What is the difference between the climate emergency and the climate crisis?

We explain the meaning and differences of terms such as climate change, climate crisis or greenhouse effect

The wide variety of climate change concepts sometimes leads to confusion between terms like climate emergency and climate crisis. Although frequently used as synonyms, the two words have different nuances. We’re going to explain the differences between them.

Climate crisis

This is a term that refers to the current state of climate change, but that is used with the aim of emphasising it as an urgent problem with serious consequences for the global temperature of the planet. “The level of the climate crisis refers to the aggravation and damages causing this transformation in the climate”, Albert Llausàs I Pascual, associate professor of the Serra Húnter programme in the Geography department of the University of Girona, explains to Verificat. However, Llausàs adds, “there is no standard definition of the concept”.

It is difficult to pinpoint a specific date of origin of the term “climate crisis”, but it started being used around 1992 by politicians, such as Albert Arnold Gore – better known as Al Gore, Vice President of the United States from 1993 to 2001 – in his book “Earth In Balance: Forging a New Common Purpose”. 

Starting in the 2000s, we can see it being used in environmental movements such as “Climate Crisis Coalition” (in 2004) or in the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” (in 2006). It is still used to this day in the discourse of climate activists like Greta Thunberg and in the speeches given by António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, during the COP27.

Climate emergency

The term “climate emergency” begins to appear in the year 2016 and describes an extreme situation that requires an immediate solution in the present. Its use is related to a subsequent action mediated by governmental authorities, such as climate emergency declarations made by different states to prioritise the effects of climate change.

Llausàs explains that this difference is a question of nuances: “The climate crisis is the underlying condition; it refers to the disruption of the climate regime that we have historically had. But the emergency belongs to the realm of human reaction” and, therefore, “its existence depends on whether this state of emergency is being declared to confront the crisis”.

The city of Darebin, Australia, was the first to make a “climate emergency declaration” in 2016. Other prominent cases were those of the United Kingdom and Ireland, whose governments declared the climate emergency between 2019 and 2020. To date, the climate emergency has been declared in 2291 jurisdictions and local governments, 18 national governments, as well as the European Union.

The terminology debate

The “climate emergency” and the “climate crisis” are two very closely intertwined concepts in the political and public sphere, but their use in science is being debated: “The concept of the climate emergency does not appear in any IPCC report”, Francisco Doblas-Reyes, head of the Department of Earth Sciences of the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC-CNS) and IPCC author, explains to Verificat.

Doblas explains that the reason these concepts are not included in the report is because “it does not make sense from the climate perspective, given that there is not an emergency as such on a scientific level. It is not something that is defined”. In consultation with the technical support unit of Working Group II of the IPCC, they highlight that these concepts “did not play a role in our most recent assessment of the report”, but that concepts such as “the growing urgency for climate action, as is done in the scientific literature assessed in their reports”, are used.

Nevertheless, there are scientific areas where this terminology is used: “In the field of Geography, we tend to use it when we want to emphasise the need to act”, Llausàs explains, continuing: “perhaps we use the term ‘crisis’ more than ‘emergency’, especially when we talk about the effects of climate change”.

Media outlets such as The Guardian openly declared in 2019 that they had changed the terminology in their style guide because the term climate change was “no longer considered to accurately reflect the seriousness of the overall situation”. However, this does not mean that the newspaper rejects concepts such as climate change or global heating; rather, the terms can be used in contexts in which the issue is being described “specifically in a scientific or geophysical sense”.