Climate Change Transcends “Environmental” Label

Climate change is often termed an “environmental” issue. That label is rhetorically damaging.

The issue label “environmental” poorly captures the magnitude of global climate change. I’m not the first to make this point, as others have described how this term has set the issue on a certain inadequate political advocacy course. I echo that analysis, but I also mean to challenge readers to think and talk differently about the issue—by rejecting its colloquial label.

The political term “environmental” usually applies to issues like water pollution, air pollution, overfishing, land conservation, ecosystem degradation, etc. Unfortunately, the e-word—like most heuristic labels, used to help us more easily remember the concept in question—doesn’t capture the impact on life on Earth, both human and non-human. Think about this example: when a multinational company extracts a resource from a developing country, it can damage the physical health of the local people and their economy, let alone the plant and animal life.

Now imagine that a process happening all the time, all over the world—say, the byproduct of turning on the lights, or hopping in a vehicle to visit your family—is causing harm and death to real human beings. In that example, I would say “environmental” doesn’t quite get it right.

Not only does the e-word not instill the proper understanding of the impact of our actions, in general, but really misses the mark for the particular issue at hand. Here’s why.

Climate change is caused primarily by the production and consumption of Earth’s energy, which literally powers the global economy, making the issue relevant whenever and wherever economic production happens. The effects of burning fossil fuels—more and worse storms, droughts, floods, heat—are felt in grave and varied ways by people all over the world. We’ve already locked ourselves (or rather, those most vulnerable to these hazards) in for increasingly worsening effects decades into the future. Most unjustly, the effects disproportionately wreak havoc on poorer people and people of color around the world. In other words, the rich, white countries have—over the lifespan of human-caused, global-warming emissions—been killing the poor, mostly non-white countries.

A thoughtful observer can certainly see elements of climate change in the usual suspects lumped into the “environmental” issue basket. But when we’re talking about climate compared holistically with those issues, it dwarfs them.

How we talk politically about issues determines, in some way, how people categorize them—consciously and subconsciously—impacting how much people care about them. As for better terminology for climate change specifically, it’s tough to categorize as a standard “economic” or “social” issue. A more fitting adjective may be “global human welfare,” though a new descriptor like that seems unlikely to catch on at this point in climate’s political history. At the very least, we should avoid referring to climate change as an “environmental” issue. Don’t use any adjective at all. Just call it by its name, and spell out the unjust, perilous harms on humans around the world, especially the global poor.

“Environmental” evokes images of trees and tree huggers—and climate change’s effects kill too many of our fellow human beings for that.

NOTE: A version of this article first appeared on the now-retired publication The Anthropocene in 2016.

Sam Zacher is a PhD student in political science at Yale University studying how interest groups can improve their strategies for success on issues like climate change. He tweets @samzacher

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