Glaciers are receding, ice caps are melting in the Arctic, many islands are sinking. There are floods and droughts: What we are seeing are the impacts of extreme weather conditions. Climate change is one of the major challenges for the international community: it is a global problem with serious environmental aspects and social, economic, distributional and political dimensions. Talking about climate change non-ideologically is a sensitive issue. However, it does not make sense to put the problem aside because the consequences can be significant. The focus here is on the role language may play in the climate change debate.

1. What’s in the word “climate change”

Climate Change
The most general definition of climate change is a change in the statistical properties of the climate system when considered over long periods of time, regardless of cause. The term is however often used to refer specifically to anthropogenic climate change (also known as global warming). Anthropogenic climate change is caused by human activity, as opposed to changes in climate that may have resulted as part of Earth’s natural processes.
The scientific consensus on climate change is that climate changes are in large part caused by human activities, and that it is largely irreversible.

Climate Protection
Climate protection is the collective term for measures that counteract man-made global warming and mitigate or prevent possible consequences. Climate protection goals are among others the limitation of global earth heating to 2 degrees.

Climate skeptics and climate deniers
The terms are close together. The difference: Climate change skeptics, in short: climate skeptics, are open to rational arguments, whereas climate change deniers, in short: climate deniers, reject rational arguments.

2. Not only the polar bears are endangered: climate change threats

Image: Endangered species: polar bears

A polar bear drifting lonely on his floe. The polar bears are losing their habitat: Due to the sea ice melt in the Arctic, one of their most important hunting grounds is about to disappear.

For the low-lying islands of the Pacific, the sea level rise is a significant climate change threat. It impacts their livelihood, infrastructure, agriculture and water resources.

James Balog: Timelapse proof of glacier shrinkage
With time-lapse cameras, nature photographer James Balog and his team have made climate change visible.

3. Migration triggered by climate change

Many regions will be uninhabitable in the foreseeable future because they will be either flooded or – due to high temperatures – will have become inhabitable zones. Many millions of people will presumably be forced to leave their countries in the next years or decades due to climate change. (Matthew Taylor, The Guardian, (2 Nov. 2017))
For UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, the consequences of climate change are enormous. Scarce natural resources such as drinking water are likely to become even more limited. In many regions crops and livestock are unlikely to survive when weather conditions become too hot and dry, or too cold and wet. Food security, already a grave concern, will become more challenging.

4. Climate protection as a global challenge: 25 years of the UN Climate Convention

Image: Stamp on occasion of the 1st Conference on climate change (spring 1995 in Berlin). The „Berlin Mandate“ served as the basis for negotiations on the later Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997 at the Third Conference in Kyoto, Japan.

The Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 was a milestone for climate protection. Klaus Töpfer, one of the founders of this movement and former German Minister for the Environment:

It was a United Nations major event that was to link environment and development. It has led us to the core of our environmental policy today, namely sustainable development. … In Rio, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted, i.e. the Basic Law of Climate Policy. It came into force soon after – with the Americans.

On 12 December 2015, a total of 195 countries adopted the Convention at the United Nations Climate Change Summit in Paris. Its main objective was to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. It also aimed to strengthen the capacity to adapt to the adverse effects of climate change. It was agreed that the industrialized countries provided $ 100 billion a year from 2020 to 2025 for the transformation of energy supply and to eliminate damages caused by climate change.

5. Climate Sceptics and Language Policy

In June 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the agreement, causing widespread condemnation both internationally and domestically. Under the agreement, the earliest effective date of withdrawal for the U.S. is November 2020, shortly before the end of President Trump’s first term.

Trump had repeatedly questioned the veracity of climate change research, suggesting that it might be part of an elaborate Chinese hoax. He started a process of withdrawing the US from the Paris climate agreement, instructed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)in his country to abolish or amend various regulations aimed at cutting greenhouse gases, in order to open up more public land and waters for fossil fuel activities. (Milman)

The language had to be updated to reflect the approach of new leadership. A public sector department told employees to cease using the term ‘climate change’ and opt for other more benign words instead. Bianca Nadine MoebiusClune worked at the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Cornell University. In a missive the director of soil health listed terms that had to be avoided by the staff of her department and suggested terms that might replace them. “Climate change”, in the “avoid” category, was to be replaced by “weather extremes”. Instead of “climate change adaption”, the staff were asked to use “resilience to weather extremes”.

By avoiding the causal link between (anthropogenic) climate change and its consequences the perspective is shifted to research projects that are undoubtedly of value, but which divert from human responsibility for extreme weather conditions.

6. Climate Fiction

Climate Fiction has the merit of making the abstract concept of climate change and its possible consequences palpable by looking at it from a personal experience. In climate fiction, popularly abbreviated as cli-fi, climate change plays a central role. By some accounts, the term was coined by Dan Bloom in 2007 “as a subgenre of science fiction“.

Margaret Atwood, one of the great writers of our time, who wrote science fiction novels exploring ecological issues, wrote:

There’s a new term, cli-fi, that’s being used to describe books in which an altered climate is part of the plot. Dystopic novels used to concentrate only on hideous political regimes, as in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Now, however, they’re more likely to take place in a challenging landscape that no longer resembles the hospitable planet we’ve taken for granted. (A Look at the Growing Genre of Climate Fiction“)

In climate fiction climate change is the major theme and driver of the plot. Three examples:

Omar El Akkad, American War (2017)

American War is a mix of war reporting and plot elements. The Canadian author set his story in the near future, from 2074 onwards. He outlined a future scenario in which a strict CO2 ban in the US, had lead to a new civil war. The southern states rose against the CO2 ban enacted by the northern states. El Akkad’s novel recounts what happened during the Second American Civil War between the North and South.

El Akkad, a Canadian journalist born in Egypt and raised in Qatar, said that his intention with American War was not is not to make the reader admire Sarat, who – due to the circumstances – became a terrorist. Rather, “in this incredibly polarised world we live in”, he hopes that by the time the reader gets to the end of his novel, “you’re not on her side, you don’t support her, you’re not willing to apologise for her – but you understand how she got to the place where she is”.


Omar El Akkad, American War. Hardcover. Deckle Edge, 2017. Other editions: Kindle Reader, Audio CD, unabridged, read by Dion Graham.
Barbara Kingsolver. Flight Behavior Hardcover. Other editions: CD, unabridged edition published by HarperAudio
Saci Lloyd. The Carbon Diaries, 2015.

Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior (2012)

The book follows Dellarobia Turnbow, a woman born and raised in Tennessee. At 28 years old, Dellarobia feels trapped in her boring, unfulfilling marriage, as well as her familial duties. One day, she decides to have an affair with a young telephone repairman. However, when she is hiking to meet the repairman, she sees an huge orange blur in the sky, a huge migration of monarch butterflies. It causes her to turn back, thinking it is God’s sign of disapproval.

In an NPR interview Kingsolver described why she chose to write Flight Behavior:

Why do we believe or disbelieve the evidence we see for climate change? … I really wanted to look into how we make those choices and how it’s possible to begin a conversation across some of these divides … between scientists and nonscientists, between rural and urban, between progressive and conservative. (A Look at the Growing Genre of Climate Fiction.“

Saci Lloyd. The Carbon Diaries 2015 (2008)

Climate change and its consequences are also a topic in young adult’s literature. The Carbon Diaries 2015 by British author Saci Lloyd, is about one year in the life of Laura, a 16-year-old student in London, after Britain imposed CO2 rationing due to weather disasters. The stress of extreme weather („The Great Storm“) and the scaling down of carbon dioxide is extremely hard on her family. Only 200 carbon points per month had been allowed. This meant choices: stereo or PC for only two hours a day, just five minutes under the shower, hairdryer or microwave. No more mangos, no more nights in a club and no weekend trips to Ibiza.
Laura’s father had lost his job at the tourist office, her mother will no longer drive the car, her older sister Kim sells carbon points on the black market. Laura just wants to lead a „normal“ life, wants to rehearse in the garage with her pop punk band and hopes that Ravi, the neighbor boy she’s cast on eye on, would also cast an eye on her. She entrusts her thoughts to her „Carbon Diary“.

Stanley Robinson, himself author of novels dealing with ecothematics (including Green Earth, 2015), described how climate fiction may affect readers. (“Will Climate Fiction Change People’s Minds?“). It is, he admitted, problematic to generalize because everyone may perceive in climate fiction novels something different: for him there are, however, two basic categories of reader responses: There are readers who want to see in climate fiction a confirmation of their own philosophies: They are, for Robinson, beyond reach. On the other hand, there are those who take climate fiction as a warning. They are the important audience. They say to themselves, O.K., I want my children and grandchildren to have a chance to lead a decent life: their life is as important to me as my own. Those readers are willing to spend time in another world, an imaginary one. If climate fiction is well done, Robinson hopes, that could change their point of view. When they return to reality, they have a kind of double vision, their normal vision of everyday life and their science fiction vision. The two visions blend.


In the 1980s and 1990s, it may have been okay to be skeptical about climate change. Since then, science has caught up: Scientists have researched facts and have presented them in an accessible way. They have shown the risks of an unbridled made-made global warming. In 2018, the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, celebrated its 30th anniversary. Fictional literature has projected the abstract concept of climate change onto a personal level and has thus sharpened the awareness of readers. Climate change has become a fixed and accepted concept. 

Climate change is, however, a global challenge that requires a global perspective. There is a great expression that might be helpful to understand what is meant: climate justice. Climate justice is a term that sees global warming as an ethical and political problem, not just a purely ecological or physical one. The impacts of climate change are linked to concepts of justice, notably environmental justice and social justice, and include issues such as equality, human rights and historical responsibility for climate change. A basic statement of climate justice is that those who are least responsible for climate change suffer the most serious consequences. There will be much to do.

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