’s climate-related coverage.
In June, the Canadian government declared a national climate emergency, becoming the third country to do so. Will efforts to use more impactful language shift the collective consciousness enough to inspire the needed action? Or will we be ratcheting up our rhetoric again in a few years? Let’s hope not. Or, better yet, let’s not hope. Let’s heed Thunberg’s request and set hope aside in favour of action. Because when the house is burning, you don’t sit back, observe the “change” and hope it will stop.
This editorial first appeared in the September 2019 issue of Broadview with the title “Sounding the alarm.” For more of Broadview’s award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today.