(Image: Unsplash/Matt Howard)

Climate change was an inevitable source of tension when Scott Morrison met with Pacific leaders this week. While islands like Tuvalu are sinking, Australia continually fails to lower its emissions or craft an adequate climate policy.

Australia’s stance was on full display at the Pacific Islands Forum, where after a day of difficult negotiations, the government succeeded in getting a regional climate statement neutered. Australia refused to commit to a statement from small island states pledging not to construct new coal fired power stations, and managed to airbrush most references to “coal” out of the forum’s final communique.

Language has always been central to the politics of climate change. In the past few months, a number of local, state and national governments have declared a “climate emergency”. At the same time, governments with denialist leanings — like Australia’s — have frequently used language to downplay the state of the planet or water down reports.

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From “global warming” to “climate change”

Once upon a time, we all talked about global warming. In the late 1980s, as consensus began to crystallise around the reality of a heating planet, global warming became the dominant term scientists used to explain what was happening.

“Climate change”, which had also been frequently used in the scientific literature up to that point, began to gain traction in the early 2000s. To deniers, that semantic shift is evidence of a conspiracy. Donald Trump has frequently claimed that “they” (identity undefined) changed the name from global warming to climate change because the world “isn’t getting warmer”.

In reality, there are a few reasons for this shift. Firstly, while both terms are still used in the scientific community, climate change may be a more accurate reflection of the way the climate is being dramatically altered — when discourse isn’t framed around warming, it’s far easier to discuss the links between rising emissions and weather events like floods and bushfires.

But there’s also a politically pragmatic reason for that shift. The shift to climate change, seen as a more neutral, less terrifying phrase, began on the political right. In 2002, Republican strategist Frank Luntz wrote a memo urging president George W Bush to cast doubt around the science and use the less emotional and catastrophic term “climate change”. In response, global warming quietly fell out of the administration’s lexicon. Interestingly, Luntz, one of the GOP’s foremost masters of the political dark arts, now expresses regret about his earlier role in the climate wars and is urging conservatives to take the issue seriously.

The end of climate change?

While climate change is still the dominant term, there’s plenty of debate around whether it is the most useful. Scientists are divided. Some like to attach qualifiers like “anthropogenic” or “human-induced”, others favour “climate disruption“.

There’s now a growing linguistic tide turning in favour of terms like “climate crisis”, proponents of which argue is necessary to cut through stagnant politics and reinforce just how urgently action is needed to stop the world from burning. Recently, The Guardian announced a significant overhaul to its style guide — replacing old terms like climate change and global warming with “climate crisis” and “global heating”.

In June, the City of Sydney joined national governments like the UK and France in declaring a “climate emergency”. In the US, influential Democrats, including several presidential candidates, have adopted the language of emergency.

On the flip side, some are worried that even climate change has become a far too toxic, partisan term. Recently, the American Meteorological Society toyed with cooling off on its use of the term climate change, arguing it was overly-politicised at a time when consensus was desperately needed.

When in doubt, leave it out

Language has also been central to governmental efforts to fortify inaction. In Australia, that could be watering down language (as was the case in Tuvalu), to muzzling reports or just not mentioning climate at all.

In 2016, the Coalition government managed to get all references to Australia mysteriously removed from a UNESCO report about the climate change impacts on world heritage sites, arguing it would harm tourism to the Great Barrier Reef. The reef is a constant source of gymnastics — this week, Environment Minister Sussan Ley went snorkelling there, declaring the reef to be in good health. Half the reef is dead.

The way the government communicates about climate change is frequently misleading. Despite assurances that emissions are going down, and Australia is comfortably on track to meet its reduction targets, emissions continue to rise and the targets are unlikely to be achieved. Data about emissions is frequently delayed or withheld — often dropped on Christmas Eve to avoid scrutiny. Meanwhile, Australia’s reduction efforts rely on dodgy accounting — using credits carried over from the earlier Kyoto agreement to meet its emissions targets, a loophole numerous other advanced economies refuse to exploit.

While governments in Europe– even conservative ones — have been increasingly proactive on climate change, Australia’s semantics of denial puts it more in line with the Trump administration. Since 2017 the US administration has removed a quarter of all references to climate change from government websites. The Department of Energy started calling fossil fuels “molecules of freedom”. Numerous scientists and civil servants have spoken out about a culture of climate action being muzzled and ignored across numerous organs of the Washington bureaucracy.

As the climate crisis worsens, the battle to control the narrative is only going to intensify. But that battle is as much linguistic as political.

Which terms should we be using to talk about the climate? Write to and let us know your thoughts. Please include your full name if you would like to be included for publication.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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