“Climate change” is over. No, not the relentless, catastrophic environmental crisis that’s spreading like, well, wildfire around the world. That is definitely real and definitely far from over. What I’m talking about is the anemic, wishy-washy term “climate change,” which does such a poor job of communicating the existential threat to the planet.
Let’s face it. “Climate change” has outlived its usefulness; it’s time we hold funeral services for the phrase, just as many people buried its ancestor “global warming” once we realized how badly it missed the mark. Only contemptuous climate crisis deniers still use that term and there’s a snowball’s chance in Hell it will ever come back in vogue.
Language matters. Describing the devastating fires roaring across several western states in the U.S. as an example of “climate change” is like saying the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were instances of “unfortunate policing.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom is done with the term, describing what is happening in his state as a “climate damn emergency.” He may be the first major politician to have deleted “climate change” from his vocabulary; let’s hope he’s not the last. Others must follow—and not just public officials. Those concerned about the planet’s future must issue a cease and desist order across the board—from meteorologists to government agencies (including the UN, which declared it a climate emergency in 2007); from educators (some of whom have been using these terms for many years) to the media, demanding they stop using the term. “Climate crisis,” “climate emergency,” “climate catastrophe,” “climate chaos”—take your pick. Just stop saying climate change. Autumn leaves on New England trees “change.” At daylight savings we “change” the clocks.
Shifts in language can be examples of perception leading to reality. Consider how Miss and Mrs.—defining women by their marital status—gave way to Ms.—recognizing the autonomy of a female person. The first recorded suggestion to use Ms. was in an article in 1901 in the Springfield [Mass.] Republican, in an era when women were getting quite serious about demanding the basic right to vote.
It took another 60 years before Sheila Michaels, a 22-year-old civil rights worker in New York City, took up the cause. A fierce champion of “Ms.”—she abhorred having her identity defined by marriage—“she became a one-woman lobbyist for the title,” according to dictionary editor Ben Zimmer. Interviewed on a New York City feminist radio program in 1969, Ms. Michaels made an impassioned on-air plea for the term and her advocacy paid off. When women’s rights supporters commemorated the 50th anniversary of suffrage the next year, it officially recognized Ms. and the feminist flagship magazine by that name launched soon thereafter, in 1972. (The New York Times finally added the honorific alongside “Miss” and “Mrs.” in 1986).
Consider, too, how the term “African American” superseded “Negro.” When the Rev. Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1988, he was an early advocate of replacing the term “Negro” or “Afro-American” with “African-American.” (“Black,” controversial in some circles, remains in use). “This is deeper than just name recognition,” Mr. Jackson told the New York Times at the end of 1988. “Black tells you about skin color and what side of town you live on. African-American evokes discussion of the world,” he said.
Both the terms “Negro” and “colored” had grown out of favor and Rev. Jackson and others championed “African-American” as a term that conveyed a significance other terms could not. On its way to wide acceptance there was a stopover phrase, “Afro-American, favored by then-Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall and Malcolm X.
Further proof that commonly used phrases are-a-changing can be seen in the growing usage of Latinx in place of “Latina” and “Latino” to describe those who identify as women and men in that ethnic group.
Each time we make a shift—whether to “Ms.” or “African American” or “Latinx” (still in process)—the culture lurches forward toward both identity respect and accuracy. Now, by ending our use of “climate change,” a term that grossly underplays our environmental calamity—and that misses the urgency of this moment—it is not just a matter of word choice. Just as “Black Lives Matter” more vividly captures our era’s racial justice reckoning than does “civil rights movement” (and in that actual movement in the 1950s and ‘60s they called it the Freedom Struggle, a far more evocative term), we need to ensure that when we talk about the greatest threat humankind faces, we get it right. Climate crisis matters.