Heated words: An A-Z of the climate crisis

Before it was climate change, it was global warming. Before that, it was holes in the atmosphere caused by greenhouse gases.

Now, it’s the climate crisis, caused by a combination of rising temperatures, rising sea levels, a slowing Gulf Stream, intensifying weather events, and increasingly erratic rainfall. Hence, crisis.

When put like that, it makes sense to extrapolate that if this is what 1.1 degrees Celsius (warmer than pre-industrial levels) looks like, 1.5 degrees will be potentially terrifying. And 2 degrees all but unlivable.

As the once debated is-it-or-isn’t-it phenomenon of global warming has turned into undeniable changes we see today — from superstorms and cyclones to sweeping wildfires, record-setting summer and winter extremes, torrential rain in months that saw no rain, and snow and hail in parts that see no snow; as the climate has become more extreme and unpredictable; and as our species attempts to navigate this change, a new language has developed to talk about the phenomenon.

And so we have, for instance, ideas of climate justice and environmental racism, around which world leaders made impassioned speeches at CoP26 in November. Tulavu’s foreign affairs minister Simon Kofe stood knee-deep in the ocean, in his home country, and said to the world: “We are sinking.” Barbados prime minister Mia Mottley described a goal of 2 degrees as a “death sentence” for her nation and many other island nations that would go under.

The terms “climate justice” and “environmental racism” are pegged to the idea that attempts to mitigate rising temperatures and the impacts of the climate crisis must focus on smaller economies that stand to be worst-affected, rather than almost exclusively on keeping the world’s biggest cities and most powerful countries stable. Read more on that in this Wknd A-Z.

Similarly, the term “triple bottom line” is both a hope and a warning. It represents the idea that companies must now aim for three things simultaneously: profits, the good of the community, and alleviation of pollution. In keeping with this idea, some soft drink companies run plastic and water recycling programmes; cigarette makers plant forests. How many trees are actually planted, how much water recycled? Look at the numbers and, far too often, triple bottom line claims turn out to belong to an entirely different new hashtag: greenwashing, the practice of turning polluting activities into hollow PR exercises.

The language of climate change and conservation is a product of the times. Several new terms are succinct and catchy. Many are designed to be self-explanatory: circular economy, keystone species, net-zero emissions. It’s a language designed to encourage inclusivity, action and hope.