Climate change is not an environmental issue.
Well, at least not primarily. The unmatched significance of climate change lies in its physical harm to humans.
Too often, as a political “issue,” climate change is labeled and perceived as an “environmental” problem. Of course, this is true, but the colloquial perception of traditional “environmental” issues does not appropriately describe climate change, a phenomenon that has already harmed, and in the future will inevitably harm and kill, human beings. Therefore, using the term “environmental” mischaracterizes this global challenge. There are ways for us to change the lexicon of climate change to adequately capture the human aspect of the threat we are facing.
Effects on Humans
As fossil fuel emissions warm the atmosphere, climatic changes produce many hazardous effects.
Higher average temperatures bring more heat waves. Melting polar ice heightens sea levels, which reduces coastlines, forces people to migrate, and increases the reach of hurricanes and the potential for floods. More extreme weather patterns increase the chances of droughts, hurricanes, variable precipitation, and floods, which kill people, rob them of shelter, contaminate water supplies, and reduce agricultural production in some regions.
People will be directly killed by more extreme weather events and temperatures, more diseases like malaria, and more food shortages. Estimates state that between two hundred fifty thousand and four hundred thousand people per year are—and will be—killed as a result of human-induced climate change. For other “environmental” issues like water pollution, or other political issues like terrorism and immigration, is the imminent and future risk to human lives anywhere near that significant?
In certain cases, the deleterious social effects of climate change contribute to political disturbance and instability, as global warming has worsened the drought in Syria, degrading agricultural yields and influencing population migration and civil unrest.
Problems with Terminology
As climate change will harm human health and safety, it can’t be appropriately labeled as purely “environmental”—based on our colloquial usage of the term—because this mischaracterization has negative consequences.
First, as long as climate change is “environmental,” people will subconsciously categorize it and not prioritize it as the global threat to human welfare that it is. Imagine how people would perceive the phenomenon differently were it called a “global human welfare” issue instead of an “environmental” one.
Second, as long as climate change is “environmental,” anyone who seriously dedicates himself or herself to creating social or political change on the issue will be perceived as a lefty, liberal, green activist. In fact, this person rationally accepts science, cares about other human beings, and might attend a climate change rally, call up his or her elected representative, or simply converse with a friend about climate change. When this stigma around political action for climate change solutions is diminished, more people will feel comfortable joining the effort to demand the political change that this global threat requires.
In order to counteract these current rhetorical barriers, we can either change the way people perceive “environmental” challenges, or we can choose to use different words—a far easier path. As a first step, we should simply not use the descriptor “environmental.” Then, when given the chance, we shouldn’t describe climate change with one word that the listener can use to mentally file the issue away alongside other generic political problems. Instead, we should describe it as the global threat to human safety and survival that it is. If we must use a single term to describe climate change we should try something that conveys its true impact, like the aforementioned “global human welfare.”
There are two slightly separate yet connected challenges here. First is the way climate change istalked about, and second is the way it is thought about—and the words people use affect the way people think. In order to effectively reach collective political solutions on global climate change, we must change the way we perceive the problem, and choosing more effective language is one necessary step.
In this effort to think and talk differently, remember that climate change will kill real human beings. Period.
This article was also published in The Gate on January 31, 2016.