Climate Change vs Climate Crisis: can a new terminology catalyse change?

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On 17th May 2019, The Guardian, a British newspaper announced that it had updated its style guide to encourage the shift of report terminology from “climate change” to “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” (Carrington, 2019). This is the latest addition to the list of media-reported conservation red alerts including the “extinction crisis” and the “plastic crisis”. The intention being to use stronger tones to communicate the prescience of the issue. From a Social and Behavioural Change Communications perspective, it is interesting to consider whether this change could invoke more sustainable and climate-friendly behavioural choices by individuals who are currently apathetic, unaware, or in denial around the issue.
Climate Change vs Climate Crisis: can a new terminology catalyse change?

Climate change as a term is neutral and descriptive. Climate emergency/crisis/breakdown brings an element of judgement and urgency and would naturally evoke negative emotions from the reader.

Emotions are a part of our automatic motivation system, and methods for promoting change in behaviour through addressing such motivations are diverse. Whether using the term “climate crisis” is counted as a “nudge” (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008) is open to discussion, given that it does not present a behavioural choice. The behavioural change toolkit produced by Rare and the Behavioural Insights Team this year, is one of various communications highlighting how negative emotional prompts are however, generally less efficient in leveraging change (Rare and The Behavioural Insights Team, 2019).

PRIME theory (West & Brown, 2013) posits that identity is a source of strong wants and needs, linked to our values and helping to shape our evaluation of choices. Feelings affect our wants and needs, but if a person’s identity is not pro-environmental, the negative emotions triggered by words are unlikely to be strong enough to generate impulse for actual behaviour change.

Identity theory predicts that what others in the same community consider to be appropriate will modify a person’s self-definition. Social identity theory describes that the social category a person identify him/herself with defines the self (Hogg, Terry, & White, 1995). This suggests that climate change deniers and those indifferent to the evidence would remain unmoved by the shift in terminology. In a way, this change in wording therefore risks preaching to the converted.

Emotional reframing of climate problems may attract reader attention and encourage people to obtain knowledge in the subject, but the intention-behaviour gap remains unaffected. Additionally, simply triggering negative feelings without providing ways of solving the problem can lead people to opt for denial, as fear and avoidance are closely linked (LeDoux, Moscarello, Sears, & Campese, 2017).

For behaviour change to become more likely, changes in physical and social opportunities are required, as well as the development of behavioural enactment strategies. Mass media should thus increase their coverage not just on climate events, but around what has been done and what individuals can do to tackle them. Local governing bodies should provide infrastructure and services to facilitate eco-friendly behaviours. Goods providers across sectors should provide feedback on clients’ consumption patterns and the carbon embedded in e.g. Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) purchases. Concrete action planning and implementation intentions should be provided to the public through mass media or other channels. Messages such as “leave your car keys at home on Mondays” or “if it is a Thursday, then I will have vegetarian meals” put out at work, schools, supermarkets , or locations/platforms relevant to the target audience can help set goals, act as prompts, and assist enactments of change.

Without such complimentary messages and strategies, a change in terminology on its own, while well-intentioned, is unlikely to catalyse the change required to impact meaningfully on carbon goals. Such insights and lessons have relevance for conservation communications also, and so great heed should be paid to success factors and lessons learned through implementation.


Carrington, D. (2019). Why the Guardian is changing the language it uses about the environment | Environment | The Guardian. Retrieved 29th May 2019, from

Hogg, M. A., Terry, D. J., & White, K. M. (1995). A tale of two theories: a critical comparison of identity theory with social identity theory. Social Psychology Quarterly, 58(4): 255–269.

LeDoux, J. E., Moscarello, J., Sears, R., & Campese, V. (2017). The birth, death and resurrection of avoidance: a reconceptualization of a troubled paradigm. Molecular Psychiatry, 22: 24–36.

Rare and The Behavioural Insights Team. (2019). Behavior Change for Nature: a behavioural science toolkit for practitioners. Arlington. Available at

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New Haven, Conn. London: Yale University Press.

West, R., & Brown, J. (2013). Theory of Addiction. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.