What’s in a word? Or phrase? Well, a lot sometimes. In the case of anthropogenic alteration of the complex ecological and climate systems, it all started with “global warming.” It was a simple and accurate term. The emissions of primarily carbon dioxide by the steady increases in burning of fossil fuels throughout the industrial era have warmed the atmosphere. “Greenhouse gases” have caused the retention of heat; it is that simple. But the earth systems and the effects of warming on them are extremely complex. No word or phrase, it seems, is adequate to convey the full complexity of the problem or point to a clear path to a solution.
The “climate deniers” early on attacked the concept of global warming, claiming various forms of “evidence” to the contrary. Many such claims were absurdly irrelevant. Nevertheless, “Global warming” was an easy target. It was so general that specific instances of unusually cold weather in particular places were argued to refute the idea. For the uninformed, that made sense, although the obvious variability of weather from year to year and place to place meant that the claim didn’t pass logical muster. But demagoguery is not bounded by logic. As long as one didn’t get into the specifics of how the planet is warming and the variability of conditions the added heat produced, then the concept was an easy propaganda target.
Then environmentalists and the media shifted to using “climate change” as the generic term to refer to the complex changes that are disrupting previously relatively stable weather patterns around the globe. The new term had two contradictory effects. First, it was even more general, failing to indicate anything in particular, especially temperature change. It was probably meant by some to disarm critics (deniers) by not mentioning warming and thereby avoiding non-heating contrary specifics. I think it was also meant to be “not so alarmist.” Such watering down of an idea is akin to the big failure of the big environmental groups when they wasted decades of environmental action by trying to “work within the system” by aligning themselves with big polluters and achieving small symbolic changes in exchange for big donations. They were effectively co-opted.
I began using the term “climate disruption” in conversations and in working with various environmental groups locally a few years ago. I remember once an official of the Sierra Club asked me where I got that term. I simply said that I thought it more accurate and pointed to the nature of the problem. He reported that the Sierra Club had recently begun using that term for much the same reason. I also have used the term “climate crisis” because it conveys the urgency of the rapidly growing risks of not taking major actions to counter the disruptive effects of global warming such as extreme floods, heat waves, and droughts.
The idea of climate destabilization is very close to climate disruption in meaning and effect. But it conveys another important element in our consciousness of the problem (or the lack thereof). We humans (especially in the U.S.) seem to have very short historical memories. We have had many decades of essentially very stable climatic conditions, punctuated by the occasional 100-year storm, hurricane, or tsunami. We have come to expect stability. Not only that, but we have come to depend on stable climates for our vastly expanded industrial agriculture as well as diverse other industrial activities. Climate destabilization is changing all that.
However, the crisis of climate change, aside from the many complexities that no single phrase can capture, has become so acute that none of these terms seems adequate. I have read some authors who refer to catastrophic changes that are beginning to appear around the planet. One important example is Christian Parenti’s book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. Parenti talks of the “catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence, and climate change.” He reviews examples of the growing chaos that results from the convergence of these factors that is well underway in places like Northwest Kenya, Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan, as well as the slums and deserts of Brazil and Mexico. The point to be remembered, of course, is that these catastrophic effects of climate disruption will not be limited to the more geographically vulnerable regions where they began. As the disruptions intensify, their effects will encompass the entire planet. The only chance we have, Parenti points out, is to entirely transform the energy economy to heal capitalism’s “metabolic rift” with nature.
Catastrophy or Creativity
Paul Cienfuegos, a regional leader in the Community Rights movement, prefers to call the problem, “catastrophic climate destabilization.” That describes our likely prospects. We must recognize the catastrophic consequences of climate destabilization and their inevitable spread, as Parenti describes. Then we might be able to muster the collective will to launch the massive social reorganization necessary to at least have a chance to exclude ourselves from the “sixth mass extinction.” Cienfuegos advocates “local governance,” achieved by municipalities and other local entities. The strategy is to pass ordinances to stop environmentally destructive actions ordinarily condoned by regulatory agencies that are largely controlled by corporate polluters.
Rapid growth of national and international movements to divest from fossil-fuel related corporations, protect indigenous environments, and reassert native and local sovereignty will be essential. The weakest links in the chain of actions necessary to avoid full-on catastrophic climate destabilization are corporations and governments. Powerful social movements must force them to change. Otherwise, prevarication and avoidance of action by national governments and international corporate and financial powers will lead to humans joining the sixth mass extinction.