Scientific American: Call it What it Is

April 12, 2021

Emergency! What to expect if your baby needs to go to hospital

Senior Editor Mark Fischetti in Scientific American:

An emergency is a serious situation that requires immediate action. When someone calls 911 because they can’t breathe, that’s an emergency. When someone stumbles on the sidewalk because their chest is pounding and their lips are turning blue, that’s an emergency. Both people require help right away. Multiply those individuals by millions of people who have similar symptoms, and it constitutes the biggest global health emergency in a century: the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now consider the following scenarios: A hurricane blasts Florida. A California dam bursts because floods have piled water high up behind it. A sudden, record-setting cold snap cuts power to the entire state of Texas. These are also emergencies that require immediate action. Multiply these situations worldwide, and you have the biggest environmental emergency to beset the earth in millennia: climate change.

Given the circumstances, Scientific American has agreed with major news outlets worldwide to start using the term “climate emergency” in its coverage of climate change. An official statement about this decision, and the impact we hope it can have throughout the media landscape, is below.

This idea is not a journalistic fancy. We are on solid scientific ground. In January Scientific American published an article about a study entitled “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency.” At the time, more than 11,000 scientists from 153 countries had signed a report to signify their agreement that the world is facing a climate emergency that requires bold action. As of April 9 another 2,100 had signed on. As our article said, “the adverse effects of climate change are much more severe than expected and now threaten both the biosphere and humanity…. Every effort must be made to reduce emissions and increase removal of atmospheric carbon in order to restore the melting Arctic and end the deadly cycle of damage that the current climate is delivering.” Our article also noted that as of January, “1,859 jurisdictions in 33 countries have issued climate emergency declarations covering more than 820 million people.”

Journalism should reflect what science says: the climate emergency is here. The statement we have issued was coordinated by Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative with more than 400 media partners. Here it is:

April 12, 2021

From Covering Climate Now, Scientific American, Columbia Journalism Review, the Nation, the Guardian, Noticias Telemundo, Al Jazeera, Asahi Shimbun and La Repubblica:

The planet is heating up way too fast. It’s time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here.

This is a statement of science, not politics. Thousands of scientists—including James Hansen, the NASA scientist who put the problem on the public agenda in 1988, and David King and Hans Schellnhuber, former science advisers to the British and German governments, respectively—have said humanity faces a “climate emergency.”

Why “emergency”? Because words matter. To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires and ice melt of 2020 routine and could “render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable,” warned the January Scientific American article.  

The media’s response to COVID-19 provides a useful model. Guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devasting impacts, called out disinformation and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks and social distancing, for example).

We need the same commitment to the climate story. As partners in Covering Climate Now, a global consortium of hundreds of news outlets, we will present coverage in the lead-up to Earth Day, April 22, 2021, around the theme “Living Through the Climate Emergency.” We invite journalists everywhere to join us.

This is an opinion and analysis article.


Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announcedthat, despite the pandemic, which curtailed travel and economic activity, carbon dioxide and methane levels in the Earth’s atmosphere continued to rise, reaching their highest levels in the past 3.6 million years. The last time CO2 was at its current levels, global sea levels were 78 feet higher than they are today and the average global temperature was 7 degrees Fahrenheit hotter. 

Scientists have been warning that the increased amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere caused by human activity has already warmed global temperatures by 2 degrees Fahrenheit and is fast melting the polar ice caps. 

A study published on Friday in Science magazine found that the massive ice shelf stemming from Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier is even more unstable than previously thought, thanks to warming water melting the ice that connects it to land. A collapse of this single ice shelf would translate into a global sea level rise of up to 3 feet, the study concluded. 

If global warming isn’t dramatically slowed and global average temperatures do rise by 7.2 degrees (4 degrees Celsius), over one-third of the entire Antarctic ice shelf will be at risk of collapse, said a second study conducted by researchers at the University of Reading, submerging whole countries and states like Florida and setting off the largest migration in human history. 

But sea level rise is just one of several threats facing mankind if global temperatures continue to rise, as the statement from Scientific American and the other media outlets made clear. 

“Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires and ice melt of 2020 routine and could ‘render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable,'” the statement said, quoting from an article in, where else, Scientific American

11 Responses to “Scientific American: Call it What it Is”

  1. Keith McClary Says:

    Most (but not all) dictionaries define “emergency” as unforeseen or unexpected.

    • redskylite Says:

      You’re correct, maybe “Climate Crisis” better describes our position as we have known for many a moon now. But some people deny or denied it and some are still highly sceptical or lukewarm. Concerned media folk are just trying to kick reluctant people into action. Hope it works.

    • toddinnorway Says:

      Many people are still unaware of the current state of the climate, so yes, for them it was unforeseen. All too many of our political leaders still believe we have 30 years to slowly and painlessly fix the climate problem. This is why an official ‘climate emergency’ must be declared, so that our political leaders take it seriously. John Kerry understands the urgency as does President Biden. But they hesitate to declare it an emergency.

      • J4Zonian Says:

        It’s been 40 years now; I’m not sure the last 39½ of that can be called hesitation.

        If they understand it, why do you think they refuse to declare an emergency and get on with doing what’s needed?

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      FWIW, legislatures and town councils define “emergency” as “stuff we figured could happen but we didn’t want to budget for”.


  2. BL Brown Says:

    “Emergency” has a pretty transparent etymology, connected (of course) to the verb ‘to emerge’. The points that using the phrase “climate emergency” emphasizes are that (1) climate change is an emerging threat, and (2) Like other things we call emergencies it requires an immediate response. I think the main aim of using the phrase is to emphasize point (2): we can’t wait on this, because (even though we’re not yet seeing a meter of seal level rise or some other, equally devastating global impact) outcomes like that are becoming inevitable, since (like any big ship) turning the current trend around will not happen overnight. In fact, conditions much worse than what we now see are already baked in. Preventing much more catastrophic outcomes either begins now, or it becomes impossible.

  3. J4Zonian Says:

    “Journalism should reflect what science says: the climate emergency is here.”

    Well that’s no doubt true. But i’s irrelevant as long as journalism depends on profits. As long as it has to compete with tabloid-minded media, financial, pharmaceutical, and other profitable firms for resources, journalism won’t tell the truth about anything that makes people unhappy.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      “…journalism won’t tell the truth about anything that makes people unhappy.”

      Bad news gets clicks, too.

      • J4Zonian Says:

        But only bad news that makes people happy. Schadenfreudic sadism. Floods, fires, murders happening to other people and most pointedly not us. Conspiracy theories are big too; we need some form of threat and some form of savior against it (religions have been making a killing with that for millennia), but mostly gossip about people famous for being famous.

  4. redskylite Says:

    If this isn’t an emergency, then what is ?

    NASA – Goddard Space Flight Center:

    Combined Land-Surface Air and Sea-Surface Water Temperature Anomalies for March 2021

    Global Anomaly: . . . . . . . . . . +0.88°C (Joint 8th Hottest on record)
    Northern Anomaly: . . . . . . . . +1.19°C (6th Hottest on record)
    Southern Anomaly: . . . . . . . . +0.57°C (8th Hottest on record)

    • J4Zonian Says:

      47 Scientists say: Our goals are too small, too late, too vague. We can and must do better.

      “A recent article in the journal Nature pointed out that [country, state and local goals for transitioning to 100% clean safe energy] are often too vague and vary quite a lot. The authors recommended clarifying scope and a long-term roadmap, among other things. 47 other scientists in this realm have made that a little easier for any leaders with a modest amount of courage and ambition. They say that countries and companies can and should aim for 100% renewable electricity no later than 2030, and 100% renewable energy (covering other sectors beyond electricity) by 2035.”

      “The 47 scientists have published a joint declaration. The bold subheading: “A world based on 100% renewable energy is possible, and we are able to transform the energy system fast enough to avoid the climate catastrophe!” You can also support the declaration by signing this short Google form.”

      “The 7 core scientists who formed the initiative, the initial signatories, highlighted that the meager target of 100% zero emissions by 2050 is unfortunately common. That just won’t cut it.”

      “To date, 11 countries have reached or exceeded 100% renewable electricity; 12 countries have passed laws to reach 100% renewable electricity by 2030; 49 countries have passed laws to reach 100% renewable electricity by 2050; 14 U.S. states and territories have passed laws or executive orders to reach up to 100% renewable electricity by between 2030 and 2050; over 300 cities worldwide have passed laws to reach 100% renewable electricity by no later than 2050; and over 280 international businesses have committed to 100% renewables across their global operations.  However, only Denmark has passed laws to reach 100% renewable energy across all sectors, and it is by 2050.”


      10 Point Explanation

      Click to access Joint-Declaration-of-the-Global-100-RE-Strategy-Group-210208.pdf

      Signatories: global100restrategygroup[DOT]org/

      Sign here:

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