24 November 2007

Climate change – or climate crisis?

By Rupert Read

I teach at UEA. One of my fellow academics there is the climate scientist Prof Mike Hulme who warns against using terms such as "catastrophe" in describing the potential future impacts of manmade climate change because he is concerned that the use of such alarming terms may disempower people.

Now, I agree that it is absolutely not enough to scare people. I agree that one needs to emphasise how the changes needed to stop man-made climate change are in themselves life-improving (e.g. that localising life rather than globalising everything will actually make us happier). And I agree that one needs to ensure that people don't think that the mountain is too big to climb: people need to be given tools to see that preventing catastrophic climate change is doable. But, by sticking to talking of climate change rather than of climate crisis and potential climate catastrophe, one is in fact playing the same game as the more subtle and intelligent of the climate-deniers. One is talking their language.

Steven Poole has shown this, in his important book Unspeak. Poole documents how the term 'climate change' became the term of choice for the Saudis, for the US oil companies, for the Republicans, displacing even the fairly anodyne 'global warming'. It is the very people who have wanted us to go on simply burning fossil fuels as if there was no tomorrow who have insisted that the issue be described as one of 'climate change'. Because, as leading Republican pollster Frank Luntz put it, in a secret document that was leaked: 'climate change' is less frightening than 'global warming'.

Frank Luntz wants us all to stay cool-headed over 'climate change'. A goal that he shares with Mike Hulme. I by contrast think that we ought to be mad as hell, and scared stiff. The big bad wolf is at the door, with a thousand hurricanes in his belly…

Already in places like Bangladesh and Ethiopia, the climate crisis is biting and killing. If and when we get devastating sea levels rises – the leading US climate scientist James Hansen is now warning of sea levels going up by several metres, this century, enough to drown much of London and East Anglia, unless we stop polluting our atmosphere with so much CO2 – then would anyone not call that catastrophic?

None of this involves crying wolf. This is simply telling the truth. Runaway climate change could within a century or so collapse civilisation on lifeboat Earth almost entirely, just as (for example) civilisation and population levels on Easter Island collapsed over a much-shorter period.

My proposal is straightforward. 'climate change' is an Orwellian euphemism, and should be dropped. To use that term is still to be in denial. We should speak honestly, instead. We should speak of 'climate crisis', 'global over-heating', and the risk of 'climate catastrophe'.

Prof Hulme wants to maintain scientific 'decorum'. But it is not the job of climate scientists to tell us how to describe what the human consequences would be of us ignoring their predictions. That is rather the task of artists, activists, politicians and philosophers.

'Climate change' is a criminally-vague and anodyne term that is dangerous for us to use. Talking instead about averting 'climate catastrophe' is not alarmism. It is simply calling things by their true names.

Why are people so reluctant to acknowledge that global over-heat is the ultimate slow-burning manmade weapon of mass destruction? The bottom-line, literally, is that it is notoriously difficult for people to understand things that their salary depends on them not understanding. There are hundreds of millions of people whose prosperity in the current set-up depends on our continued decadent use of fossil fuels or chopping down rainforests. It is so tempting to find ways of thinking that one doesn't have to change anything – that the science is wrong, or that there will be a techno-fix, or that it is too late to do anything about it anyway.

Let's not soft-pedal on the greatest threat that humankind has ever faced. Let's not fool ourselves by using warm words such as 'climate change' (or indeed 'global warming', which still to my ears sounds pretty misleadingly-pleasant. I meet lots of people this time of year who say things like, "Yeah, we could use a little global warming around here!"). In the emergency that we are in, let's at least talk in a way that reminds us regularly that it is an emergency.

Parts of this article are drawn from a piece previously published in the Guardian.