Language and the environment

In his first speech as president-elect, Joe Biden said he will “listen to scientists” in the fight against climate change. But what do they say? And how do they say it?

In this article on language and the environment, Letrário will explore some of the words and expressions involved in defending the environment, as well as discuss the role of language in our perception of nature and how the media can raise awareness of what is going on.


The climate crisis and language

On 28 November 2019, the European Parliament declared that there was a climate and environmental emergency, rejecting a motion to use the term “climate urgency” instead of “emergency”.

The Parliament also approved a resolution of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) expressing Europe’s intention to reduce by 55% greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 2030 in order to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

Ursula von der Leyen also called on the European Commission, the member states and “all the players in the world” to “urgently take the concrete measures needed to fight and contain this threat”, in reference to the current climate crisis.

As a result of this activity by the institutions, it is only natural that new environmental terms emerge, as the threat becomes more and more real. For instance, the Oxford Dictionaries have chosen “climate emergency” as the 2019 Word of the Year, selecting it from a list relating to the environment, which also includes the terms “climate denial”, “eco-anxiety”, and “flight shame”, inter alia. Check the corresponding definitions below.


Climate emergency

“A situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it.”

Climate denial

“Rejection of the proposition that climate change caused by human activity is occurring or that it constitutes a significant threat to human welfare and civilization.”


“Extreme worry about current and future harm to the environment caused by human activity and climate change.”

Flight shame

“A reluctance to travel by air, or discomfort at doing so, because of the damaging emission of greenhouse gases and other pollutants by aircraft.”


Slogans and hashtags

In addition to these terms, there are more and more slogans and hashtags alluding to the climate crisis and environmental protection.

Such is the case of the #MoveTheDate hashtag, which goes viral every year. It concerns the Earth Overshoot Day, i.e. the day in which the planet exhausts its ecological resources. Due to the positive effects of the pandemic on the environment this year, we have exhausted the Earth’s annual resources almost a month later than last year: on 22 August. In 2019, this happened on 29 July.


“Climate change” vs. “global warming” – what is the difference?

Michael Halliday, late functionalist linguist, argued that inherent in the very anthropocentric grammar of our languages is the ideology that humans are special beings quite apart from the rest of the natural world, and that these languages normalise and enhance unlimited growth, as well as the exploitation of natural resources by humans.

Halliday gave the basic example of using neutral pronouns (e.g. “it”) to refer to resources, which generally fall into the category of uncountable nouns as well, i.e. nouns whose quantities are treated as an undifferentiated unit (e.g. “wood”), as if what they describe were inexhaustible.

In general, “global warming” is a meronym (part) of “climate change”, which is the holonym (whole).

The term “global warming” only refers to the increase in the Earth’s surface temperature, while the term “climate change” includes global warming and, for example, the side effects of melting glaciers, severe storms, and droughts, which are ever more frequent.

In short, global warming is a “symptom” of climate change, caused by human action.

However, several ecologists claim that, because of the inherent linguistic presupposition in the term “climate change”, some people believe these changes occur on their own, without a responsible agent.

In 2014, the Yale University published a survey in line with this thesis. According to this survey, people are more afraid of “global warming” than “climate change”.


In October, the Laptev Sea had not yet begun to freeze

In October, it was reported that, for the first time in recorded history, the Laptev Sea had not yet begun to freeze. This sea is deemed the “birthplace” of Arctic ice.

The delay in the annual freezing of the Laptev Sea is due to an abnormally prolonged heat in northern Russia, and to the intrusion of Atlantic waters, climate experts say, and warn of the effects that could spread to the entire polar region.

Ocean temperatures in the area have recently risen to over 5 °C above average, following an unprecedented heatwave and the unusually early reduction in sea ice last winter.

The later the ice forms in the Laptev Sea, the thinner it will be. As a result, it will probably melt before it reaches the Fram Strait, which implies the existence of fewer nutrients in Arctic plankton, which will therefore have a lower capacity to attract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, contributing to an increasingly rapid melting of polar ice caps.

Walt Meier, senior research scientist at the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, told The Guardian that “much of the old ice in the Arctic is now disappearing, leaving only thinner seasonal ice; overall, the average thickness is half of what it was in the 1980s,” and added that “the downward trend is likely to continue until the Arctic has its first ice-free summer; the data and models suggest this will occur between 2030 and 2050 – it’s a matter of when, not if”.


A new outlook

Aware of the need for a better and more transparent framing, in May 2019, The Guardian revised its style guide, which now favours “climate emergency or crisis” over “climate change”, “wildlife” over “biodiversity” and “fish populations” over “fish stocks”, for example. The paper also brought to light the efforts of lawyer Polly Higgins, who argued that, just like genocide, “ecocide” should be considered a crime internationally.

Also in May 2019, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg called for a change in terminology by tweeting: “It’s 2019. Can we all now please stop saying “climate change” and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?”

In a 2017 article for The Guardian, activist George Monbiot also said that if we called protected areas “natural wonders”, we would be fostering people’s love for nature.


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