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climate change terms

Climate Change: 10 Important Terms to Understand the Debate

Climate change is one of the most significant contemporary issues for human societies. Barely any issues are as significant as climate change in today’s world. Sure, there has been a COVID pandemic, there is also war in Ukraine, and then there is a global economic recession, along with all the communal upheaval across the globe, mediated by inequalities and poor living conditions.

Some (like Adam Tooze) have referred to the accumulated condition of the present crises as polycrisis—a fancy term that still hasn’t gained significant consensus about its meaning since its coinage. The climate debates that often overshadow everyday discussions may seem intuitive. But there are interesting terms around climate change we all (over)hear or even use without really giving much thought to or without really dwelling deep into them.

Terms Around Climate Change

However, climate change is a well-established term. It refers to the significant changes in the temperature and weather patterns. These shifts are often referred to through an increase in global average temperature—and its effects on Earth’s climate system.

Therefore, there are several terms such as global warming (referring to increased Earth’s temperature), ozone layer depletion, greenhouse effect (the process through which gases in Earth’s atmosphere trap the Sun’s heat—making Earth warm), etc.

Today, mitigating climate change requires critical global cooperation and efforts. Scholars such as Ulrich Beck discuss “world risk society” and “cosmopolitan vision” for mitigating the newer challenges posed by global risks—beyond the lens of an expert’s opinion.

Writing in 1986 in German Risikogesellschaft (Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, published in English in 1992), Beck refers to a risk society as a “systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernisation itself”. Undoubtedly, climate change is one such risk which requires a significant formulation of risk society to mitigate the crisis.  

Several terms around climate change debates often give us a point of view. These climate change terms both help in thinking through the lenses of different actors in the climate debate and allow us to understand various historical trajectories of climate crises. In this essay, I delve into some of these terminologies and understand what they mean in terms of the climate debate.

1. Historical Responsibility

“Historical Responsibility” is one of the key aspects of climate debates. It refers to acknowledging inequities within the share of burdens every country shares in climate change.

It also refers to how certain countries and entities bear a significant share of responsibility for current levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere due to their historical actions. For example, say, the Industrial Revolution was an important characteristic of Western societies (and this period has significantly led to the rise of modern cities, at the cost of the environment).

The Industrial Revolution has not equally caused the development and growth of all societies, but some. And they share significant responsibilities for present-day conditions. Importantly, these countries are also significantly modernised, affluent and economically prosperous nations today.

Historical responsibilities underscore the idea that the impacts of climate change are also not evenly distributed across the globe. Some suffer more than others, even as some are more responsible for these crises than others. It is an acknowledgement of these conditions.

It is an acknowledgement that countries in the global north have emitted a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gases over the past centuries. The idea of historical responsibility allows us to delve deeper into other climate-related concepts, such as climate justice, common but differentiated principles, etc.

2. Global North vs. Global South

In climate debates, the Global North, which comprises more economically developed nations, is commonly cited for its historical responsibility due to its overall greenhouse gas emissions from past industrial activities (as evidenced in the Industrial Revolution and post-Industrial Revolution era).

They are also perceived to have better financial and technological resources regarding their capacity to address climate-related issues.

historical responsibilities
Photo by [2Ni] on Unsplash

The Global South, however, emphasises its greater vulnerability to the effects of climate change despite historically contributing less to the problem.

In international climate negotiations, these nations usually advocate for increased financial assistance, technological transfers, and capacity-building to combat and adapt to climate change. This emphasises the notion of justice and shared but separate responsibilities.

3. Mitigation

In climate debates, the terms mitigation and adaptation are pretty commonly used. They both are mechanisms of thinking about how to deal with climate change. Mitigation refers to sets of actions and measures that could be taken to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the Earth’s atmosphere to mitigate the extent of climate change.

It focuses on reducing all human activities caused by GHG buildup in the atmosphere. The mechanism for mitigation includes transitioning to renewable energy and low-carbon energy sources such as solar and wind, increased energy efficiency, and promotion of sustainable use of resources.

garbage dump and climate change
Photo by Pop & Zebra on Unsplash

4. Adaptation

Adaptation looks at strategies and actions that help prepare and respond to the impact of climate change on everyday lives. Adaptation is our ability to come to terms with climate change and adapt to the changes already occurring and expected to occur in the future.

Adaptation measures aim to protect human and natural systems from the adverse effects of climate change. Some of the strategies involve building resilient infrastructure to deal with weather forecasting, developing early warning mechanisms, sustained efforts at resource management, and protecting and restoring ecosystems, among others.

Both mitigation and adaptation are crucial aspects of a comprehensive response to climate change.

5. Carbon Footprint

A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs), predominantly carbon dioxide (CO2), emitted over a certain time period by an individual, group, event, product, or activity. It is often described in terms of the possible influence on global warming and measured in carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) units.

The idea of a carbon footprint is used to measure and comprehend how much human activity contributes to climate change. The discussion around reducing carbon footprint animates every once in a while. And reduction of carbon footprint—through a sustained effort of everyone (including governments and corporate firms) is essential in sustaining a livelihood for generations to come.

6. Carbon Pricing

While the earlier terminologies looked at discussions around climate change in terms of effects and efforts, now we will look at terminologies that reflect a tendency to mitigate climate change. One of the important mechanisms of dealing with climate change and reduction of carbon footprint is sustained taxation/penalty on carbon pollution.

Carbon pricing is a policy mechanism through which governments create incentives for individuals and businesses to reduce carbon emissions and transition to cleaner, low-carbon alternatives.

It is a mechanism of taxing (or placing a price) on the total amount of carbon dioxide released in the atmosphere. It is effectively used in most societies as a sustained mechanism for dealing with climate change.

There are two known ways: One is Carbon taxing, and the other is Cap-and-Trade (also known as Emissions Trading System). In the carbon taxing, the governments tax the carbon content of fossil fuels—such as coal, oil, and natural gas.

The companies that emit carbon content through their activities are supposed to pay the tax. The main goal of this taxation is to make emissions more expensive.The Emissions Trading System is a market-based approach to carbon pricing. It involves setting a cap on the total emission one can do in a specific jurisdiction.

The emission allowances (distributed among businesses) are then bought, sold, and traded among each other based on their requirements. Over time, the cap is lowered, finally leading to the mechanism of renewable alternatives.

7. Net-Zero Emissions (Carbon Neutrality)

This term, net-zero emissions, is always quite in the news. The countries set limits on by when they would become net-zero/carbon-neutral nations. By the way, what does it really mean?

Net-zero emissions, sometimes abbreviated to “net-zero,” refers to a situation in which all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are offset by GHG removals from the atmosphere in an amount equal to the total quantity of GHGs produced, causing no net rise in GHG concentration.

To keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, as stipulated in the Paris Agreement, achieving net-zero emissions is critical in the fight against climate change. It is common to refer to obtaining net-zero emissions as achieving “carbon neutrality” or “climate neutrality.”

These phrases denote the absence of an entity (such as a nation, business, or individual) from increasing the total amount of GHGs in the atmosphere.

8. Polluter Pays Principle & Beneficiary Pays Principle

The “Beneficiary Pays Principle” and the “Polluter Pays Principle” are two interconnected environmental concepts that direct the distribution of expenses and liabilities for resolving environmental damage and fostering sustainability. They differ in their focus and application but are similar in terms of cost allocation.

The Polluter Pays Principle is a cornerstone of environmental principles, holding that the party or entity that causes pollution is accountable for covering the expenses of cleanup and any resulting environmental harm.

The Beneficiary Pays Principle is another environmental viewpoint that focuses on cost allocation on the beneficiary. It typically refers to circumstances where an individual or group benefits from ecological resources, infrastructure, or services.

9. Common But Differentiated Responsibilities

A crucial tenet of international environmental and climate change accords is “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities” (CBDR). While we have earlier discussed that there are debates about north and south, about historical responsibilities, CBDR helps us understand what these responsibilities really mean.

The term “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities” states that although all nations are jointly responsible for solving global environmental issues like climate change, those duties should be allocated according to each nation’s historical contributions, degree of development, and capacity.

The Paris Agreement and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) strongly emphasise this notion. Here, the term “common” refers to a collective sense of what climate means and how we should treat climate change.

It also tells us how we as a society should collectively think of and act in the face of climate change. At the same time, “differentiated” refers to how the Global North has historically contributed significantly to climate change than the Global South – and bears greater responsibility in mitigating climate change.

10. Climate Justice

The term “Climate Justice” refers to addressing the just division, fair distribution, and equitable share of responsibilities and burdens of climate change and the responsibilities of climate mitigation. Importantly, it also deals with aspects of ensuring “representation, inclusion, and protection of rights of those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change”.

It further deals with unfair and unrepresentative socio-economic and political institutions that are disproportionately skewed towards the rich countries in the Global North.

There are some societies which bear greater effects of climate change than others. In this case, it is also imperative to support one another – allowing people to engage with each other and empathise with one another.

Conclusion: On The Important Terms of Climate Change

These are some of the important concepts and terms around climate change debates. Each of these comments helps us gain some insight into how climate is debated across societies despite all the efforts at mitigating and engaging climate change.

While this is a very non-exhaustive list, there are many more terms around climate change I have not documented here. I request you to drop those terms in the comments below so I can write/add about them.


Bonus Content:

My latest peer-reviewed paper on ecological activism in the global south is here.


Cover Photo by Nicholas Doherty on Unsplash


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