Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
Why the Shift from “Climate Change” to “Climate Emergency” Matters
Media drama is the very best kind, isn’t it? The absolutely excellent organization Covering Climate Now recently asked a bunch of publications to sign a pledge to call the climate crisis a climate emergency. Many balked. Writes CCN:
More than 30 newsrooms have now signed the statement (an updated list is here), but some major outlets told us privately they won’t sign. The phrase “climate emergency” sounded like activism, they said; endorsing it might make them look biased. Instead, they added, they would let their climate coverage speak for itself.
But CCN points out that the whole point is that the coverage doesn’t speak for itself. We are in an emergency! Would you know that from today’s news? CCN goes on:
We’re not obsessed with whether a news outlet does or doesn’t use the term “climate emergency.” What matters is whether the outlet’s overall coverage treats climate change like an emergency.
And yet, the parameters of the language convey the gravity of the sitch. The Guardian realized this in 2019 and adjusted its stylebook to use climate breakdown or emergency. Two years later, the world is catching up, and what once seemed ahead of the climate curve now reads like baseline accuracy. Which is why it’s so important to default to the right language.
One of my fave climate writers suggested that refusing to sign this pledge was no biggie, because (a) reporters don’t need to wear their emergencies on their sleeves, and (b) the outlets mostly refused because they were in lefty company. (Signatories include The Guardian and Al Jazeera).
Let’s unpack this. Shifting their terminology is something publications do all the time to reflect new learnings and new realities (hello b to the B in Black!). Acknowledging the truth of a planet on fire isn’t wearing an XR badge on your sleeve—it’s ree-al-it-y. And cutting mainstream publications slack because they don’t want to be in gauche company is weak sauce: Who are they afraid of? It’s naive to think that outlets aren’t accountable to their readers and funders, but would this tiny shift in nomenclature cause said stakeholders to rise up? I just don’t think so. Unless, perhaps, you’re Fox News and ol’ Rupert is holding you out the window of a tall skyscraper.
Default to accuracy
Defaults simplify our lives. And if climate change is the default, anything beyond those words will seem over-the-top. But anything less than an accurate definition of what is happening (breakdown, crisis, emergency) undermines the severity of our situation. If we make climate crisis the default, then we diffuse its activistyness. Exactly the opposite effect of what is intended by the editorial grandees who refuse to commit to these new words.
Which is not to say there aren’t reasons you wouldn’t use the words climate emergency. If, say, you’re communicating to more conservative audiences, you would want to speak in terms that don’t alienate before you’ve finished your first sentence. But meeting people where they are in a persuasive context is very different from covering the crisis in the news. However diminished we may feel the media’s power is, we still very much take our cues from the language they use. And the prominence they give the stories of the day. I see you, New York Times, with your excellent above the fold climate coverage yesterday:
As Wolfgang Blau says, “calling for reducing emissions during a climate emergency is no more ‘activism’ than telling people to wear a mask during a pandemic.” (h/t Akshat Rathi!). Blau also makes this excellent point:
Just as this is the decade for everyone and their mother to step up to the reality of climate, we need our media to shift their coverage, language, tools, and priorities. Some certainly are, but they’re being eclipsed by the breadth of the climate emergency. I get that outlets move slowly when it comes to these shifts, careful to maintain a perceived objectivity, but the objective truth is that things are much worse than they present them, and that is, objectively, a collective moral failing.
If we normalize an emergency, then what’s the point? What does it mean if a country declares a climate emergency and then goes back to eating its lunch? Well, it means that facts are on the books. A wonderful colleague who has worked in dozens of war-torn countries put it this way: Apocalypse on Monday, then the market on Tuesday, and then back to apocalypse on Wednesday. Life goes on. It’s a realistic way of neutralizing the fear we have of allowing the language of emergency to scare the bejeebus out of us. But the sooner we lean into the reality of it, the better equipped we’ll be to fight, to mitigate, to adapt. The trajectory can be changed, but it requires veracity and courage on the part of our media. See you at the market on Tuesday.
What language do you use in your life? At work I say climate crisis, among friends I say climate kerfuffle, and to myself I say climate cacacacacatastrophe. LMK!
So many lovely words on how to (or not to) embody climate.
Writes T: Do the work, speak up, act differently, regardless of the Echo from others. Until one day someone realizes that he/she is not alone. We are more than we think.
Writes K: My husband is less concerned about climate action and as a result, I keep many feelings to myself. He doesn’t want to feel guilty for consuming stuff and generating waste, and he makes a good point that corporations have shifted the responsibility and guilt onto us consumers for the damage they’ve done. Instead of preaching, I try to lead by example. He now remembers to use the guppy bag when washing his synthetic clothes. He likes picking up trash from random places. He even enjoys my vegan cooking.
Love this, just do and people will start doing too!
Submission from my dad. Thanks, dad!
Thank you for reading! If you’re new here, I’m Sarah Lazarovic. I work on communicating the importance of good climate policy by day, and this newsletter and my dance moves by night.
If you like MVP you can support it by telling all your friends and frogs about it.
Have a beautiful weekend,
P.S. This is my newsletter for the week of June 18, 2021, published in partnership with YES! Media. You can sign up to get Minimum Viable Planet newsletter emailed directly to you at https://mvp.substack.com/.
Sarah Lazarovic is an award-winning artist, creative director, freelance animator and filmmaker, and journalist, covering news and cultural events in comic form. She is the author of A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy.