Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 August 2020

To confront climate change, we need to rethink how we talk about the weather

It is the most pressing issue of our time, but if the subject is not framed in the right way, people will still struggle to take it seriously

People relax on deckchairs during hot weather in St James's Park, London, last week. EPA
People relax on deckchairs during hot weather in St James's Park, London, last week. EPA

I’m sorry but would you mind if we talk about the weather? I know it’s not quite Abu Dhabi but it’s been pretty warm in the UK over the past few days, including the country’s hottest day ever. The news coverage has veered from wild excitement at that record-breaking achievement, to distress at melting railway tracks and a top five chart of the nation’s favourite ice lollies. (The top spot went to the Magnum, in case you were wondering.)

It’s true that us Brits love a bit of small talk about sunshine and rain. A study earlier this year by Sky Arts TV channel about what it means to be British had talking about the weather in the number one spot. Not far below that was apologising for everything.

What is also true – both in the UK and around the world – is that we are all talking about the weather in completely the wrong way. We need to change that – urgently.

Here’s why. On July 25, BBC Weather’s Twitter account posted a weather map of the UK with the number 39 on it, along with the tweet “Morning, if we're going to do it TODAY'S THE DAY! We will of course keep you posted.” The tone was of palpable excitement that the record of the previous high of 38.5C might be broken.

Supporting news coverage featured the kind of heatwave stories that typify the British summer season: people flocking to beaches, ensuring you take water, and was it too hot to do the housework? (The answer to that final question was a definitive yes from me.)

This strange mix of breathless delight at a new temperature high, woven together with an assumption that hot weather is something to be shrugged off, is dangerous, because it directs us away from the gravity of the climate situation.

The World Wildlife Fund tweeted: “This is a #ClimateEmergency – not something that should be celebrated. #Hottestdayoftheyear.”

The way we think about global warming affects the steps we take to tackle it, as history shows.

In 1896, the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius proposed that widespread coal production would lead to more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and a rise in global temperatures. Arrhenius thought global warming was a good thing and that it would lead to “more equable” climates.

Until the mid-1970s vague terms such as “inadvertent climate modification” were used to designate this trend. Without the term having a sense of cause or tangible effect, no wonder little was done.

Next week marks the birthday of Wally Broecker’s paper called “Are we on the brink of a pronounced global warming?” published in the journal Science in 1975. The article created a shift to the term “global warming”.

This was reinforced when Nasa scientist James Hansen gave evidence at a Senate hearing in 1988 saying: “Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming.”

It was only in the 2000s that the term climate change became more popularised. It offers specificity about the outcomes we experience, because while the overall trend is towards a rise in global temperature, its impact is a broader change in weather conditions. The accuracy was important, but was potentially misused.

There are reports that in 2002 the Republican Party under George W Bush deliberately shifted the discourse towards “climate change” because it is sounds less terrifyingly specific.

As the heatwave reportage shows, we need to get our framing of the issue right, so we consider the issue more seriously and start taking the right practical steps. This is especially important, as there is an active movement to use language to undermine our efforts. A key proponent of this is US President Donald Trump.

Trump's tweets on global warming

In 2010, he said there was no global warming because it was cold. “With the coldest winter ever recorded, with snow setting record levels up and down the coast, the Nobel committee should take the Nobel Prize back from Al Gore,” he tweeted. Mr Gore had just been given the award for his work on the subject.

Mr Trump has even used the evolution of language as a way of denying the problem.

In February 2014, he tweeted: “Massive record setting snowstorm and freezing temperatures in US. Smart that GLOBAL WARMING hoaxsters changed name to CLIMATE CHANGE! $$$$”.

The way we talk about climate change has altered since it was first discussed at the end of the 19th century. But nearly 125 years on, we need to push back on misleading language, whether from exuberant weather experts or malicious global leaders. Language matters. And if we need to ring the alarm about the way we talk about the weather, then I’m not sorry about that at all.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World

Updated: August 1, 2019 03:20 PM

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