This year is setting up to be a momentous year in the movement for climate action. Scroll through your newsfeed, scan the day's headlines, and chances are you'll see something about climate change.
This is good news. Largely because, as the latest IPCC report published in March made extremely clear, we are out of time for talking. We have to see urgent and widespread action on climate change right now — and that means global, systemic transformation.
But it can get overwhelming. Both in terms of eco-anxiety — an international study in 2021 revealed that 60% of young people were very worried about climate change — but also in terms of the sheer amount of information to know.
International climate policy isn’t exactly taught in school (although many, such as activist Scarlett Westbrook, argue it should be) and a barrage of media stories might have left you wondering what the difference is between your "net zero", your “NDCs”, and your “nature-based solutions.”
So to help, here’s a handy glossary of all the climate-related words and phrases you should know about.
Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns within global or regional climate patterns. The main cause of climate change is burning fossil fuels — such as coal, oil, and gas — to produce energy and power transport.
In addition to other human activities, like cutting down forests and farming, this releases heat-trapping pollution (called greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere, warming the planet and destabilizing the climate.
Climate change is already having a devastating impact on people all around the world, particularly through extreme weather events like heatwaves, wildfires, cyclones, droughts, and floods. Climate change is also disproportionately impacting the world's poorest people and nations the most, despite these populations having contributed the least to climate change.
The climate crisis refers to the urgent need for immediate action to mitigate the impacts of climate change and address the causes of climate change, and prevent serious and permanent damage to the environment.
Global warming refers to a long-term warming of the Earth’s surface overall temperature. Though this warming trend has been going on for a long time, its pace has significantly increased in the last hundred years due to the burning of fossil fuels.
Human activity has played a huge role in the increase of our planet’s temperature. Burning fossil fuels leads to greenhouse gases, which cause what's known as the “greenhouse effect” in earth’s atmosphere — which locks heat into the earth's atmosphere and causes the average global temperature to rise.
Fossil fuel is a generic term for non-renewable energy sources such as coal, natural gas, derived gas, crude oil, petroleum products, and non-renewable wastes. These fuels originate from dead plants and animals that existed millions of years ago, and can also be made by industrial processes from other fossil fuels.
When fossil fuels are burned they release harmful gases into the atmosphere and cause global warming (see above!). Fossil fuels currently supply around 80% of the world’s energy.
Debates about climate policy often refer to the need to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. But where did this limit come from, and why?
It refers to how we are tracking the world’s temperature in comparison to pre-industrial temperatures. The world is already 1.2C degrees warmer, and we’re seeing changes in weather and the climate as a result.
The idea of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body founded in 1988 to regularly assess all the available science on the changing global climate. Scientific predictions have been made about what the likely effect of incremental temperature rises would be — you can read about the differences between a 1.5, 2, and 3 degree rise here.
The Paris Agreement signed at COP21 in 2015 committed all 196 countries that signed it to endeavoring to keep global warming to below 2 degrees, and ideally no more than 1.5 degrees.
Loss & Damage
Loss and damage is a phrase you'll likely hear a lot, and it refers, to quote the UN Environment Program, "to the negative consequences that arise from the unavoidable risks of climate change" — things like, extreme weather events, rising sea levels, species extinction, and more. There's no internationally agreed definition for loss and damage, but it typically refers to the destructive impacts of climate change.
When capitalized, Loss and Damage is typically used when referring to international climate negotiations and the plans and policies that address loss and damage. Loss and Damage is incredibly important in addressing the injustice of climate change — with low-income and climate-vulnerable countries disproportionately experiencing the impacts of climate change and the mounting costs that result from loss and damage, despite having contributed the least to the causes of climate change.
It’s vital that countries drastically cut carbon emissions to address climate change — but our climate is already changing and, as such, countries also need to adapt.
With sea levels already rising and extreme weather events increasing in frequency and intensity, it’s clear that to protect vulnerable communities from the worst impacts, a significant amount of adaptation is required.
Climate adaptation can take many forms. It can mean building flood defenses, but it can also mean strengthening food systems so that they can withstand shocks. It’s important that wealthy countries, that have done the most to cause climate change, step up and support lower-income countries with this process of adaptation. You can learn more about climate adaptation here.
Dedicated and ring-fenced climate finance is what is needed to help fund efforts to address climate change — from cutting carbon emissions and shifting to clean energy, to adapting to climate change's impacts.
In short, billions of dollars are needed to address the increased poverty that climate change causes, to bolster systems to cope with its effects, and to support low- and middle-income countries to manage a just transition to greener economies.
It is especially important that funds are mobilized to help the poorest communities globally — those that did the least to cause the climate crisis but are bearing the brunt of the consequences.
At the COP15 climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, high-income economies pledged to mobilize $100 billion annually to fund adaptation and mitigation projects by 2020. However that promised funding has yet to be delivered. You can take action and join the call on world leaders to deliver the funding.
Nature-based solutions are an important aspect of the multi-pronged approach to fighting climate change. They are any action that works to sustainably manage, restore, and protect natural ecosystems — which in turn help build resilience to the impacts of climate change.
These are solutions like restoring mangrove forests to help provide an effective natural barrier against coastal flooding, or massive tree-planting, restoring, and protection programs to help ensure the world’s forests can effectively absorb carbon.
Forests and land ecosystems are what is known as “carbon sinks" and help to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, so many scientists advocate for “rewilding” — letting natural ecosystems restore to their natural state — to help the world recover. Read more here about groups that are leading the way with nature-based solutions.
The goal of the climate action taken by governments and societies around the world is to reach “net zero.”
That’s the state where no more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions are going into the atmosphere than can be taken out, and it means cutting emissions to as close to zero as possible.
Net zero is a simple goal that requires radical action to achieve. It will mean transitioning economies relying on fossil fuels for power towards renewable sources of energy instead.
A number of states — including the UK, the US, France, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan — have set goals to reach net zero emissions by 2050. To achieve this, decisive action needs to be taken right now to curb emissions. Find out more about the net zero goal and how we get there here, and about the UN-led campaign to cut emissions called the “Race to Zero” here.
Climate justice refers to the intersectionality of the climate crisis as a social and political problem, as well as an environmental one.
It acknowledges that different communities feel the effects of the climate crisis differently — with the world's poorest and most marginalized people being the most heavily impacted by climate change — and that the responsibility for causing and addressing the crisis rests with some more than others.
Renewable energy refers to sources or processes that are constantly replenished. These sources of energy include solar energy, wind energy, geothermal energy, and hydroelectric power; and they are the types of energy sources the world needs to be shifting to to effectively tackle climate change.
Extreme weather refers to any weather that falls outside of normal patterns — and it's becoming increasingly frequent and intense as a result of climate change. Already in 2023 we've witnessed numerous extreme and record-breaking weather events, from a heatwave across Asia, to Cyclone Freddy in southern and eastern Africa, to drought in the Horn of Africa, and more.
Carbon emissions means carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted when fossil fuels are burned in vehicles, buildings, industrial processes, and so on. CO2 is one of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) which is warming the atmosphere and contributing to global warming. There are however six greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorocarbons, often referred to together as "carbon dioxide equivalent" (CO2e).
Paris Climate Agreement
The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change. It was adopted by 196 countries at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris on Dec. 12, 2015 and was implemented on Nov. 4, 2016.
It has a main goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit global temperature increase to as close as possible to 1.5C; while other parts of the agreement focus on adaptation, education, financing, and how climate action can help achieve other UN Global Goals in the mission to end extreme poverty.
Biodiversity refers to the variety of living species on Earth, including plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi. However, many species are being threatened with extinction due to human activities and climate change, putting the Earth’s magnificent biodiversity at risk.
Special Drawing Rights (SDRs)
Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) are reserve assets that can be traded between countries in exchange for liquidity, or cash. SDRs aren't money in the classic sense because they can’t be used to buy things, only to exchange, but they do have value.
In a nutshell, SDRs are basically coupons that countries can exchange with other countries for cash when they need immediate financial assistance, for example to buy essential supplies like vaccines, and support their economies.
The world’s biggest climate summit is the United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as a COP.
The COP happening later in 2023 is COP28 and it presents a historic opportunity for nations to agree to life-saving commitments to cut emissions, ensure climate finance, and curb run-away climate change. Taking place in Dubai from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12, world leaders, diplomats, NGOs, activists, and the media will be traveling to the city to take part.
The summit is convened every year by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is a UN agency focused on, you guessed it, the climate.
COP is short for “Conference of the Parties” and essentially means a “gathering of countries.” This year will be the 28th time the conference has happened, hence the name “COP28.”
Nationally Determined Contributions — or ‘NDCs’
Something that has been part of past COP summits discussion are “NDCs”, short for “Nationally Determined Contributions”. Under the Paris Agreement, countries have to submit their plans to cut emissions — their “contribution” to the global effort to tackle climate change.
These plans detail when the country expects to reach peak emissions, and when they will reach “net zero” and what that trajectory looks like. The NDCs are seen as a work in progress, and need to be updated every five years to reflect greater ambition, providing more targeted information about how each country plans to achieve net zero.
Currently the NDCs submitted do not go far enough to curb warming to 1.5 degrees. According to a 2022 report by the United Nations, the world is currently on track for a temperature rise between 2.4C and 2.6C by 2100. Head here for a more detailed look at NDCs.
Climate Refugees & Climate Visas
A climate refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their home because the effects of climate change has made it impossible for them to stay. Climate visas, meanwhile, refers to visas given to people fleeing natural disasters caused by climate change; providing a safe and legal route for climate refugees to enter a country.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that, between 2008 and 2016, an average of 21.5 million people were displaced annually by extreme weather events. It's estimated that, by 2050, the climate crisis could force more than a billion people from their homes.
A Few More Acronyms…
There are few acronyms that refer to groups of countries or organizations that you might hear referred to in conversations about the climate.
SIDS — Small Island Developing States, referring to a group of 58 low-lying island nations that are vulnerable to rising sea levels caused by climate change. They also face threats from heavy rains, increased cyclones, and ocean acidification. Leaders from SIDS nations have been clear about the need for wealthy countries to keep their promises on tackling climate change.
G20 — The G20 is a forum of the 20 biggest economies in the world, made up of 19 nations and the European Union. Efforts to cut emissions must be led by these economies, which together account for between 75-80% of global trade and are home to around two-thirds of the global population. The 2023 G20 summit is to be held in New Delhi on Sept. 9 and 10.
AGN — The African Group of Negotiators was established at the very first COP meeting in Berlin in 1995. It’s made up of representatives from an alliance of African states to speak together at climate change negotiations.
Now you know all about the key words and phrases relating to climate change, you can join us and Global Citizen around the world in taking action to address climate change. You can take action to support our Power Our Planet campaign, and urge world leaders, business leaders, the world's development banks, philanthropists, and more, to take the urgent and widespread action needed to fight climate change and its impacts. Get started by signing our petition, then find out more here about Power Our Planet and how you can take further action to help.