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What’s the deal with terms like “greenhouse effect,” “global warming,” “climate change,” and “the climate emergency”? » Yale Climate Connections

Almost two decades ago, Al Gore’s 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” raised awareness of the problems associated with what was then commonly called “global warming.” Although most people had moved away from referring to the heating of our planet as the “greenhouse effect,” we were still a few years from adopting the term “climate change,” a more accurate though less evocative label, as the leading descriptor of our profound environmental challenges.

The words we use to characterize our climate concerns can influence how we view the issue, and as a consequence, the actions we take. As data scientists, we recently studied the evolution in terminology by examining 79,134 articles that mentioned key climate terms in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and USA Today between 1980 and 2023. This review allows us to not only understand the terms most commonly used in the media but also to see whether their usage tracks the terminology favored by scientific experts and the general public.

We were struck by the long-term evolution in the relative prominence of “greenhouse effect,” “global warming,” and “climate change.” But what really stood out was the sudden emergence in late 2018 of more dramatic language like “climate crisis,” “climate emergency,” and even “climate apocalypse.” Looking beyond the media, we found that this surge of alarmist language parallels the framing of environmental issues by experts but has not yet become commonplace among the broader public — at least not as measured by internet search data.

How terms changed over time

Although the first mention of “global warming” was in a 1975 scientific study, throughout the 1980s, “greenhouse effect” was still more commonly used by the four newspapers we analyzed. It wasn’t until 1989 that “global warming” became the term of choice in these mainstream outlets, as illustrated in the graphic below.

By 2009, “climate change” had surpassed “global warming” in the four newspapers. This terminological transition was championed as early as 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences as a more accurate way to describe the phenomenon. It may also have reflected the increasingly politicized nature of climate issues, driven in part by the oil and gas industry’s intensive campaigning. A 2011 study demonstrated that using the term “climate change” rather than “global warming” at the time resulted in a 16% increase in Republicans endorsing the phenomenon as real.

Interestingly, it wasn’t until the summer of 2015 that Google searches for “climate change” outpaced those for “global warming,” as shown in the graphic below. This suggests that the media do not have an immediate, overwhelming effect on the terms used by the public. Indeed, it can take years for a new term to seep into public consciousness and be reflected in everyday language.

The sudden rise of “climate crisis”

The media is much quicker to adopt new terminology. In late 2018, “climate crisis” and related terms, including “climate emergency,” “climate catastrophe,” “climate apocalypse,” “climate breakdown,” and “planetary emergency,” suddenly appeared in the media. These emotive terms are qualitatively different from the phrases used since the 1980s. Why did they break through at that time?

Global activism likely contributed to this sharp rise. In August 2018, Greta Thunberg launched her Fridays for Future campaign. In the U.S., organizations such as the Sunrise Movement grabbed headlines through high-profile protests that drew sustained attention. They helped to frame the issue as an emergency requiring immediate action. As Thunberg said in her December 2018 COP24 speech, “We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.”

She was not alone in this view. In February 2019, climate journalist David Wallace-Wells penned an opinion piece for the New York Times entitled, “Time to Panic,” in which he argued that “climate change is a crisis precisely because it is a looming catastrophe that demands an aggressive global response, now.” Other journalists also embraced this perspective, especially in the U.K., where the Guardian changed its house style guide in May 2019 to favor terms like “climate crisis.”

This rapid evolution in newspaper language closely tracks expert discourse. In addition to global environmental movements, late 2018 saw the publication of a special U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that, for the first time, quantified the time we have left to act to avoid catastrophic damage. Scopus, a prominent database containing a diverse array of scientific studies, shows a year-on-year doubling between 2018 and 2019 in scholarship that used “climate crisis” and “climate emergency,” and then a quadrupling of such terms between 2019 and 2020.

The convergence of a push from activists and a shift in expert views turned awareness of what seemed to be distant consequences into a time-sensitive crisis. But that doesn’t mean that the public has adopted these terms as their own. Google searches for “climate change” still outpace those for “global warming” by a significant degree. As the graphic below shows, even when comparing the relatively less common “global warming” to “climate crisis,” there are strikingly few people searching for the more urgent term.

If the lag in general usage of “climate change” compared to “global warming” is any indication, we may simply have to wait a few more years for “climate crisis” and its analogues to become common search terms. Use of these more dire words will likely affect public perception of the issue and the resulting sentiment on climate policy. The question is how.

Climate communications scholars are divided on the impact. Some studies point to the use of terms like “crisis” and “emergency” leading to distrust of news sources. Other studies, however, find no impact of the terms on a person’s willingness to engage in climate action. Alternatively, framing climate concerns as an existential threat has also been shown to generate strong emotions that motivate people to act on behalf of the environment.

This is critical because by any tangible metric, the planet is indeed experiencing a climate crisis. Carbon dioxide levels are unprecedented in the modern era, dozens of species are going extinct every day, and damages from increasingly common weather disasters are rising. The 10 hottest years on record all occurred in the last decade.

In ancient Greek, a “crisis” meant a turning point — one that might spur people to action. By embracing the “climate crisis” in this spirit, we just might provide an impetus that leads us to a better future.

Erik Bleich is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science at Middlebury College, where he directs the Media Portrayals of Minorities Project lab that uses data science techniques to analyze contemporary issues. Eli Richardson is a 2024 Middlebury College graduate who specializes in climate topics. Noah Rizika is a 2024 Middlebury College graduate with experience in conservation research and carbon footprint analysis. Both recent graduates are members of the Media Portrayals of Minorities Project lab.

Tom Toro is a cartoonist and writer who has published over 200 cartoons in The New Yorker since 2010.

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