Climate emergency is defined as ‘a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it.’
This year, heightened public awareness of climate science and the myriad implications for communities around the world has generated enormous discussion of what the UN Secretary-General has called ‘the defining issue of our time’.
But it is not just this upsurge in conversation that has caught our attention. Our research reveals a demonstrable escalation in the language people are using to articulate information and ideas concerning the climate. This is most clearly encapsulated by the rise of climate emergency in 2019.
Analysis of language data collected in the Oxford Corpus shows the rapid rise of climate emergency from relative obscurity to becoming one of the most prominent – and prominently debated – terms of 2019.
Usage of the phrase climate emergency increased steeply over the course of 2019, and by September it was more than 100 times as common as it had been the previous year.
The word climate has been central to 2019 overall, and features in a number of prominent phrases, but climate emergency stands out for a number of reasons. Statistically speaking, this represents a new trend in the use of the word emergency.
In 2018, climate did not feature in the top words typically used to modify emergency, instead the top types of emergencies people wrote about were health, hospital, and family emergencies. These suggest acute situations of danger at a very personal level, often relating to the health of an individual. Emergency also frequently occurs, as in the phrase state of emergency to indicate a legal declaration of an acute situation at a jurisdictional level. But with climate emergency, we see something new, an extension of emergency to the global level, transcending these more typical uses.
In 2019, climate emergency surpassed all of those other types of emergency to become the most written about emergency by a huge margin, with over three times the usage frequency of health, the second-ranking word.
Looking at the equivalent data for climate collocations, climate crisis and climate action – both of which are included in our Word of the Year 2019 shortlist – feature alongside climate emergency as the words most typically used to modify climate in 2019, as recorded in our corpus. All of these words have exceeded more moderate or speculative pairings like climate variability and climate prediction, and expected connections like climate scientist, which have dominated the usage data for more than 10 years.
This data is significant because it indicates a growing shift in people’s language choice in 2019, a conscious intensification that challenges accepted language use to reframe discussion of ‘the defining issue of our time’ with a new gravity and greater immediacy.