By Mark Hertsgaard
It’s rare to hear the term “climate emergency” in media and political discourse in the United States, even though that is the term thousands of scientists say most accurately describes the situation facing humanity. More than 13,000 scientists have now signed the “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency,” which begins by affirming that scientists have “a moral obligation…to ‘tell it like it is,’” before enumerating all the many “alarming trends [that make] it urgently necessary to act.”
With the Democratic and the Republican conventions unfolding this week and next, it’s high time for news coverage to catch up with science and make the “climate emergency” a leading topic in the national political conversation. To be sure, climate change has gotten much more attention in 2020 than in previous campaigns; and the first night of the Democratic convention featured several overtures toward climate action. But by and large, climate is still treated as just another issue. That’s partly because most candidates still don’t say that we face a climate emergency, though Joe Biden comes closer than any major party nominee in history. But it’s also because many news outlets still seem not to recognize climate change as different than the other political subjects they cover. This one has a strict, rapidly closing time limit: Wait too long to take aggressive action, and the climate emergency accelerates beyond salvaging.
That’s why scientists deliberately choose the words “climate emergency.” Like in science, language matters profoundly in politics. It’s one thing for a politician—and for a news story—to say that climate change is an important “issue” or “problem.” “Issues” and “problems,” however worthy, are a dime a dozen on the campaign trail, as is news coverage thereof. It is something else to say that a problem rises to the level of an emergency. An emergency, by definition, demands immediate action. An emergency is not merely one in a long list of worthy concerns; it is a supreme priority that allows no time for delay, half-measures, or distractions by less urgent matters.
Most newsrooms, though, especially in the United States, have avoided the “emergency” framing, regarding it as activist. It’s true that many activists use the term. So, for that matter, have hundreds of national, regional, and local government bodies, including the parliaments of the United Kingdom, France, Portugal, Canada, and Argentina. But the nervousness in newsrooms misses the point: When political actors use this term, they are doing so in accordance with climate science—the same science that should be guiding news judgments.
The political conventions this week and next offer an opportunity for newsrooms to treat the climate emergency with the urgency that science demands. No country is more important to defusing the emergency than the United States. Not only is the US the world’s largest economy and historically its biggest