Our Burning Planet

War of Words: The language of the climate emergency 

By Leonie Joubert 27 January 2020

A photo of a burnt kangaroo taken during the wildfires that swept through Australia. (Photo: Brad Fleet / Instagram)

Climate scientists talk neutrally of a world that’s 2°C, or 3°C, or 4°C hotter. Activists and journalists talk of ‘catastrophe’, ‘collapse’, and planetary ‘emergency’. The apparent gulf between this choice of language is misleading. In reality, they’re saying the same thing, just using the editorial ‘voices’ that are fit for purpose. 

Is there a more horrific way to die, than to burn alive?

If anything put the sternum-punch back into the climate story, it must be the photograph of the charred body of a joey – a teenage kangaroo – snared in the strands of a fence that blocked its escape from a raging wildfire during the recent conflagration sweeping across south-eastern Australia. In charred rigor, the young creature’s pose betrays its brutal death: lips pulled back in what looks like an affable smile, front paws crossed demurely over its blackened chest. But as it rotted, its drying, crisped hide pulled “tight as a funeral drum”, to borrow the poetry of Roger Waters.  

Any creature with a brain, a nervous system, and a level of awareness will die with the same horror as this one did, as heat reaching 800°C singed its hair, melted its skin, and screamed through its nerve endings; as smoke choked its nostrils and lungs. You can only hope that death came quickly. What of the other one billion animals1 000 000 000 – estimated to have died either by fire, or hunger or thirst, as Australia smouldered through the worst drought and fire season in memory? 

This isn’t just a story about a quaint antipodean marsupial dying in a normal bushfire. There is something universal about its fate in the face of planetary forces far beyond its control. In a sense, we are all that joey: powerless and trapped. 

2019 was the year that the “climate truth bomb” hit. After a year of apocalyptic headlines rolling off the digital presses day after day, terms like “catastrophic” and “irreversible” change, or the “existential threat” of climate “collapse” started to become threadbare from overuse. 

But the photographs don’t lose their oomph. They capture the realty of communities and habitats caught in the blast radius of a detonating planetary life-support system. 

Although even as the language of climate “change” hots up in the media, there is still the usual smattering of opinionistas who reckon that this shock-language is just the hysterics of alarmist “wonks”. Besides, they argue, if you take the time to actually read the hundreds of pages of dense and arcane climate science put out by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC), you won’t find words like “collapse”, “catastrophic”, or “existential threat”. 

“(A) careful look at the reports of the IPCC… you will find none of the horrors described by Greta Thunberg or Extinction Rebellion or many smart writers and journalists,” one such critic opined recently. 

It’s true. You won’t. But if you’re looking for that kind of language in the IPCC’s publications, you don’t understand what you’re reading. 

Is it alarmist, or alarming? 

For Tasmania-based climatologist Dr James Risbey, with the Australian national science agency CSIRO, 2013 was the year that the climate truth bomb dropped for him. The island suffered hellish wildfires that year, the kind that scientists had been warning about for a decade, and which foreshadowed this year’s devastating fire season. 

He remembers much of the island state being on fire in 2013, and some blazes generating their own pyrocumulous clouds

“There were smoke plumes everywhere. It was surreal. It was unlike anything we’d experienced before,” he recalls. “This was when the penny dropped. It was scary. When you actually experience it like this, the intellectual knowledge suddenly becomes real, it has a hook to hang on.” 

In the same week that Risbey spoke to the Daily Maverick from his office in Hobart, Tasmania, US President Donald Trump took to the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos to decry climate “alarmists” for being “prophets of doom”.

But is the language used to tell the climate story alarmist, or alarming? This is something Risbey was already thinking about over a decade ago. In an article published in 2008, Risbey looks at terms like “rapid”, “urgent”, “irreversible”, “chaotic”, and “worse than previously thought” in the context of the climate discourse, to see if they were a good fit for what increasingly looks like a planetary emergency. 

Once you stack up the evidence, these terms were appropriate descriptors of the crisis then. And they still apply now, he says. 

The problem with language, though, is that it is vague and imprecise, particularly from the perspective of a scientist who wants to communicate precise meaning according to carefully calibrated measures of the world. 

“What is ‘rapid’? Relative to what?” Risbey asks. 

For someone working on geological timescales, where for instance oceanographers might be thinking about sea-level rise unfolding over the course of the next few centuries, 100 years is fast. For most of the reading public or a government policymaker, who may be measuring the passage of time by their own life expectancy of 80 or so years or a five-year electoral cycle, impacts happening a century from now might not seem “fast” at all.

“As scientists, we want the most accurate description of the science, so we need to choose the right term and explain what it means. These terms – “rapid”, “urgent”, “irreversible”, “chaotic” – used in the right context, are reasonable descriptors. They are strong terms, but they are vague, which means we have to work harder to provide that context.”

Dramatic storytellers versus neutral scientists 

The picture of the immolated kangaroo is grim. Telling the truth this way is the storyteller’s role in communicating the reality of the emergency that we have brought upon ourselves. But while the media and other storytellers can indulge in a degree of creative license in their use of language to create dramatic tension, scientists can’t, according to science history professor Naomi Oreskes at the University of California.

“Science is different. Scientists are expected to eschew drama,” she says. “They are expected to lay out the facts in quantitative terms, stripped of emotional valence.”

This kind of literary drama is forbidden in the verbal spectrum of the climate scientist who is trained to be “cool-headed”, and to “avoid emotion”. 

Over the years, scientists have been accused of some “alarmism” and “of over-interpreting or overreacting to evidence of human impacts on the climate system”. But when Oreskes and a team of fellow researchers’ took a close look at the matter back in 2013, they found that climate scientists are actually biased in the opposite direction, “toward cautious estimates… erring on the side of less rather than more alarming predictions”.

Climate scientists have “been conservative in their projections of the impacts of climate change”. This tendency to “err on the side of least drama” is a kind of cautious over-editing, something which former NASA climate scientist Prof James Hansen calls “scientific reticence”.

Climate scientists have toned down their message and their language, in spite of the evidence, to stay within the Overton Window – the range of ideas that are tolerated within public discourse.

The reasons for this self-editing are simple, Oreskes and her colleagues argue. They lie in the core scientific values and norms of objectivity, rationality, dispassion, restraint, objectivity, scepticism, and moderation. Scientists are trained to be level-headed, disciplined, and self-controlled because any emotionality would be seen as negative, and as having clouded their judgment. They must aim for scientific “respectability”. 

This group culture ends up policing itself: “because science operates according to a prestige economy, in which reputation is paramount, anything that might incite the distrust of one’s peers is to be avoided”.

This isn’t a criticism of scientists or the scientific culture, Oreskes and co maintain. “The culture of science has in most respects served humanity very well”. But when it comes to communicating the full social, economic, and political risks of climate change, it has failed.

Is climate collapse an ‘existential threat’ to humanity?  

The science put out by the UN’s IPCC is amongst the most peer-reviewed in the history of the modern scientific discipline of truth-testing. But the UN puts a tight editorial muzzle on its scientist authors. 

The UN has a diplomatic mandate, and uses diplomatic language in its communications, explains South African economist Anton Cartwright from the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities.

While the IPCC’s written outputs are peer-reviewed by leading scientists, the language used in the texts is signed off by governments, and heavily edited to be politically palatable. This doesn’t mean that the science is cleaned up to misrepresent the state of climate collapse, but that the language is deliberately rose-tinted and neutral.

A reading of the IPCC’s Global Warming of 1.5C report, published in 2018 and which Anton Cartwright helped write, will show that there is no reference to climate change being an “existential” threat to society and civilisation, barring one footnote in Chapter 5 which explains that the authors couldn’t agree on how to define “existential risk“. 

That doesn’t mean that the authors thought the term shouldn’t be in the report. 

An existential threat is a threat to something’s survival. In this context, losing a life-supporting natural system as critical as a stable climate poses a real threat to the ongoing survival of humanity and many other life forms and natural systems. 

During the preparation meetings for writing the 1.5°C report, Cartwright argued that the term should be included to describe one possible outcome of our shared climate future. However, many of his fellow authors argued that we don’t know for sure how many people climate change would kill, and that forfeiting development would also risk lives. 

“My point was that, with the facts as they are, a lot of people may die. How much more do we need to know before we make sacrifices for the sake of a concerted response?” 

Indeed, how many people need to be at risk of dying – what percentage of total humanity – to label this an existential threat?

For Risbey, to spend too much time wrestling with how to define “existential threat” gets us hogtied in misleading arguments.

“Climate change, if unchecked, will entail massive disruption to humans and other species on the planet. That’s not really arguable anymore. We are sending the climate back to the Cretaceous period, to what it was like during the era of the dinosaurs, and we’re doing it very fast. Substantial parts of the planet will not be very habitable for humans and other species.

Taking into account the neutrally-worded conclusions of the Global Warming of 1.5°C, the UNEP Emissions Gap Report, and a recent article in the journal Nature which argues we are on the verge of triggered nine irreversible tipping points that will slide us across into a completely unstable climate regime (and this, at just 1°C of global heating), the language does seem to be grossly out of step with the level of planetary emergency. 

But the lexicon of acceptable and conservative terminology in the IPCC’s texts is evolving. A concept like “transformational adaptation”, which appears in the 1.5°C report, is new and means something far more powerful than the bland words suggest. 

Transformational adaptation speaks to the massive disruption needed to give a complete overhaul to the global economic and political systems that have allowed climate-wrecking consumption and pollution to continue unabated for decades. 

Run this through the activists’ thesaurus, and “transformational adaptation” reads like the many posters popping up at climate marches around the globe: “Systems change, not climate change!” 

“To stay below 1.5°C warming, we need transformational change, as opposed to linear and incremental change,” says Cartwright. “We need systemic change in energy, urban infrastructure, land ecosystems, and the industrial system.”

This kind of change will be disruptive, just as climate impacts will be disruptive. But scientists were finally able to get this message past the editorial pens of governments involved in the sign-off of the text for the 1.5°C report. 

Let’s see if a term like “existential risk” finally makes it into the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, due out in two years’ time. 

In spite of all this semantic squabbling, though, “we are definitely not doing enough to avoid catastrophe,” Cartwright says in blunt summary, using terminology that he and his colleagues are not able to introduce into their IPCC writings. By his reading of the evidence, the “risk is loaded towards runaway climate change”. 

Tipping points: hitting the wall 

It’s like we’re careening down the highway at full speed, but there’s a wall across the road somewhere ahead of us, and we’re about to hit it. 

“We don’t know where (the wall) stands, but we know that if we don’t brake we will hit it, so we should hit the brakes now. That’s what the tipping points are,” says climatologist Prof Hans-Otto Pörtner from the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Germany. 

The wall metaphor is Pörtner’s. He is an IPCC co-chair, making him one of its most senior IPCC scientists, and yet even with this rank, he can’t use this kind of figurative language in his contribution to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, due out in 2022, because it’s not the right editorial “voice” for the platform. But he uses the metaphor comfortably in his communication with the media.

According to Pörtner, we don’t fully understand climate tipping points, but they’re lying ahead of us nonetheless: once certain physical processes kick into play, like the rapidly thawing Arctic permafrost which is releasing massive stores of previously frozen methane that is likely to surge global heating into overdrive, the climate system will slip across an irreversible threshold and into “runaway” climate collapse.  

The concept of tipping points is something which the scientists have only recently started speaking about with greater confidence, according to Risbey. In 2008, scientists who spoke about tipping points were sometimes exposed to ridicule, but now these are a more regular feature in academic papers.

Using the wall analogy, Pörtner explains why we should be applying the bog-standard precautionary principle. We’re going to slam into the wall, and given our current inaction, it will be at breakneck speed. It’s inevitable. Instead of bickering about whether we’ll hit it within 1.5km or 2km, we should be applying the brakes now so that the impact won’t be so catastrophic. 

Even with our “best efforts” to throttle carbon pollution, as outlined at the most recent UN climate negotiations, the 25th Conference of Parties held in Spain last November, we still get to 2.9°C to 3.4°C by the end of this century, according to Cartwright. But the actual global emissions rate which is growing annually puts us way above that – 4°C or more, by the end of the century.

Yes, scientists agree, there are many uncertainties – about how accurately the models capture the future where so many complex natural systems are at play, what happens when tipping points kick in, how much warming is “baked in” and already unavoidable – but these should prompt greater alarm and more urgent action, not less. 

When words fail 

The biggest club used against those who choose “alarmist” language is that it will frighten people into paralysis and inaction. But looking at the lack of social and political response, in spite of “alarming” language ratcheting up in the public conversation, society still hasn’t woken up to the true reality of the emergency. 

Risbey doesn’t believe that the moderate language used by scientists is contributing much to the political and social inertia to address climate collapse, though. It’s the constant lobbying by corporations and large political players against decarbonising our economies that’s the main problem.

But the words we use are nevertheless important as the public discourse dials up to match the scale of the crisis. And these words may need to keep changing as weary audiences become tone-deaf to overused words. 

After hot, hotter, and hottest, what comes next? Killer hot? Lethal hot? Hades hot? What comes after “extinction-level event”? Will our language run out of words to paint the full picture of a collapsing climate? 

“I don’t think one can dial up this language, because those terms are already very significant,” says Risbey. 

Maybe language isn’t the reason we can’t grasp the magnitude of the crisis we have created. Maybe it’s the other cognitive barriers to understanding, he wonders.

Omnicide is a term that made it into modern dictionaries back when the threat of nuclear annihilation became a real possibility with the weaponisation of a technology that allowed us to split the atom. Omni – all things, everything; cide – the act of killing. Like genocide, only bigger. It’s what we’re doing to all of life on Earth. 

Even this word will one day fail. 

And when it does, maybe pictures will have to do the work instead, like the ones we’ve seen flooding our news feeds in the past few years. Family homes reduced to apocalyptic ash in California. White road markings smeared like an Expressionist-era oil painting as heat blowtorched asphalt roads in Delhi. Sled-pulling huskies in Greenland, sloshing ankle-deep through water when they should have been gliding over white piste. The guts ripped out of seaside homes as violent ocean tides slammed into coastlines. The grinning skulls of desiccated antelope and livestock, starved to death during the El Nino-driven drought across southern Africa. A huddle of Somalis, displaced by drought, seeking shade beneath a leafless scrap of a tree in some unnamed location, surrounded by nothing but rocks and sand. A bloated, angry river, eviscerating buildings in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. A few bedraggled palms hanging their shredded fronds over the rubble heap that was Beira, after Cyclone Idai wiped out 90% of the Mozambican town. 

And that’s at just 1°C in global heating. A 4°C world is unimaginable. 

We could keep quibbling about the language issue, but it’s nothing more than a semantic squabble – to-may-toe, to-mah-toe; po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe. If the last decade looks frightening in hindsight, the decade that lies ahead of us will be even more terrifying. The longer we delay our response, the harder we’ll hit the inevitable wall. There’s no gentle way to say that. DM

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