As everyone knows, the language of climate change is constantly evolving. The Guardian is proud to be at the vanguard of those upping the ante by promoting the use of more extreme terminology around the issue. It is around three years since the Guardian publicly announced that its journalists were under instruction to change the language they used when writing about the issue. They returned to the theme more than once and an articlei (on 16th October 2019) summarised them for the umpteenth time. Of the six changes then announced, three in particular appear to have had a profound impact in terms of changing the parameters of the debate, with the language urged by the Guardian being gleefully picked up by much of the mainstream media. The first, and possibly most important, change, was:
“climate emergency” or “climate crisis” to be used instead of “climate change”
In this context we were told:
Climate change is no longer considered to accurately reflect the seriousness of the overall situation; use climate emergency or climate crisis instead to describe the broader impact of climate change. However, use climate breakdown or climate change or global heating when describing it specifically in a scientific or geophysical sense eg “Scientists say climate breakdown has led to an increase in the intensity of hurricanes”.
We are not told by whom “climate change” is no longer considered to accurately reflect the seriousness of the overall situation. By scientists? By the Guardian editorial team? The failure to elucidate the thinking behind the decision speaks volumes to me. Despite the attempt to dress it up as a scientific decision, it looks like a political and campaigning decision. If I’m right, then fair play to them – it’s worked big style.
“climate science denier” or “climate denier” to be used instead of “climate sceptic”
This was the second of the six changes. It really ought to be very controversial, especially given the smear associated with the use of the word “denier”, and the widespread use of the phrase “Holocaust denial”. Intentionally or not, the use of the phrase “climate denier” has had the effect of denigrating those who question the narrative. And it’s pretty inaccurate too. Who among the sceptic community denies “climate” or “climate science”. Not I, and I suspect not you either, dear reader. However, seek to request a cost-benefit analysis of “net zero” policies, or challenge any part of the narrative of Apocalyptic hysteria surrounding climate change, and you can expect pretty quickly to be labelled (smeared would be a better word) as a “climate denier” (however nonsensical that form of words is). The Guardian’s explanation for the change in the use of language doesn’t come close to cutting the mustard, so far as I am concerned:
The OED defines a sceptic as “a seeker of the truth; an inquirer who has not yet arrived at definite conclusions”. Most “climate sceptics”, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, deny climate change is happening, or is caused by human activity, so ‘denier’ is more accurate.
I wonder just how many sceptics they spoke to at length to enable them to arrive at that rather smug (and inaccurate) conclusion? The third change of language is:
Use “global heating” not “global warming”
The justification offered up for this change is also dubious:
‘Global heating’ is more scientifically accurate. Greenhouse gases form an atmospheric blanket that stops the sun’s heat escaping back to space.
Perhaps they should once more have consulted the OED, which defines “warm” as “of or at a comfortably high temperature” and “heat” as being “the quality of being hot; high temperature”, with “warming” and “heating” being derivatives of those terms. I am not sure where the scientific accuracy arises in deciding whether temperatures are high or comfortably high. The phrase “[g]reenhouse gases form an atmospheric blanket that stops the sun’s heat escaping back to space” could just as easily and accurately be rephrased as “[g]reenhouse gases form an atmospheric blanket that stops the sun’s warmth escaping back to space”.
In June 2019 the Guardian’s readers’ editor, Paul Chadwick, had already rather undermined the claims that the new language was being used because it was scientifically more accurate, when he wroteii:
I support Viner’s direction of travel. She is harnessing the power of language usage to focus minds on an urgent global issue. One challenge for the Guardian and the Observer will be to weigh, in specific journalistic contexts, two sometimes competing aspects of terminology used in public debates: language as description, and language as exhortation.
Recent Guardian reporting has, seemingly unannounced, upped the ante once more. Over the last few days I have seen several articles referring to “carbon bombs”. For now the Guardian is putting the phrase in inverted commas, as though recognising that it’s not really a meaningful form of words at all, and is instead a phrase that someone has made up in an apparently unscientific way, with a view once more to using language as exhortation.
On 11th May 2022 an articleiii appeared with the rather dramatic headline: “Revealed: the ‘carbon bombs’ set to trigger catastrophic climate breakdown”. Please do read the article for yourselves – it’s all there. The sub-heading was equally dramatic: “Exclusive:Oil and gas majors are planning scores of vast projects that threaten to shatter the 1.5C climate goal. If governments do not act, these firms will continue to cash in as the world burns”. I don’t deny that there have been a lot of wildfires lately, though as a sceptic – not a denier – I would query the extent that this is down to climate change.After all, a Guardian “long read” article on 3rd February 2022iv told us that:
Satellites allow researchers to monitor wildfires around the world. And when they do, they don’t see a planet igniting. Rather, they see one where fires are going out, and quickly. Fire has a long and productive place in human history, but there’s now less of it around than at any point since antiquity. We’re driving fire from the land and from our daily lives, where it was once a constant presence…
…Thus far, the raised temperatures haven’t resulted in more fire overall; the global trend is still downward…
So, “carbon bombs”?; “as the world burns”? Scientific language, or exhortatory? My money’s on the latter, especially as the Guardian followed up on the following day with an articlev headlined: “Climate chaos certain if oil and gas mega-projects go ahead, warns IEA chief – Fatih Birol says ‘carbon bombs’, revealed in Guardian investigation, will not solve global energy crisis”.
Read the article, however, and you do not find Fatih Birol referring to “carbon bombs”. Those words appear, at least from the way the story is reported, to be used by the Guardian and not by the IEA or by Mr Birol.
Clearly feeling that the whole bomb thing still needed a bit of a push, we saw an editorialvi in the Guardian on the same day, headlined: “The Guardian view on carbon bombs: governments must say no”.
Science or exhortation?
It is long past time to admit that our global energy system is itself a bomb. Unchecked greed is driving us ever closer to the abyss. Both separately and together, governments must find ways to promote the long-term health of the planet over short-term profit. There is no alternative but to force companies to write off the most dangerous investments. Of course, this will cause an economic shock, but advances in renewables mean there are options other than carbon addiction. Total emissions must fall by half by 2030, if the worst scenarios are to be avoided. To continue on our current course would be nihilistic. The carbon bomb-makers must be stopped.
A couple of days later and Fiona Harvey was writing about COP27vii, with this “understated” headline: “‘This is about survival’: will Cop27 bring action on Glasgow climate pact?”. In the course of a long and alarmist article, I didn’t actually find any reference to “carbon bombs”, but I did find what I consider to be a rather distasteful turn of phrase, given events in Ukraine:
But the pace and brutality of the geopolitical changes since mid-November have been to a climate deal on life support like a cluster bomb dropped on a hospital.
And so we find the language becoming ever more extreme. Will it ever stop? Will it ever, at least, moderate? Or are we destined to find our blood being chilled by increasingly desperate language?
Despite the recent flurry of Guardian articles talking about “carbon bombs”, it seems that what is going on here is the resurrection of an old term that they have run with before, but which didn’t catch on at the time. Back in 2015 there was a pieceviii on the Guardian website which purported to define carbon bombs as being:
Gigantic coal, oil and gas projects from around the world that, if they go ahead, will raise global emissions and cause dangerous climate change.
I assume that given the failure of COP26 and the wholesale turn back to fossil fuels in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Guardian has felt it necessary to re-visit the dramatic phrase, and dust it down in order to crank things up again. And it may be working. Even the Daily Mail has an online articleix this week with the heading: “Gazprom, BP, Shell and other fossil fuel firms are quietly planning almost 200 ‘carbon bomb’ oil and gas projects that could doom efforts to limit global warming to 2.7°F, investigation reveals“. If even the Daily Mail has picked up on the use of this language, then it would appear to be gaining traction. How long before “carbon bombs” are mainstream and are referenced daily on BBC radio, TV and website? Not long, I’d wager.