Dictionary update shows how climate change is changing everything, including language
This column is an opinion of Donald Wright, who teaches political science at the University of New Brunswick. For more information on CBC Opinion Sectionplease consult the FAQs.
Climate change really changes everything, including language.
New words and word compounds were invented as new meanings, or meanings, were added to old words. To keep pace, the Oxford English Dictionary has published a 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.
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As a general rule, the OED does not include chemical formulas, but it has made an important exception for CO2 because it has become, in his own words, “so embedded” in our everyday language.
If its definition is factual – “Carbon dioxide, a colorless and odorless gas produced by the combustion of organic compounds and fossil fuels, by the processes of respiration and decomposition, and by volcanic activity, and taken up by plants during photosynthesis” – its inclusion is an urgent matter. In May 2021, atmospheric CO2 peaked at 419.13 parts per million, the highest level since measurements began in 1958.
Nothing comfortable to heat the planet
Overall heating is also a new entry. Although global warming is still used more frequently, global warming is used with measurable and increasing frequency because it conveys “more clearly the severity of climate change caused by human activity and the urgent need to address it”. After all, global warming evokes a kind of comfort when there is nothing comfortable about a warming planet.
Since climate can be a modifier, the entry for weather has been expanded to include, alphabetically, climate action, climate catastrophe, climate crisis, climate denial, climate denial, climate denier, climate emergency, climate justice, climate refugee, skeptic climate change and the climate strike.
Although I defer to the lexicographers at the OED, I’m surprised it took so long to include climate denial. For as long as we have understood the reality of climate change, we have suffered organized and highly effective climate denial, that is, the “dismissal of the idea (or evidence) that climate change caused by human activity occurs, or poses a significant threat to human and environmental well-being.”
Historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway call climate deniers “dealers of doubt,” men and women who manufacture and sell doubt to the public and policymakers in a deliberate attempt to prevent new regulations and taxes . I’m tempted to use stronger language, like accomplices or true believers.
The inclusion of climate refugees is welcome if it is also heartbreaking. The World Bank estimates that by 2050, some 216 million people will be forced to move due to the effects of climate change, from sea level rise and storm surges to desertification and extreme heat. Of course, the World Bank cannot 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 in sub-Saharan Africa, this raises the question of climate justice, a powerful idea that the OED defines as “the action or activism aimed at ensuring that efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change also address related social justice issues, such as the projected disproportionate 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 are not enough words
The OED update is entirely positive, but no dictionary, not even the Oxford English Dictionary, can capture the language of climate change. There simply aren’t enough words to express the enormity of what we face as a species.
This does not mean that we throw in the towel. Far from it, in fact. There’s wisdom out there if we’re willing to seek it out, which makes the OED update hopeful.
Kaitiakitanga is a Maori word meaning “Custody or management, especially of the natural resources of a place or area; the stewardship of the environment considered a duty and responsibility of the inhabitants of an area. Also: the exercise of that.”
I love the promise of this, one word for duty, responsibility and the exercise of guardianship, management and stewardship of the environment.
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