Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year for 2019 is ‘climate emergency’

climates

(Markus Spiske, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Emma Charlton, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • “Climate crisis”, “climate denial” and “eco-anxiety” were also contenders
  • Use of “climate emergency” was 100 times more common in September 2019 compared with the previous year
  • Comes in a year that saw mass protests about the lack of action on global warming

“Climate emergency” has been chosen as the Oxford Word of the Year 2019, rounding off a year of soaring concerns about the consequences of global warming.

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”, use of “climate emergency” was 100 times as common in September 2019 compared with the previous year.

“This year, heightened public awareness of climate science and the myriad implications for communities around the world has generated enormous discussion,” the Oxford Dictionaries said. “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.”

A spike in use.
Image: Oxford Dictionaries

The choice of phrase underscores how the debate on climate and other green issues has shifted this year. In September, a wave of international protests took place demanding more action, while UN Secretary-General António Guterres declared it the “defining issue of our time”.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Climate change poses an urgent threat demanding decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising seas. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.

To limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term climate actions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The World Economic Forum’s Climate Initiative supports the scaling and acceleration of global climate action through public and private-sector collaboration. The Initiative works across several workstreams to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.

This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders from various industries developing cost-effective solutions to transitioning to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CEOs use their position and influence with policy-makers and corporate partners to accelerate the transition and realize the economic benefits of delivering a safer climate.

What’s striking is the extent to which the other contenders for the title were also related to the environment. “Climate action”, “climate crisis”, “climate denial” and “eco-anxiety” also made the list, as well as “flight shame” – a reluctance to travel by plane, or discomfort at doing so, because of the damaging emission of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

“The word climate has been central to 2019 overall,” the Oxford Dictionaries said. “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, “emergency” was most likely to be connected to health, hospital or family, suggesting situations of danger at a personal level. That changed in 2019, illustrating how the debate is being reframed, the Oxford Dictionaries said.

“Plant-based”, meaning a food or diet consisting largely of vegetables, grains or other foods derived from plants, rather than animal products, saw an increased frequency as the trend for vegetarianism and veganism accelerated.

Image: Oxford Dictionaries

“Coverage of the Amazon rainforest wildfires in August, for example, brought renewed attention to damaging farming practices driven by high global demand for beef and a surge of people talking about sustainable alternatives,” the Oxford Dictionaries noted.

The announcement came ahead of the latest UN Climate Change Conference (COP25), which is taking place in Madrid from 2-13 December. Political leaders and climate experts are gathering to discuss how more can be done to meet the world’s three key climate goals: reduce emissions by 45% by 2030; achieve climate neutrality by 2050; an stablize the global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

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