Red sun as seen through smoke after wildfire

July 21, 2023, by Brigitte Nerlich

The climate speaks in words and pictures: Is anybody listening?

I can’t open twitter nowadays without being confronted by red-hot images of heatwaves, just like a few weeks ago it was all about wildfires, orange skies and smoke. The climate is speaking to us, indeed sending us smoke signals, from the air, the land and the water which are all alarmingly warm. This is not a ghostly voice from a distant future.

This climate voice is joined by human voices, such as that of UN Chief António Guterres saying that ”Humanity faces ‘collective suicide” and that “half of humanity is in danger zone”. The Washington Post talks about climate alarm bells ringing and the New York Times wonders why we are not more afraid, while The New Yorker asks whether record temperatures will finally lead to political change.

Such questions are not new. They have been asked for a long time. But for how long? And when did the questions become more urgent? When did climate begin to speak to us?

I was wondering when the news started to report on extreme weather, floods, droughts, wildfires, heatwaves, alongside, of course, climate change and global warming. As the news database Nexis has a ‘Timeline’ feature I thought I would have a look at that (on 16 July in All English Language News). The graphs only provide dates for the start and the end of a timeline, but I’ll give you some indications on what happened in between. (All the graphs below are based on 10,000+ hits – there is no precise number available)

Global warming

Let’s start with good old ‘global warming’. Like many of the other topics, the first articles on this issue seem to have appeared in the 1970s, that is, a long time ago, but things only sped up sharply around 2009 after which news using the phrase ‘global warming’ started to decline. 2009 was the year of the controversial Copenhagen climate summit and, of course, of climategate, which brought climate change and climate scientists, as well as climate scepticism and climate denialism into sharp focus. The scepticism that was so prominent then is still around us. While I was writing this, I had the hashtag ClimateScam as an almost constant companion on twitter.Graph of news on global warming

Climate change

Now to ‘climate change’. This term too started to be used in the 1970 but took up the baton from ‘global warming’ in 2009 and then again in 2017 and in 2021 in particular. It seems to be the most commonly used term now, alongside more recent ones like ‘global heating’ or ‘climate crisis’. The Google Ngram viewer graph below seems to confirm that the switchover between the terms really happened around 2009, again around the time of climategate.

Graph of news on global warmingGoogle Ngram on climate change and global warming


Extreme weather

What about extreme weather events? When did they become a topic for discussion? As we have noticed in the past, this seems to have been from around 2011 onwards, a year of weather extremes, followed by another upturn around 2015 – see my blog post from then.graph on news on extreme weather


Now we come to particular extreme weather events. Floods seem to have been in the news for a long time, well before climate change became an issue, which is not surprising. However, floods were increasingly discussed in the news from 2002/3 onward, perhaps triggered by the Elbe floods, and then again from 2012 onwards – I still remember the big floods in the UK that year. There were, amongst many others, the awful Pakistan floods of 2010. And then came 2021, when parts of Western Germany and parts of adjoining countries were devastated by flash floods that left almost 200 people dead and my home village ravaged. The scars are still visible today.

graph on news on floods


And now we come to heatwaves. Again, they started to be reported in the 1970s – we all remember 1976 – but then, in a stepwise fashion, more and more from around 2005, 2015 and 2020 onwards. I remember the UK heatwave of 2003 as we were, luckily, by the sea at the time, and also the 2005 heatwave in the US through the tales of friends. I vaguely remember the 2015 European heatwave, and after that they became too frequent to stick in one’s memory – but, of course, the UK had one last year and that brought with it wildfires and iconic images of burning houses near London. Now we have constant smoke wafting over the world from Canadian wildfires and wildfires are breaking out in Southern Europe, the new holiday destination for heatwaves. Huge heatwaves, indeed heat domes, are currently affecting the USA, China, Southern Europe, the Middle East…… I am glad they haven’t reached the UK this time, yet… (By the way, the phrase ‘heat dome’ seems to have been with us since around 2011)graph on news on heatwaves


As with floods, reporting on droughts started early, in 1819, well before even Svente Arrhenius or Eunice Foote or John Tyndall explored the causes of the greenhouse effect in the 19th century (see Alice Bell’s book Our Greatest Experiment). Reporting increased dramatically around 2011 and 2016. Now we are beginning to hear more about ‘megadroughts’, for example in the American South West and in the East of Africa, for example.

graph on news about droughts


And so, we come to wildfires. I haven’t witnessed these myself, but I have seen them through the eyes of relatives living in the American Southwest, where the fear of wildfires is now part of life. Again, we start in the 1970s but then there is a big jump in around 2008 when news came in about the devastating wildfires in California, news only to be repeated again and again all over the globe. Most recently pictures of orange skies, especially eerie orange skies, have been prominent and more prominent because the pictures came from New York not California. The orange skies there were the result of smoke wafting over from hundreds of Canadian wildfires. The impacts of climate change reach everybody, eventually. And alongside megadroughts, we now also hear about megafires. The Australian bushfires of 2019/20 qualified as such.

graph on news on wildfires

Words and pictures

The climate has been speaking to us for a long time with increasing urgency through the medium of the media. We have new words like heat dome and megafire. We have smoke signals from wildfires that you can see from space. We also have increasingly deeper colours on heatmaps, veering from purple to black.

Once purple was the colour of feminism (in my day) and orange was the colour of sunsets, the colours of hope, optimism and romance. Now these colours are ominous harbingers of doom. As Helen Smith, the Guardians’ correspondent in Athens wrote on 15 July, when the sun was setting: “It was a flash of colour and the harbinger of the future, after a day in which the light had trembled with the ferocity of a heat the ancients would have flinched at; a beautiful sunset that, short of urgent action, spells menace ahead.” It’s not for nothing that the successive European heatwaves, indeed ‘heat storms’ (a word that has been around since the 1970s, I was surprised to find), are called Cerberus and Charon, both inhabiting the underworld or hell. At the moment we are still in control of the gates to Hades, but not for much longer.

Further reading:

Jeff Goodell, 2023, The heat will kill you first.

Gaia Vince, 2022. Nomad Century: How to survive the climate upheaval.

Image: Sun as seen through smoke after wildfire (Wikimedia Commons)

Posted in Climate ChangeClimate Politics