The Guardian Is Calling It a Climate Crisis. Your Move, U.S. Media.

New Analysis Shows Major U.S. Newspapers Diminish Urgency, Severity of Climate Change

By Allison Fisher

On May 17, The Guardian announced an update to its style guide to introduce more accurate terminology for the existential threat from climate disruption.

“We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue,” said the editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner. “The phrase ‘climate change’, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.”

Here is The Guardian’s new style-guide entry:

climate change is no longer considered to accurately reflect the seriousness of the situation; use climate emergency, crisis or breakdown instead

We are calling on U.S. media to do the same.

The announcement comes a mere three weeks after Public Citizen reported that in 2018, only 50 of 1,429 national television news segments (3.5%) that mentioned climate change referred to it as a “crisis” or “emergency.” With these findings, we launched the Call It a Climate Crisis campaign. That report looked at  national network news programs.

We have done a new analysis now, finding that major U.S. newspapers didn’t do much better.

In 2018, fewer than 10% of articles from the top 50 papers used the term “crisis” or “emergency” when referring to the rapid and catastrophic overheating of our planet.  

The New York Times (127 mentions), the East Bay Times (91), the San Francisco Chronicle (80), the Los Angeles Times (74) and The Washington Post (69) used the term “crisis” or “emergency” the most in terms of  total mentions. However, the Chicago Sun-Times (20% of articles that referred to climate change or global warming as a crisis or emergency), USA Today (18%), the Kansas City Star (16%) were the top three papers by rate of usage.

Two papers the, Omaha World Herald and The Mercury News, never referred to climate change or global warming as a crisis or emergency in their print content in 2018.

The Guardian’s decision is bold, but also just common sense.  Greta Thunberg – a 16-year-old climate activist and one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2018 – put it well in a message that has been tweeted 25,000 times:

It’s 2019. Can we all now please stop saying “climate change” and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?

When media outlets consistently fail to use language that conveys that climate change is a crisis or emergency, they unwittingly put a heavy thumb on the scale in favor of complacency and inaction.

The crisis and emergency designations are accurate, concise and informative. They educate the public about the stakes of the issue, as well as the urgency, and they facilitate critical national conversation about what should be done in response. It is past time for the media to call the climate emergency what it is—and to cover it with the regularity, focus, and depth merited by an urgent, existential crisis.

Thank you to The Guardian for being the first news outlet to adopt language commensurate with the threat we face.

Your move, U.S. media.

Methodology

For this analysis, we used Nexis to search in print articles from the top 50 U.S. newspapers by circulation for the word “crisis” or “emergency” within 75 words of “climate change” or “global warming,” from January 1 through December 31, 2018. We used the “Group Duplicates” feature, set on “High Similarity.”  The total articles includes “letters to the editor”.

The list of the top 50 U.S. papers by circulation was compiled using data from Cision in May 2018 and is limited to English‐language, subscription newspapers. Many significant local dailies are not included, such as The Palm Beach Post and The Charlotte Observer. The same is true of papers that cover Capitol Hill, like The Hill, Politico, and Roll Call.