Thermometer reaching 40 degrees celsius against background of scorching sun

August 4, 2023, by Brigitte Nerlich

Global boiling

On 27 July Secretary-General António Guterres gave a press conference at United Nations headquarters. He spoke about climate change against the backdrop of widespread floods, terrestrial and marine heatwaves and wildfires unfolding around the world and in the context of new data coming in from the World Meteorological Organization and the European Commission’s Copernicus Climate Change Service indicating that July 2023 probably was the hottest month ever recorded in human history.

Guterres on global boiling

One passage in his speech attracted wide media attention and is rhetorically interesting – and I have marked some interesting bits in bold:

“The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived.  The air is unbreathable.  The heat is unbearable.  And the level of fossil-fuel profits and climate inaction is unacceptable. Leaders must lead.  No more hesitancy.  No more excuses.  No more waiting for others to move first.  There is simply no more time for that. It is still possible to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C and avoid the very worst of climate change.  But, only with dramatic, immediate climate action. We have seen some progress.  A robust rollout of renewables.  Some positive steps from sectors, such as shipping. But, none of this is going far enough or fast enough.  Accelerating temperatures demand accelerated action.”

After saying what needs and must be done, he concluded his speech by returning to the initial theme:

“The evidence is everywhere: humanity has unleashed destruction. This must not inspire despair, but action.  We can still stop the worst.  But to do so we must turn a year of burning heat into a year of burning ambition.  And accelerate climate action – now.”

I don’t want to go into a detailed rhetorical analysis of these passages but just note the impactful sentence in which he uses the bombshell phrase ‘global boiling’. This two-part sentence sets out a clear scenario: warming has ended, boiling has started. Something dangerous, but labelled as something not too alarming, has been given an alarming label, because the dangers associated with it are increasing. How was the new label received?

Media reactions

To find out how the term was discussed in the press I looked at Nexis, my preferred News database. On 29 July I found about 700 articles, which I could, of course, only skim. It seems that most articles covering the speech just regurgitated extracts of it, which is interesting in itself, indicating general acceptance of the underlying message, with some discussions about the term, but only a few.

In an interview with the IPCC’s new chair James Skea on Radio 4 Today, the host, Evan Davies, wondered whether “overstating” things would “put people off”. Skea’s reply was interesting. He said: “I don’t think we would ever get the phrase global boiling through an approval session for an IPCC report, but just to say if people are trying to work outdoors in countries where your temperatures have gone beyond 50 degrees where there’s high levels of humidity, I can guarantee that it will feel like boiling to people working in these kinds of environments, so although I doubt that we could approve the phrase global boiling and IPCC report, some people […] subjectively feel that that’s where we are”.

This is especially true for people in the Middle East, Pakistan or India. In an interview with the Washington Post (29 July), Suraje Dessai, a professor of climate change adaptation at Leeds University, said that in places where increases in temperature and humidity might prevent people from sweating, the term ‘global boiling’ might resonate.

I think Skea and Dessai referred to what’s called ‘wet bulb temperatures’. Web bulb temperatures “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 (for more info see here!). We need to remember though that poor people die the most, as they are the ones working outdoors. We need to think about that, as Nathan Oxley points out.

Others wondered whether the term ‘global boiling’ had been used before, as for example, on BBC Five Live, where the presenter introduced [sometimes the transcript is garbled] “Graham Jackson the hosts the BBC podcast the climate question” and said “that the rhetoric inevitably increases but this term global boiling. I’ve never heard before. What about you. No, I’ve never heard of it either but didn’t really surprise me because the UN general Secretary, just have a very good way with words is very poetic with his language”. As we have seen above, that is true.

I too had never heard the phrase ‘global boiling’ before, but does that mean it has never been used before? I had to find out. When I put the phrase into Nexis, I found that it was first used in the news in 1991, then sporadically until around 2009/2010, when it went out of fashion until 2023.

Global boiling before Guterres

The phrase ‘global boiling’ was first used in a review of the World Bank’s World Development Report of 1991, where the journalist said: “But there are 4bn people in developing countries. If all aspire to Uncle Sam’s way of life, global warming will surely become global boiling; many forms of pollution – often an automatic by-product of growth – could become intolerable.” (Financial Times, 8 July, 1991) This provoked a backlash in a letter to the editor calling out moral bankruptcy (11 July), as this assessment implies that “people in LDCs should continue to live in abject poverty, while the west enjoys the fruits of industrialization”…. This thorny issue is still with us today.

In 1996 an article in The Australian (27 December) talks about summer holidays and speculates: “There is a heatwave. You: a) Invent an excuse to go back to work early. b) Watch Alaskan television. c) Worry that global boiling is here.” People holidaying in the Mediterranean this summer might have had similar thoughts.

In 2007 an article in The New York Times (20 July) points out that “Decades before Al Gore revved into documentary scold mode and transferred the green state of mind into fashionably green activism with his Academy-Award-winning film, ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ there was Richard M. Cherry. [eco-entrepreneur]”. Interviewed for this article, he said: “’Global warming needs to coin a different phrase to describe itself […] These days it’s more like global boiling.’”

In August 2007, Clinical Psychiatry News published an article asking “What’s in a name?” and says: “Using the word ‘global’ certainly seems appropriate in describing a worldwide problem that calls for worldwide solutions. However, the use of ‘warming’ to describe a threat to the future of humanity seems like psychological milquetoast. For people living in colder climates, that terminology can paradoxically sound psychologically more promising than worrisome. So what may be more psychologically appropriate? Using the frog experiment as symbolic of slow but sure danger might work, but calling this phenomenon global boiling might be better.”

The frog experiment refers to an experiment where a frog, put into tepid water rather than boiling water, doesn’t jump out and when the water is brought to boil it slowly dies. Caricatures of boiling frogs appeared on Twitter in 2023 – a metaphor for people not reacting to things that change gradually rather than suddenly.

In 2008 wildfires started to be discussed and the phrase global boiling was used, for example, by The Vancouver Province (British Columbia) (28 April). Remember the recent wildfires in Canada…

On 21 September 2009 a Guardian headline asked “Global burning: could a phrase save use from catastrophic climate change” and the journalist wonders: “Perhaps there are better suggestions: global boiling, global melting? Some might complain that these terms are too emotive or lack precision. But shouldn’t we start using language that conveys the urgency of the issue we face?” Again a question that has never gone away!

Contrarian voices now and then

There were also contrarian voices, but only very few. The Weekly Standard said on 2 November 2009, a fortnight before climategate: “Americans are overreacting to events: to the ‘Great Depression’ of 2009 […], to the histrionic fantasy that climate change will become global boiling.” Such contrarian voices don’t go away, especially in the United States, 

After the press conference by Guterres and the use of the phrase ‘global boiling’, Fox News interviewed somebody called Ryun (27 July, 2023) who said: “This is — it is a hoax, it is nothing more than an attempt to manipulate people into a state of fear, to have them give more control over to a ruling elite who would take this hoax and enforce it through a whole host of means, but it’s a hoax, and yet they continue to push in hopes that we’ll surrender to them and we will not.” While Rhodes was burning, the hashtag ClimateHoax was trending on Twitter.

The ‘Science is Religion’ metaphor so prominent during climategate and beyond also resurfaced in 2023. Those using the ‘global boiling’ metaphor were accused of being ‘climatistas’ or ‘climate cultists’ waging a ‘climate crusade’ (Powerline, 28 July). And of course Guterres was accused by some of ‘alarmism’ (The Spectator, 27 July [UK};, 28 July [US]), a rather common accusation against scientists or policy makers who sound the alarm.

Even somebody who says of himself that he was “some years ago what people would call now a climate sceptic”, but now confesses that “you can’t go against the science now”, admits that he doesn’t like the “apocalyptic language some people use” and doesn’t think “the head of the UN contributed to the debate by saying global boiling. It switches people off.” (Good Morning Britain, 28 July, 2023)

Global boiling?

It would be great if one had the time to do some serious research into how phrases like ‘global boiling’ are received and how they might influence peoples understanding of and attitudes to climate change. Such language may desensitise people or else make people sit up and take notice. I don’t know. It probably depends on where you live, what experiences you have had and also what language you speak. ‘Globales Kochen’ sounds weird in German, for example. In English it has been around since the beginning of the 1990s but only now does it seem to mark a new wave in climate change discourse. This new wave might be short-lived, swept away by waves of inaction and counterproductive actions that fuel global boiling.

Posted in Climate ChangeClimate Politics