July 1, 2022, by Brigitte Nerlich
Climate change and language change
For over ten years I have now been thinking and writing about extreme weather events, especially floods and fires, and how they are verbally and visually represented in the media and beyond. Over that decade the issue of extreme weather has become increasingly topical and people no longer hesitate to discuss this topic in the context of climate change.
This includes people who, like me, are also interested in the connection between climate change and language change. Last year, for example, the Oxford English Dictionary published a report on how the language used to describe the climate is becoming more urgent, mirroring what is happening in reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, where the language has become more confident and emphatic. Trish Stewart, science editor at the Oxford English Dictionary said: “The very real sense of urgency that is now upon us is reflected in our language. What happens next depends on so many factors but, one thing we can be sure of is that our language will continue to evolve and to tell the story”.
Some have gone further and pointed out that the language of climate change is evolving from change to catastrophe. Particularly, some words and phrases used in media reports reflect the worsening of the crisis, “bringing more intense terms like ‘catastrophe’ and ‘emergency’ into the mainstream lexicon, as opposed to subtler choices prevalent at the beginning of the 2000s.”
Between 2005 and 2010, Nelya Koteyko and I have also observed the emergence and change of words around carbon (what we called ‘carbon compounds‘), from ‘carbon footprint’ to ‘carbon indulgence pixie dust’. Now there are also carbon words that echo the climate catastrophe discourse, such as ‘carbon bomb’, a word that has been around since 2015 to describe “a gas or oil extraction project which could cause irreversible climate change”, but is now used with more urgency.
Today I want to talk about the emergence of neologism, new words, that feel a little bit like ‘word bombs’ in the context of the increase in extreme weather events and the increase in extreme weather talk. What words am I talking about? For example: weather bomb, atmospheric river, rain bomb, polar vortex, heat dome, heat or Spanish plume, mega heat wave, mega drought, mega fire, and ‘wet bulb’ – all new weird weather words, indicative of climate change. You’ll probably recognise and understand most of these new/old words, but one of them might leave you stumped – at least it did me: ‘wet bulb’. What the heck is that I asked myself, picturing a water-soaked tulip bulb…. While ‘wet bulb’ is not a new word or phrase as such, it was certainly a new word to me.
I first vaguely heard the phrase last year together with ‘heat dome’ when a heatwave affected Canada, and then I came across it more frequently during the awful Indian heatwave this year. I began to suspect that it meant that if it’s very hot and also very humid, the body can’t cool down through sweating and people die. I got curious.
So, I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary and found this: “designation of that one of the two thermometers of a psychrometer the bulb of which is covered with muslin, which is wetted at the time of observation so as to indicate the ‘temperature of evaporation’.” It was apparently first used in 1849… (for more history, see here).
This didn’t make much sense to me. A blog from last year did: “Instead of simply looking at the thermometer to see how hot it is, a wet-bulb temperature is taken by first wrapping the bulb of the thermometer in a wet cloth – hence, ‘wet bulb’. The cloth acts as a sort of proxy for human skin: if the water evaporates, the thermometer is cooled, and the wet-bulb temperature will be lower than the air temperature. But in high humidity, when the water can’t evaporate as well, this doesn’t happen. Basically, the wet-bulb temperature can be thought of as a measurement of not just how hot it is, but how well humans can expect to cope with it.” And, if it gets too hot… we overheat and we die.
To me, this was a rather frightening prospect. To counteract this, one can, of course, install more and more air conditioning everywhere, which means using more and more electricity, which means using more fossil fuels, which means stoking global warming…..a bit of a vicious circle.
I was just writing this, when I heard that “Japan’s government has urged people in Tokyo and its surrounding area to use less electricity on Monday, as it warned that supplies will be strained as the country faces a heatwave. […] It said people should switch off unnecessary lights but still use air conditioning to avoid heatstroke.” Global warming is forcing us to make difficult choices.
While I was observing the wild fires in New Mexico and talking to relatives affected by them, I learned another term I hadn’t used myself before: ‘dew point’. This again is related to temperature and humidity. “The dew point temperature tells us the absolute quantity of moisture that is in the air, thereby indicating how humid it will feel outside to our bodies.” There is also ‘relative humidity’… Anyways, wild fires don’t like humidity and if the dew point is low, they thrive.
Scientists are now observing increases in “extreme fire weather driven by atmospheric humidity and temperature”. That meant that my relative was not only looking at the air temperature when we talked about the approaching fire, but also about the dew point. Fortunately, ‘her’ fire has been brought under control just in time and it’s raining now in New Mexico; so the term ‘dew point’ has dropped out of our conversations for now, replaced by ‘flash flood’.
Extreme weather events, from flash floods to flash droughts and more will be increasing everywhere in the world, irrespective of wealth and privilege. They will also compound each other. But this is actually not the worst that’s happening. Even if it sounds doomy, it has to be said: “forget everything you know about seasonal patterns: What the weather should be at any given point, what should be blooming when, what animals should be migrating where, etc. It’s a whole new era, in both weather and climate.”
We haven’t got a term yet for this climate chaos, unless this is it, but I am sure many more words and phrases will be invented to adapt our languages to the increasingly chaotic changes in weather and climate.
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