Our planet is in crisis. But until we call it a crisis, no one will listen

(The Guardian, 31 Jul 2019) We study disaster preparedness, and ‘climate change’ is far too mild to describe the existential threat we face.

When Senator Kamala Harris was asked about climate change during the Democratic debate in June, she did not mince words. “I don’t even call it climate change,” she said. “It’s a climate crisis.”

She’s right – and we, at Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, wish more people would call this crisis what it is.

The language we use to refer to the climate crisis has changed over time, often due to political pressures. In 1975, the geophysicist Wallace S Broecker published the first major paper on planetary heating – Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming? – and for a while the term “global warming” was the most common. But in the decades following, politicians and members of the media began to use the softer, more euphemistic term “climate change” to describe changing weather and atmospheric conditions.

That wasn’t an accident. In the early years of George W Bush’s first term as presidency, scientists were actually making serious progress in establishing overwhelming evidence that we were, in fact, facing a global crisis. Public opinion on climate change was shifting; Americans were curious about how worried they should be by the damage being done to our atmosphere.

Enter Frank Luntz, a renowned Republican pollster and strategist. Luntz was concerned that the Republican party was losing the communications battle. He advised Republicans to cast doubt on scientific consensus on the dangers of greenhouse gases and to publicly hammer home a message of uncertainty.

In 2002, Luntz wrote a memo to Bush urging him and the rest of his party to use the term “climate change” instead of “global warming”. Climate change sounded “less frightening”, he pointed out, “like you’re going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale”.

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The Guardian, 31 Jul 2019: Our planet is in crisis. But until we call it a crisis, no one will listen