Dictionary update shows how changing climate changes everything, including language

November 12, 2021
Dictionary update shows how changing climate changes everything, including language
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This column is an opinion from Donald Wright, who teaches political science at the University of New Brunswick. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Climate change really does change everything, including language. 

New words and new word compounds have been invented at the same time as new meanings, or senses, have been added to old words. To keep up, the Oxford English Dictionary has released an update on the language of climate change and environmental sustainability.

Reading it as the world leaves Glasgow after the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26) is fascinating, depressing, and yet strangely hopeful.

  • Have questions about COP26 or climate science, policy or politics? Email us: [email protected]. Your input helps inform our coverage.

As a rule of the thumb, the OED doesn’t include chemical formulas, but it has made an important exception for CO2 because it has become, in its words, “so ingrained” in our everyday language.

If its definition is matter of fact – “Carbon dioxide, a colourless, odourless gas produced by the burning of organic compounds and fossil fuels, by the processes of respiration and decomposition, and by volcanic activity, and absorbed by plants during photosynthesis” – its inclusion is a matter of pressing relevance. In May 2021, atmospheric CO2 peaked at 419.13 parts per million, the highest level since measurements began in 1958.

Nothing cozy about heating planet

Global heating is also a new entry. Although global warming is still used more frequently, global heating is used with measurable and increasing frequency because it conveys “more emphatically the seriousness of climate change caused by human activity and the urgent need to address it.” After all, global warming connotes a kind of coziness when there is nothing cozy about a heating planet.

Because climate can be a modifier, the entry for climate has been expanded to include, in alphabetical order, climate action, climate catastrophe, climate crisis, climate denial, climate denialism, climate denier, climate emergency, climate justice, climate refugee, climate sceptic, and climate strike.

Although I will defer to OED lexicographers, I’m surprised that it has taken as long as it has to include climate denial. For as long as we have understood the reality of climate change, we have endured organized and highly effective climate denial, that is, the “rejection of the idea (or the evidence) that climate change caused by human activity is occurring, or that it represents a significant threat to human and environmental welfare.” 

‘Kaitiakitanga’ is a Maori word meaning ‘Guardianship or management, esp. of the natural resources of a place or area; environmental stewardship considered as a duty and responsibility of the inhabitants of an area. Also: the exercise of this.’ (Hailley Furkalo/CBC News Graphics)

Historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway call climate deniers “merchants of doubt,” men and women who manufacture and sell doubt to both the public and to policy makers in a deliberate attempt to forestall new regulations and taxes. I am tempted to use stronger language, like shills, or true believers.

The inclusion of climate refugees is welcome if also heartbreaking. The World Bank estimates that by 2050, some 216 million people will be compelled to move because of the effects of climate change, from sea level rise and storm surges to desertification and extreme heat. Of course, the World Bank can’t use the term refugee because it carries legal – and moral – obligations. Instead, it uses migrant. But the OED can.

Because most climate refugees will be in the global south, in small island nations, for example, and sub-Saharan Africa, it raises the issue of climate justice, a powerful idea which the OED defines as the “action or activism intended to ensure that efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change also address related social justice issues, such as the disproportionate projected impact of climate change on developing countries and the poor.” 

Other additions include carbon capture, carbon capture and storage, carbon storage, decarbonization, eco-anxiety, extreme weather, and net zero. 

There aren’t enough words

The OED’s update is all to the good, but no dictionary, not even the Oxford English Dictionary, can capture the language of climate change. There simply aren’t enough words to convey the enormity of what we confront as a species.

This is not to suggest that we throw in the towel. Far from it, in fact. There is wisdom out there if we are prepared to look for it, making the OED’s update hopeful. 

Kaitiakitanga is a Maori word meaning “Guardianship or management, esp. of the natural resources of a place or area; environmental stewardship considered as a duty and responsibility of the inhabitants of an area. Also: the exercise of this.”

I like the promise of that, of a single word for duty, responsibility, and the exercise of environmental guardianship, management, and stewardship.


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