Climate emergency

The science is clear and has already done its part, yet many governments are blocking political progress towards a decarbonised economy.

Climate change is moving faster than expected. If we continue at this rate with this high volume of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, the temperature will rise by more than 3°C by the end of this century, something we cannot afford.

Something very positive that was raised in Paris was to create intermediate points to recapitulate and see how we are doing, and how close, or far, we are from the goals set to 2030.

Unfortunately, little progress was made at the last climate summit, held in Madrid under Chile's presidency. The 25th summit leaves us with a rather unreassuring headline: the big polluters have refused to step up efforts to prevent the rise in average global temperature from exceeding 1.5°C, the turning point set by scientists to avoid the worst damage and unpredictable consequences of climate change. The current agreements aim to exceed 3°C.

climatic change temperatures

Climate emergency: Why now?

The largest institution for the study of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has estimated that we only have 11 years to prevent the situation from becoming irreversible, a fact that shows that time is running out and that it is necessary to take urgent measures to mitigate the effects that climate change has on our planet not only in the long term, but also in the immediate term.

For some time now, prominent voices within environmental movements as well as institutions and the media have begun to use expressions such as 'climate crisis' and 'climate emergency' in the face of the extreme situation we are experiencing. The intention of this change when referring to the situation is to raise awareness of the importance of taking measures to prevent sudden climate change from catastrophically affecting the Earth's ecosystems and the living beings that inhabit them.

A semantic change to change the world

Words matter. The way we call a phenomenon alters the general public's perception of it. It is a technique that in communication -especially in political communication- is often used and is known as framing.

Framing consists of controlling the rhetoric of a specific issue in order to define the way in which it is perceived by society. Some cases are famous, such as the inheritance tax in the United States, which taxes property that was inherited by a person after the death of its owner. In this case, spokesmen for the Republican Party who opposed this rate began to use the term "death tax" instead of the "estate tax" used until then. The opinion against it began to grow and it was studied how using the meaning "death tax" increased the positions against the tax up to 10%.

In Spain, the detractors of the originally called Law of Citizen Security, managed to make popular use of the term 'Gag Law', giving it a negative connotation.

This is why a different way of referring to climate change is now being sought. By calling the situation a 'crisis' or 'emergency', the aim is to emphasise the extreme nature of the phenomenon and the limited scope for reaction.

The term "climate change" has also changed over time. During the 1950s and 1960s, when the increase in global temperature began to be appreciated, the use of the term 'global warming' spread, which was the most widely used until the 1980s and 1990s, when it was observed that the rest of the atmospheric phenomena -and not only the temperature- were changing, the expression 'climate change' began to be used more frequently, which included other variables such as rainfall, atmospheric pressure, wind, aridity or extreme phenomena.

climatic change graph

Some sources suggest that the change was influenced by the Bush administration, specifically by Vice President Dick Cheney, who had reports that the terms 'global warming' and 'climate change' were perceived differently by voters. While the former had a "catastrophic connotation", the latter seemed to refer to a "more controllable and less emotional" phenomenon.

Be that as it may, what is called for now is the use of a term that defines the situation more precisely, more up-to-date and more activist, and that emphasises the urgency with which action is needed.

Plenty of reasons for alarm

Apart from the 11-year countdown estimated by the IPCC, other reasons are worrying those who are calling for strong action to curb the environmental crisis. The surface temperature has been rising steadily since the industrial revolution and could reach 1.5°C by 2030.

From an urban perspective, this increase seems small, but will have devastating consequences for many terrestrial ecosystems. This difference would affect many regions with sensitive climates. For example, the Arctic could experience the disappearance of a large part of its ice mass. In the period between 2007 and 2018, the amount of Arctic ice has already been reduced by 20% from the previous decade. The prolongation of this accelerated melting would cause a rise in sea level that would force the mobilization of millions of people around the world. In addition, extreme weather events such as storm surges, floods or cyclones would increase their frequency and destructive capacity.

It would also affect drylands in particular, increasing their expansion and favouring the emergence of phenomena such as drought, forest fires and desertification.

And, of course, it would also affect terrestrial and oceanic biodiversity. An increase of 1.5°C would mean the loss of 70% to 90% of coral reefs and the volume of annual fishing would be reduced by 1.5 million tonnes. At 2°C, the insect population would be reduced by 18%, vertebrates by 8% and birds by 5%.

This change would produce not only environmental disasters, but also social and economic ones. In a few years we would face the displacement of millions of people, a food crisis due to the destruction of crops and livestock, increased disease transmission and the multiplication of poverty.

A Thread of Hope

However, humanity is in time to stop all these forecasts from becoming reality. Efforts are now focused on decarbonizing the atmosphere by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Paris Agreement, the heir to the Kyoto Protocol and signed by 96 countries and the European Union in 2015, committed itself to this end and established that global warming should not exceed a rise of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Although the Trump administration announced that the United States was withdrawing from the agreement, the rest of the countries remain committed to this goal.

The efforts are starting to show. For example, the European Union has managed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 21.7% in 27 years, and is on track to reduce them by up to 40% by 2030.

climatic change co2 emissions

These data confirm that international agreements for environmental protection work and have positive consequences. Another example is the Montreal Protocol, which was introduced with the aim of protecting the ozone layer after a huge hole in this layer was discovered in the 1980s, increasing the impact of ultraviolet radiation on the Earth. Its implementation has served to reduce emissions of elements harmful to the ozone layer and to control the expansion of the hole, which is expected to start to recover from the year 2020.

However, further measures still need to be developed and more parties involved in order to maintain the commitments of the Paris Agreement. Efforts should focus on changing the energy model from one based on the combustion of fossil resources to one based on clean energy that does not emit polluting gases, a process called energy transition.

In this sense, many advances have been made and many resources are being invested to develop technological solutions that allow adaptation to new habits and lifestyles that do not involve environmental pollution.

But to be efficient, it must involve all countries and societies, especially those that are still developing or have a low development index. These geographies, apart from having fewer resources to fight the climate, would also be those that would suffer most from its consequences, so it is important not to leave them aside.

Therefore, the term 'climate emergency' or 'climate crisis' is intended to have an impact on the way in which climate change is perceived by society, to convince that a change of paradigm and of our daily habits is necessary, to delegitimize those who still think that climate change is a conspiracy and, above all, to urge those who have to take large-scale action to do so urgently.