Google trends data shows that, following the 2006 release of Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth,[1] searches for the term climate crisis increased, with a resurgence beginning in late 2018. Also graphed: searches for the term climate emergency.

Climate crisis is a term describing global warming and climate change, and their impacts. This term and the term climate emergency have been used to describe the threat of global warming to humanity and the planet, and to urge aggressive climate change mitigation.[2][3][4][5] In the scientific journal BioScience, a January 2020 article, endorsed by over 11,000 scientists worldwide, stated that "the climate crisis has arrived" and that an "immense increase of scale in endeavors to conserve our biosphere is needed to avoid untold suffering due to the climate crisis."[6][7]

The term is applied by those who "believe it evokes the gravity of the threats the planet faces from continued greenhouse gas emissions and can help spur the kind of political willpower that has long been missing from climate advocacy".[2] They believe that, much as global warming drew out more emotional engagement and support for action than climate change,[2][8][9] calling climate change a crisis could have an even stronger impact.[2]

A study has shown that the term invokes a strong emotional response in conveying a sense of urgency;[10] some caution that this response may be counter-productive,[11] and may cause a backlash effect due to perceptions of alarmist exaggeration.[12][13]

Scientific basis

Further information: Scientific consensus on climate change and Effects of climate change

Scientific consensus on causation: Academic studies of scientific agreement on human-caused global warming among climate experts (2010–2015) reflect that the level of consensus correlates with expertise in climate science.[14] A 2019 study found scientific consensus to be at 100%,[15] and a 2021 study concluded that consensus exceeded 99%.[16] Another 2021 study found that 98.7% of climate experts indicated that the Earth is getting warmer mostly because of human activity.[17]

While powerful language had long been used in advocacy, politics and media, until the late 2010s the scientific community traditionally remained more constrained in its language.[18] However, in a November 2019 statement published in the January 2020 issue of the scientific journal BioScience, a group of over 11,000 scientists argued that describing global warming as a climate emergency or climate crisis was appropriate.[19] The scientists stated that an "immense increase of scale in endeavor" is needed to conserve the biosphere, but noted "profoundly troubling signs" including sustained increases in livestock populations, meat production, tree cover loss, fossil fuel consumption, air transport, and CO2 emissions—concurrent with upward trends in climate impacts such as rising temperatures, global ice melt, and extreme weather,[6] which in turn can also have many indirect impacts such as large-scale migration and food insecurity.

Also in November 2019, an article published in Nature concluded that evidence from climate tipping points alone suggests that "we are in a state of planetary emergency", defining emergency as a product of risk and urgency, with both factors judged to be "acute".[20] The Nature article referenced recent IPCC Special Reports (2018, 2019) suggesting individual tipping points could be exceeded with as little as 1–2 °C of global average warming (current warming exceeds 1 °C), with a global cascade of tipping points possible with greater warming.[20]


In the context of climate change, Pierre Mukheibir, Professor of Water Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, states that the term crisis is "a crucial or decisive point or situation that could lead to a tipping point," one involving an "unprecedented circumstance."[5] A dictionary definition states that crisis in this context means "a turning point or a condition of instability or danger," and implies that "action needs to be taken now or else the consequences will be disastrous."[21] Another definition differentiates the term from global warming and climate change and defines climate crisis as "the various negative effects that unmitigated climate change is causing or threatening to cause on our planet, especially where these effects have a direct impact on humanity."[13]

Use of the term

Logo of the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis (formation authorized January 9, 2019).[22] The original House climate committee (formed in 2007), called the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming,[2] was abolished when Republicans regained control of the House in 2011.[4]


Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed at the launch of the Climate Vulnerability Monitor in 2009, where the term "climate crisis" is used.

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore has used crisis terminology since the 1980s, with the term being formalized by the Climate Crisis Coalition (formed in 2004).[2]

A 1990 report from the American University International Law Review includes selected materials that repeatedly use the term crisis.[3] Included in that report, "The Cairo Compact: Toward a Concerted World-Wide Response to the Climate Crisis" (December 21, 1989) states that "All nations... will have to cooperate on an unprecedented scale. They will have to make difficult commitments without delay to address this crisis."[3]


U.S. Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders at the December 2018, "Solving Our Climate Crisis, a National Town Hall"

In the late 2010s, the phrase emerged "as a crucial piece of the climate hawk lexicon", being adopted by the Green New Deal, The Guardian, Greta Thunberg, and U.S. Democratic political candidates such as Kamala Harris.[2] At the same time, it came into more popular use "after a spate of dire scientific warnings and revived energy in the advocacy world".[2]

In late 2018, the United States House of Representatives established the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, a term that a journalist wrote in The Atlantic is "a reminder of how much energy politics have changed in the last decade".[23] The original House climate committee (formed in 2007) had been called the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming,[2] and was abolished when Republicans regained control of the House in 2011.[4]

Public Citizen reported that in 2018, less than 10% of articles in top-50 U.S. newspapers used the terms crisis or emergency.[24] In 2019, a "Call it a Climate Crisis" campaign urging major media organizations to adopt the term, stated that in 2018, only 3.5% of national television news segments referred to climate change as a crisis or emergency,[25] (50 of 1400),[24] though Public Citizen reported triple that number of mentions, 150, in just the first four months of 2019.[24]

Letter to Major Networks:
Call It a Climate Crisis—
and Cover It Like One

    The words that reporters and anchors use matter. What they call something shapes how millions see it—and influences how nations act. And today, we need to act boldly and quickly. With scientists warning of global catastrophe unless we slash emissions by 2030, the stakes have never been higher, and the role of news media never more critical.
    We are urging you to call the dangerous overheating of our planet, and the lack of action to stop it, what it is—a crisis––and to cover it like one.

Public Citizen open letter
June 6, 2019[26]

2019 appeared to be a shifting point for the linguistics of climate, correlating with more emphatic language used by U.N. Secretary General's address at the Climate Action Summit; petitioning of news organizations to alter their language by Al Gore's Climate Reality project, Greenpeace and the Sunrise Movement; protests outside The New York Times building to force the change; and a May 2019 change in the style guide of The Guardian.[27]

Following a September 2018 usage of climate crisis by U.N. secretary general António Guterres,[28] on May 17, 2019 The Guardian formally updated its style guide to favor climate emergency, crisis or breakdown and global heating.[29][30] Editor-in-Chief Katharine Viner explained, "We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue. The phrase ‘climate change’, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity."[31] The Guardian became a lead partner in Covering Climate Now, an initiative of news organizations founded in 2019 by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation to address the need for stronger climate coverage.[32][33]

In June 2019, Spanish news agency EFE announced its preferred phrase crisis climática (climate crisis), with Grist journalist Kate Yoder remarking that "these terms were popping up everywhere", adding that "climate crisis" is "having a moment".[24] In November 2019, the Hindustan Times also adopted the term because climate change "does not correctly reflect the enormity of the existential threat".[34] Similarly, Warsaw, Poland newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza uses the term climate crisis instead of climate change, an editor-in-chief of its Gazeta na zielono (newspaper in green) section describing climate change as one of the most important topics the paper has ever covered.[35]

Conversely, in June 2019 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation updated its language guide to read "Climate crisis and climate emergency are OK in some cases as synonyms for 'climate change'. But they're not always the best choice... For example, 'climate crisis' could carry a whiff of advocacy in certain political coverage".[36] The update prompted journalism professor Sean Holman to say that "journalists are being torn by two competing values right now. The first is our job to tell the truth. We are, over and above anything else, society's professional truth-seekers and truth-tellers. But the second value that we think is important is appearing unbiased, because if we appear unbiased then people will believe that we are telling the truth. I think what's happened here is that large swaths of society, including entire political parties and governments as well as voters, don't believe in the truth. And so by telling the truth, to those individuals we appear to be biased."[36]

In June 2019, 70 climate activists were arrested for demonstrating outside the offices of The New York Times, urging the newspaper to adopt the phrases "climate emergency" or "climate crisis", the demonstration being part of public pressure that swayed the City Council to make New York the largest city to formally adopt a climate emergency declaration.[37]

In May 2019, Al Gore's Climate Reality Project (2011–) promoted an open petition asking news organizations to use "climate crisis" in place of "climate change" or "global warming",[2] saying "it’s time to abandon both terms in culture".[38] Likewise, the Sierra Club, the Sunrise Movement, Greenpeace, and other environmental and progressive organizations joined in a June 6, 2019 Public Citizen letter to news organizations,[24] urging them to call climate change and human inaction "what it is–a crisis–and to cover it like one".[26]

    We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. Nor can we treat something like a crisis unless we understand the emergency.

Greta Thunberg, December 10, 2020[39]

In November 2019, the Oxford Dictionaries included "climate crisis" on its short list for word of the year 2019, the designation designed to recognize terms that "reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year" and that should have "lasting potential as a term of cultural significance".[40]

In 2021, Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat created a free variable font called "Climate Crisis" having eight different weights that correlate with Arctic sea ice decline, visualizing how ice melt has changed over the decades.[41] The newspaper's art director posited that the font both evokes the aesthetics of environmentalism and inherently constitutes a data visualization graphic.[41]

In a 2021 update to the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity,[7] scientists reported that evidence of nearing or crossed tipping points of critical elements of the Earth system is accumulating, that 1990 jurisdictions have formally recognized a state of climate emergency, that frequent and accessible updates on the climate crisis or climate emergency are needed, that COVID-19 "green recovery" has been insufficient, and that root-cause system changes above politics are required.[42] A 2022 update concluded that "we are now at 'code red' on planet Earth" and that "the scale of untold human suffering, already immense, is rapidly growing with the escalating number of climate-related disasters".[43]


Further information: Public opinion on climate change and Climate psychology

In September 2019, Bloomberg journalist Emma Vickers posited that crisis terminology—though the issue was one, literally, of semantics—may be "showing results", citing a 2019 poll by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation saying that 38% of U.S. adults termed climate change "a crisis" while an equal number called it "a major problem but not a crisis".[4] Five years earlier, U.S. adults considering it a crisis numbered only 23%.[44]

Conversely, use of crisis terminology in various non-binding climate emergency declarations has been ineffective (as of 2019) in making governments "shift into action".[5]

Concerns about crisis terminology

Some commentators have written that "emergency framing" may have several disadvantages.[11] Specifically, such framing may implicitly prioritize climate change over other important social issues, thereby encouraging competition among activists rather than cooperation and sidelining dissent within the climate change movement itself.[11] It may suggest a need for solutions by government, which provides less reliable long-term commitment than does popular mobilization, and which may be perceived as being "imposed on a reluctant population".[11] Finally, it may be counterproductive by causing disbelief (absent immediate dramatic effects), disempowerment (in the face of a problem that seems overwhelming), and withdrawal—rather than providing practical action over the long term.[11]

Along similar lines, Australian climate communication researcher David Holmes has commented on the phenomenon of "crisis fatigue", in which urgency to respond to threats loses its appeal over time.[18] Holmes said there is a "limited semantic budget" for such language, cautioning that it can lose audiences if time passes without meaningful policies addressing the emergency.[18]

Others have written that, whether "appeals to fear generate a sustained and constructive engagement" is clearly a highly complex issue but that the answer is "usually not", with psychologists noting that humans' responses to danger (fight, flight, or freeze) can be maladaptive.[45] Agreeing that fear is a "paralyzing emotion", Sander van der Linden, director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab, favors "climate crisis" over other terms because it conveys a sense of both urgency and optimism, and not a sense of doom because "people know that crises can be avoided and that they can be resolved".[28]

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe warned in early 2019 that crisis framing is only "effective for those already concerned about climate change, but complacent regarding solutions".[13] She added that it "is not yet effective" for those who perceive climate activists "to be alarmist Chicken Littles", positing that "it would further reinforce their pre-conceived—and incorrect—notions".[13]

In June 2019, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation updated its language guide to read that the term climate crisis "could carry a whiff of advocacy in certain political coverage".[36]

Two German journalists have respectively warned that crisis may be wrongly understood to suggest that climate change is "inherently episodic"—crises being "either solved or they pass"—or as a temporary state before a return to normalcy that is in fact not possible.[46]

Arnold Schwarzenegger, organizer of the Austrian World Summit for climate action, said that he perceived that people aren't motivated by the term climate change, and that calling greenhouse gases pollution would evoke be a more direct and negative connotation.[47]

Psychological and neuroscientific studies

An early 2019 neuroscientific study in the United States (N=120, divided equally among supporters of Republicans, Democrats and independents)[48] by an advertising consulting agency involved electroencephalography (EEG) and galvanic skin response (GSR) measurements.[10] The study, measuring responses to the terms "climate crisis", "environmental destruction", "environmental collapse", "weather destabilization", "global warming" and "climate change", found that Democrats had a 60% greater emotional response to "climate crisis" than to "climate change", with the corresponding response among Republicans tripling.[48] "Climate crisis" is said to have "performed well in terms of responses across the political spectrum and elicited the greatest emotional response among independents".[48] The study concluded that the term "climate crisis" elicited stronger emotional responses than "neutral" and "worn out" terms like "global warming" and "climate change", thereby encouraging a sense of urgency—though not so strong a response as to cause cognitive dissonance that would cause people to generate counterarguments.[10]

Related terminology

See also: Climate movement § Declaring emergency state, and Climate emergency declaration

Global boiling has arrived

     Climate change is here. It is terrifying. And it is just the beginning. The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived.

António Guterres, U.N. Secretary-General[49]
27 July 2023

Terms like "climate emergency" and climate crisis" have often been used by activists, and are increasingly found in academic papers.[50]
An example of the terms climate crisis and climate emergency being used together

Research has shown that what a phenomenon is called, or how it is framed, "has a tremendous effect on how audiences come to perceive that phenomenon"[12] and "can have a profound impact on the audience’s reaction".[28]

Climate change and its actual and hypothetical effects are usually described in terms of climate risks in scientific and practitioner literature. When it comes to 'dangerous' risks, there are many related terms other than climate crisis. (Following dates aren't necessarily the first use of such terms.)

In addition to climate crisis, various other terms have been investigated for their effects on audiences, including global warming, climate change, and climatic disruption,[12] as well as environmental destruction, weather destabilization, and environmental collapse.[10]

In 2022, New York Times journalist Amanda Hess noted how "end of the world" characterizations of the future, such as climate apocalypse, were often used to refer to the current climate crisis, the characterization spreading from "the ironized hellscape of the internet" to books and film.[69]

See also


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Further reading