Climate Science Glossary

Term Lookup

Enter a term in the search box to find its definition.


Use the controls in the far right panel to increase or decrease the number of terms automatically displayed (or to completely turn that feature off).

Term Lookup


All IPCC definitions taken from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Annex I, Glossary, pp. 941-954. Cambridge University Press.

Home Arguments Software Resources Comments The Consensus Project Translations About Support

Bluesky Facebook LinkedIn Mastodon MeWe

Twitter YouTube RSS Posts RSS Comments Email Subscribe

Climate's changed before
It's the sun
It's not bad
There is no consensus
It's cooling
Models are unreliable
Temp record is unreliable
Animals and plants can adapt
It hasn't warmed since 1998
Antarctica is gaining ice
View All Arguments...

New? Register here
Forgot your password?

Latest Posts


Do phrases like ‘global boiling’ help or hinder climate action?

Posted on 14 August 2023 by Guest Author

This article by Noel Castree, Professor of Society & Environment, University of Technology Sydney is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Recently, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres coined an arresting new term. The era of global warming has ended, he declared dramatically, and the era of “global boiling” has arrived.

You can see why he said it. July was the hottest month on record globally. Searing temperatures and intense wildfires have raged across the Northern Hemisphere. Marine heatwaves are devastating the world’s third-largest coral reef, off Florida. And as greenhouse emissions keep rising, it means many even hotter summers await us.

But critics and climate sceptics have heaped scorn on the phrase. Taken literally, they’re correct – nowhere on Earth is near the boiling point of water.

Is Guterres’ phrase hyperbolic or an accurate warning? Do phrases like this actually help drive us towards faster and more effective climate action? Or do they risk making us prone to climate doomism, and risk prompting a backlash?

Rhetoric and reality

Guterres is rhetorically adept. He uses the moral authority of his position to vividly depict the climate crisis. For instance, he told attendees at last year’s COP27 climate summit in Egypt we are on “a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator”. In many ways, it’s one of the only tools he has, given the UN has global influence but limited real power.

“Global boiling” ups the verbal ante. It’s designed to sound the alarm and trigger more radical action to stave off the worst of climate change.

Guterres chooses his words carefully. But does he choose them wisely?

At one level, “global boiling” is clearly an exaggeration, despite the extreme summer heat and fire during the northern summer.

But then again, “global warming” is now far too tame a descriptor. Prominent climate scientists have pushed for the term “global heating” to be used in preference.

Similarly, phrases such as “the climate crisis” haven’t gained traction with either elites or the ordinary public. That’s because many of us still feel we haven’t seen this crisis with our own eyes.

But that is changing. In the past few years, extreme weather and related events have struck many countries – even those who may have thought themselves immune. Australia’s Black Summer brought bushfires that burned an area the size of the United Kingdom. Germany suffered lethal flooding in 2021. The unprecedented 2022 deluge in Pakistan flooded large tracts of the country. China has seen both drought and floods. Savage multi-year droughts have hit the Horn of Africa. India has banned rice exports due to damage from heavy rain.

Once-abstract phrases are now having real-world purchase – in developed and developing nations alike.

Climate scepticism has also dropped away. Fewer doubters are trying to discredit the fundamental science than during the long period of manufactured scepticism in Western nations.

In this context, we can see “global boiling” as an expression of humanitarian concern backed by rigorous science showing the situation continues to worsen.

The hazards of theatrical language

There are risks in warning of catastrophe. People who don’t pay close attention to the news may switch off if the predicted disaster doesn’t eventuate. Or the warnings can add to climate anxiety and make people feel there’s no hope and therefore no point in acting.

There’s another risk, too. Catastrophic language often has moral overtones – and, as we all know, we don’t like being told what to do. When we hear a phrase like “global boiling” in the context of a prominent official exhorting us to do more, faster, it can raise the hackles.

You can see this in the emerging greenlash, whereby populist-right figures scorn solar and wind farms. Even struggling mainstream leaders like UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak can pivot this way, as evidenced by his recent positioning as pro-car and pro-oil extraction.

Opponents of climate action – who tend to be on the right of politics – often complain about what they see as the overuse of “crisis talk”. If everything is a crisis, nothing is a crisis. This view has some merit.

But even critics such as Danish controversialist Bjørn Lomborg, author of False Alarm, may have more in common with Guterres than one might think. In admittedly different ways, they pursue similar ends: a world where people can live free from harm, with dignity, and with reasonable prospects of a fulfilling life pursued sustainably. The question, as always, is how to get there.

Hot language can motivate us, just as quieter, process-heavy, technocratic language can. It can be folded into a discourse of hope and aspiration for the future, rather than of fear and trembling.

Rethinking calamity

Climate writer David Wallace-Wells has written that the future will be “contested and combative, combining suffering and flourishing — though not in equal measure for every group”.

As the critics Frederick Buell and Rob Nixon remind us, a hotter Earth will worsen existing human vulnerabilities as well as creating new ones. The poor and marginalised, both authors observe, are already living through crises, year-in and year-out. They suffer what Nixon dubs “slow violence”, punctuated by dramatic environmental events such as landslides and failed harvests.

Are there better phrases to capture this? Possibly. Take the challenge yourself: can you think up a pithy, accurate phrase to cover intensifying local and regional-scale droughts, fires, typhoons and floods; damage to crops and food insecurity; water shortages; existential threats to coral reefs and low-lying communities? You can see how hard it is.

When Guterres uses highly charged phrases, he’s not inviting to us to imagine a Hollywood-style apocalypse. What he’s hoping is to make people listen – and act – now we can see what climate change looks like.

What happens if we write off his comments as overblown rhetoric? The risk is it becomes another form of denial. Climate change, global warming, global heating, the climate crisis, global boiling – whatever the phrase, it is now undeniable that it’s upon us. The Conversation

0 0

Printable Version  |  Link to this page


Comments 1 to 9:

  1. "Man, its freezing outside"  Lawyers and ChatGPT's may complain.  Everybody who is human knows what I'm saying.

    0 0
  2. Less guesswork may be needed than we may imagine. There's extensive literature on this topic. Try and then tweak "emotional language climate change communication" w/Google Scholar to get a foothold. 

    Susan Moser's work is especially helpful for getting the big picture of climate communications to the public. This slightly old synthesis by Moser is still quite useful: Communicating climate change: history, challenges, process and future directions.

    More germane to the immediate topic of this article, see “Be Worried, be VERY Worried:” Preferences for and Impacts of Negative Emotional Climate Change Communication.

    0 0
  3. How about "Climate chaos". This is quite literally true from a mathematical sense (e.g., non-linear dynamics and the emergence of tipping points) and it gives a sense of the impending dysfunction and seemingly random profusion of unpleasant events. But alas, still it comes off as hyperbole. For those of us who see what is happening, "climate change" is sufficient. The devil is in the details, not the title. 

    0 0
  4. Thinking of whsettle's remarks, it astounds me that we'll readily and acceptedly describe such prosaic matters as getting children ready to go to school as "chaos" or "chaotic" but describing the presently emerging features of our changing the climate with the same terms fills us with qualms over hyperbole. 

    Same for "catastrophe." Fallen souffle? A dinner-time catastrophe! Multiple massively costly climate-driven extreme events? Don't say they're catastrophe, or catastrophic climate change— that's just too heated. 

    0 0
  5. This issue of colourful terms to describe the climate problem comes down to the exact meanings of the terms. and how the general public would be likely to react.

    For example the term global boiling seems acceptable. it is obviously hyperbole (deliberate exaggeration not to be taken literally) that nobody in the right mind would take literally, and it gets the point across. Its like the term "Im boiling hot". Nobody would say bad use of language, you are exaggerating. Ubrew 12 made the same sort of point. Only a small cadre of denialists are making a fuss about global boiling. I think the phrase is unlikely to be alienating the general public.

    The term climate chaos seems appropriate. It has an element of hyperbole and yet has a foundation of accuracy.

    Climate crisis or catastrope isn't hyperbole. People really are suggesting we are in a crisis or catastrophe. So its a question of whether thay are accurate terms, and thats tricky because they are open to interpretation and hard to precisely define. Although catastrophe and crisis is generally understood to be something immediate and overwhelming like a massive bridge collapsing. Whether the climate problem fits the criteria seems very open to interpretation althought IMO we are certainly already seeeing serious problems due to climate change.

    The trouble is the use of terms like crisis and exaggeration are open to interpretation, so this gives the denialists an opportunity to claim they are exaggerations and to mock use of the terms. I dont believe in handing denialists ammunition, but it does leave me floundering for an appropriate word that sums things up better than "serious climate change problem."

    Another word being more frequently used these days is that climate change is an extinction level threat. Generally this is boldy stated without much if any qualification. The evidence we have suggests climate change is an extinction level threat for at least some animal and plant species and human populations in the tropical climate regions. Its important these qualifiers are added when using the term extinction level threat. Otherwise by leaving things open and implying the human race could become extinct its just begging people to become sceptical.

    I hate making comments like this because theres a risk I get labelled a luke warmer by those who cant seeem to read. And this has happened.  But the point Im trying to make is its important to get across that the climate problem is very serious, but also avoid making wild claims that don't stand scrutiny.

    0 0
  6. To add to Nigelj's list of possible terms: what about "global weirding" as used by Katharine Hayhoe for her video series?

    0 0
  7. BaerbelW @6 ,

    For sure, Dr Hayhoe's "global weirding" is a great phrase, and fits nicely with her own slightly humorous style of presentation.

    For everyday use ~ probably not a winner.  It would appeal to the more intellectual end of the spectrum, who already are well-acquainted with the subject of AGW . . . but maybe not conveying the problem for the man-in-the-street.   Too poetical.

    0 0
  8. I rather liked 'Climate destabilisation' and used it a lot years ago....

    0 0
  9. Old time readers of this website will remember when climate deniers derided "Catastrophic Anthropogenic Climate Change" or CAGW.  Scientists insisted that was not their message.  Was that only 10 years ago?  Now I often hear climate scientists discussing catastrophic effects of global warming and I don't see the deniers using CAGW any more.

    Eclectic: you read WUWT, do they still discredit CAGW?

    I like the term catastrophic climate change.  What else would describe the fires, droughts and floods worldwide?

    0 0

You need to be logged in to post a comment. Login via the left margin or if you're new, register here.

The Consensus Project Website


(free to republish)

© Copyright 2024 John Cook
Home | Translations | About Us | Privacy | Contact Us