Conservation | December 1, 2023
Word Nerds: Climate Change, Environmentalism & Environmental Justice
Article by Heather Hutchinson
Episode One: Climate Change
Climate change is a term most are familiar with at this point. The United Nations Climate Action website describes climate change as “long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns” (United Nations, n.d., para. 1). The site further notes that these changes can be naturally occurring or human-driven.
Breaking the term down into its parts provides insight into its history and evolution. The word climate “follows a steady etymological slope from French (climat) to Latin (clima) to Greek (κλίμα, klima)” (Kelly, 2017, para. 2). Early scientists thought that “different latitudinal zones made up the habitable regions of Earth, sloping from the equator to the poles” (Kelly, 2017, para. 3). The word climate was used in English for over a century to describe these zones of the planet before it began to be used “in the 16th century to refer to weather conditions” (Merriam-Webster, n.d., para. 3). Present-day climatology, while more specific and sophisticated, still uses latitude as a factor in scientific work (Kelly, 2017). A fun little sidenote: climate and climax share a common Greek ancestor word: klinein (Merriam-Webster, n.d.).
The word change hails from the Anglo-French chaunge, meaning “exchange, recompense, reciprocation” (Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d., para. 3). The first usage of the word to mean “something substituted for something else” (Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d., para. 4) was noted in the 1590s.
The meaning now associated with the compound term climate change began as global warming, which was used first in the 1950s to describe the “longterm [sic] rise in Earth’s average atmospheric temperature” (Dictionary.com, 2019, para. 2). Although in 2019, Canada’s Green Party mistakenly attributed the term climate change to a Republican operative trying to defang the environmentalist movement, the term has roots in 1956 when the term climactic change was used in a scientific paper (McIntosh, 2019). That term then morphed into climate change in the 1980s when it entered common usage (McIntosh, 2019). Scientists moved away from using the term global warming as it gave people the mistaken idea that the earth would continue to warm, resulting in the end of winter as we know it (Dictionary.com, n.d.).
When many people hear climate change, they associate the term with the consequences of human activity. Climate change as rhetoric is one of the “most successful social movements in history” (Pielke, 2019, para. 9). The rhetoric may have been impactful, but actual action has fallen short (Pielke, 2019).
One path towards increased action is the move away from climate change to the term climate crisis. The expression climate change was no longer adequate for at least one news organization when describing the larger impact of climate change. The Guardian instead uses terms like “climate breakdown or climate change or global heating” when describing certain stories in a “specifically scientific context” (Zeldin-O’Neill, 2019, para. 1). The time for soft messaging regarding climate change has passed. Whether or not one likes the term, climate change is affecting everyone and will continue to do so in increasingly urgent ways. The terms and rhetoric environmentalists use will most likely have to evolve in order to remain relevant and impactful as the climate crisis worsens. Consumers of media can strengthen their discernment by being aware of the evolution of climate terms and what they mean. The climate is changing, and so is the language people use to describe the evolving situations.
Episode Two: Environmentalism
The concept of environmentalism is well-known. Merriam-Webster (n.d.) defines the word with two separate entries. One definition for environment refers to social theories about influence and is defined as “a theory that views environment rather than heredity as the important factor in the development and especially the cultural and intellectual development of an individual or group” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). The better-known definition of environmentalism is “advocacy of the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.).
Breaking down the etymology of the word environmentalism clarifies its definition. The word environmental can be traced to the Old French word environner, meaning to surround something (Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d.). The suffix -ism applies the concept of a belief system or doctrine to the root word (Dictionary.com, n.d.). However, the word environmentalism usually evokes the image of a social movement rather than just a belief system. The word has been influenced by historical events that promoted the discourse on environmental conservation. Understanding how environmentalism gained traction as a movement makes it easier to understand how the word gained its current meaning.
It would be reductive to discuss the history of environmentalism without acknowledging that what society considers environmentalism has existed for millennia: Indigenous Peoples have a relationship with the environment that is based on sacred knowledge and practices that have been passed down through generations (Recio & Hestad, 2022). Between the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Industrial Revolution brought the development of new technologies and machines for the efficient production of materials (Kiger, 2021). The environmentalism movement, however, became popularized due to the Romantic Movement during this time (The Green Medium, n.d.), which was a “reaction against [the] spread of industrialism” (Allegretti, n.d., para. 1). The Romantic Movement encouraged artists to romanticize the countryside and the “tenderness of man” (Allegretti, para. 1).
In both the United Kingdom and the United States, efforts were made to conserve the natural environment in the late 1900s (The Green Medium, n.d.). Artists like John Muir published works promoting the idea of admiring nature and emphasizing its beauty, such as The Yosemite (1916), Our National Parks (1901), and Travels in Alaska (1915) (Sierra Club, n.d.). The Industrial Revolution also resulted in harmful environmental effects. Coal burning caused poor air quality, a surge in respiratory illnesses, and higher death rates (Kiger, 2021), causing the public to become more aware of the environmental effects of industrialization. As a result, several organizations were created to advocate for more regulations and preservation efforts. Some of these groups included the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Sierra Club (The Green Medium, n.d.). Governments enacted legislation and laws to protect the environment, such as clean air acts and the creation of national parks (PBS, 2014).
The concept of environmentalism has been strengthened by the contributions that have been made by environmentalist groups such as Greenpeace and independent activists. Greenpeace leads campaigns that push for environmentally conscious legislation and promote environmental practices (Greenpeace, n.d.). Environmental activists like Greta Thunberg and Ai Weiwei contribute by protesting (BioEnviro, 2022). Some activists create works about conservation, environmentalism, and climate change. Some examples include Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (PBS, 2014).
It does make sense that the concept of environmentalism would become the basis of a belief system. Perhaps its simple definition contributes to its prevalence and usage in everyday discourse. The word environmentalism allows for many other concepts and words to be attached to it, and the definition is broad enough to encompass the general efforts and ideas shared by those who advocate for the environment’s restored or preserved state. It is possible that the word environmentalism will become more contested with time. What was once a relatively popular word might soon be considered a political buzzword (Benderev, 2014). Environmentalism might decline in usage with the emergence of other branching sub-words. Although it may have been influenced by the political and social discourse on environmental conservation, the word is unlikely to become obsolete due to its relative longevity and its definition that many people can agree upon.
Episode Three: Environmental Justice
Environmental justice is a term and a concept that is becoming increasingly important to environmentalists and activists. It is tied directly to—and is a result of—the current climate crisis. Before explaining the political history of the term, it would be beneficial to look at the etymology of each word in the phrase.
Environmental, of course, refers to the environment. Justice derives from the Latin word iustitia, meaning “righteousness” and “equity” (Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d.). Environmental justice, therefore, literally means environmentally based justice.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (n.d.) defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” (para. 1). They further state that the goal of environmental justice will be met when everyone has “the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work” (para. 2).
The environmental justice movement started in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982 (Office of Legacy Management, n.d.). A small community with a largely Black population was slated to have a hazardous waste landfill put in their community. A protest didn’t stop the landfill from going in, but it did act as a catalyst for the environmental justice movement.
Since then, there have been many protests and actions taken to fight environmental injustice. The Center for American Progress notes that the movement was “spearheaded by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color…[and] has since made significant strides in bringing racial and economic justice to the forefront of modern-day environmentalism and the fight against the climate crisis” (Reta, 2022, para. 2). Among the communities disproportionately affected by the climate crisis is the LGBTQI+ community. Disenfranchised communities, already more likely to be poor or oppressed, are more likely to suffer climate change effects sooner and more directly. Discriminatory housing policies and higher poverty rates are two examples of ways that the queer community can face particular burdens when it comes to environmental issues. Many in the LGBTQI+ community have higher rates of chronic health issues as a result of environmental issues, like “respiratory diseases, cardiovascular disease, and cancer” (Reta, 2022, para. 4).
As Taylor (2015) notes: “When minority groups coalesce around a unifying issue—environmental justice—they are reframing environmental rhetoric in a manner which benefits them and solidifies their place in environmentalism discourse” (para. 1). Though it is extra labour, it is vital that the communities facing particular danger from climate change take charge of their own narratives and solutions. That does not absolve those in privileged communities from also doing the work of mitigating climate change, of course.
Environmental justice may seem like a thing to be left to professional protesters and scientists. It is heavy and serious and sounds like a lot of work—and it is. However, everyone should give the term more thought. Those interested in environmental justice can look for specific environmentalist groups that focus on marginalized communities. Consider the difference in the groups’ messaging and how the members in these groups experience climate change differently. Examine how different their communication style about environmentalism is from other groups and why that may be. The world cannot ignore the climate crisis forever, and putting in work now may save us from dire circumstances later.