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Home » The language of climate is evolving, from ‘change’ to ‘catastrophe’

The language of climate is evolving, from ‘change’ to ‘catastrophe’

The language of climate is evolving, from ‘change’ to ‘catastrophe’

“Climate emergency” was used just 17 times prior to January 2019, but 283 times since.

“Global warming” is out. “Climate catastrophe” is in.

The language of climate change has shifted over time, according to data collected by language learning platform Babbel, and the Media and Climate Change Observatory (MeCCO) at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Particularly, the words and phrases more frequently utilized by media outlets reflect the worsening of the crisis, bringing more intense terms like “catastrophe” and “emergency” into the mainstream lexicon, as opposed to subtler choices prevalent at the beginning of the 2000s. Linguistic experts say the media’s choices, which have been influenced by scientists and organizations like the UN, are important because they convey to the public an increasingly urgent threat.

Babbel and MeCCO, a volunteer-led initiative that tracks climate terminology in the press and its impact on popular opinion, scanned news stories from January 2006 to October 2021 in major U.S. publications, including The New York Times, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal, and found some recognizable trends. Notably, “climate catastrophe” has been used 1.5 times more in 2021 than in 2020. They did the same study with British publications, including The Guardian, The Times, and The Sun, where this trend was even more apparent: they used it three times more.

Another noticeable pattern is the fading-out of “global warming” and “greenhouse effect.” Publications used “global warming” 157 times in October 2021, versus 378 times at its peak in June 2008, a fall of 141%—despite an increase in climate reporting. “Greenhouse effect” peaked in 2008 and 2010, then dropped off and never regained the same usage levels. Even the once-prevailing phrase “climate change” has dipped in usage, by 133% less than at its peak in January 2008.
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