New Climate Vocabulary for a Changing World
It always feels like entering foreign land, flying into Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Travelers are greeted by complimentary mimosas as they step through the chalet-styled airport, the only one in the United States built within a national park. Airport employees with frozen smiles hand out granola bars they proudly announce are local! while a rowdy crowd forms around the sole baggage claim, located no more than a thirty-second walk from the aircraft. The intimate space fills with oblivious men and women dressed in aprés style, slamming into each other with ski bags that stretch beyond their peripheral vision.
The airport view of the Teton range, draped in unceasing white, and the clusters of puffy-clad travelers that fragmented the sight, made it seem as though I’d caught a flight in Southern California and touched down in the Russian tundra. When I stepped onto the Boeing in New York in the middle of January, it was sixty degrees out. When I left the plane, antler-sign greeting me into the Gensler-designed airport, it was fourteen degrees in Jackson Hole.
Exiting the stuffy interior of the airport, I was as pleased to be greeted by the crisp, thin air as I was by my friend who was picking me up. Settling into his Subaru, I wanted to tell him about the unsettling weather we’d been getting in Brooklyn and the Adirondack High Peaks. How the ice climbing routes up north had melted a mere week after welcoming the climbers, how locals whispered about which winter sports or fauna will go extinct first, but I yearned to discuss it in terms of climate change and the anxiety swelling around it. As conversation naturally took shape, deliberating within the confines of “unseasonably warm” seemed so banal that I forgot to mention the weather altogether.
I spent the first week in Jackson Hole acclimating to my friend’s newfound vocabulary. Four years my senior yet helplessly influenced by the Gen Z crowd carving around him at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, he was spitting out “zoomer” terms every third sentence. I found myself asking him what words meant so often that I compiled a video glossary of his definitions. “Steezy means looking cool, stylish,” he said to the camera, “like in that 80s retro ski suit on the hill, you’re steezy.” I periodically received unsolicited lessons on “hip” phrases, silently hoping he was using them ironically.
Catch me on a good day and even my feigned interest in zoomer terms is minuscule, at best. But the different terms for snow introduced by Jackson Hole’s skiing community intrigued me. I quickly gleaned that corn was not a vegetable, but thawed and refrozen snow. Corduroy was not a type of textile, but the word for freshly groomed snow at resorts. Washboard was frozen corduroy. Freshies meant freshly fallen snow, marble was extremely hard snow. And, last but opposite of least, there was pow, which needs no introduction.
As I learned new words for the intricacies of snow and obligingly mimicked zoomer argot with comedically slow pronunciation, I was reminded of linguistic relativity—a thought-provoking theory, despite its controversy among academics.
Also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, linguistic relativity suggests that the language people regularly use directly affects their perception of the world around them. Ongoing debate on the theory stems from disagreements among linguists and cognitive scientists regarding the extent to which language influences thought and behavior, and whether it reflects a causal relationship or mere correlation. The example that Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf leaned on to explain the theory was that Alaskan Inuits had over forty words for snow. They argued that because of the variety of terms for snow—ranging from a word for snow meant to be melted for water, to a word for wind-driven snow—that Inuits were able to perceive subtleties in snow that those with less expansive vocabulary could not. While this example may exoticize the Inuits, reinforcing an essentialist view of their culture, the theory it poses is anthropologically relevant in modern culture. A generous interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf theory suggests that when a language lacks the words for particular things, a speaker’s ability to even think about them is hindered.
One afternoon, as my friend and I thawed over post-hike drinks, I noticed an abandoned newspaper further down the bar. The bartender slid it over, and I dragged it to eye level with the same Sisyphean dread as always. The headline read “Study: warming to make California downpours wetter.” Wetter, that’s an innocent choice of words, I thought. As the younger ski bums at the bar continued to communicate in their improvised tongue, I wondered where the language was for this—a word for catastrophic rain storms directly caused by global warming.
Skiers in Jackson Hole had coined terms for every type of snow they could ski, yet there were few words for phenomena around climate change, beyond scientific and academic lexicon. Where was the term for warming making refugees out of animals, relocating them to human-populous areas? Or a word distinguishing hunting laws based on predation from those based on overzealous, western hunting culture? A term for depression caused by a lack of exposure to nature?
The gaps in climate vocabulary are endless. Where is the terminology for the specific cognitive dissonance surrounding climate change—for the space between knowing the science and failing to act upon it? A name for the anxiety that immediately follows the involuntarily joyful greeting of a warm winter day. For cold-reliant sports that are growing “endangered.” For a deforested rainforest turned to a graveyard of stumps—a word evoking absence—what was once there but is no longer. A word for spring-temp winter weather in the Northeast, less modest than “unseasonably warm”—one that instills appropriate alarm. A term for impending trade wars borne of an unaligned balance of greed and environmental accountability. For fauna and flora that become extinct due specifically to the loss of the snow’s subnivean zone. A term for shrinking winters—for recognizing that, in the face of human exceptionalism, even nature’s rhythms are defenseless.
There is a groundswell of ordinary people like myself who have their anxious attention on climate, who wish to discuss it widely and with ease. The latests IPCC report shares horrific data, confirming that we will experience unmitigated catastrophes like never before, from crop failures to extreme water scarcity, well within our lifetimes. But climate scientists have had paltry success in communicating the urgency; there is a palpable gap between the information available and society’s absorption of it. The majority of people today have shown blithe disregard for the data at their disposal and a frightening ability to create imagined distance between themselves and the changing ecosystems around them. But we are as anchored to the earth as anything—anchored to air quality through our breathing, to the health of our rivers through our thirst, to soil quality and temperature changes through our hunger. By crafting colloquial language around climate change to better account for the ever-shifting world before us, as zoomers seem so adept at doing, we can lay the grounds for a paradigm shift.
I view the lack of language around climate change as a sign of society’s general apathy toward the crisis. The initial step to action is understanding, and what better tool to understand than language—a vessel that liberates us as much as it constricts us. I wish we could participate in the conversation about climate change without labyrinthine efforts to explain the changing world around us.
On my last afternoon in Wyoming, just before the swift midwinter transfer from day to dark, I went to the Tetons to bid my favorite mountain range farewell. The mountains were shielded behind heavy fog. There was no paucity of snow, as there had been in the Northeast. In the resonant silence of the Tetons during snowfall, I gazed up at the eastern face of the Grand, and I saw nothing. Beyond the rhythmic in-and-out of my breath, creating small, fading clouds that matched the sky, I heard nothing. Before me but hidden in fog stood that familiar, primordial rock face—silver jagged peaks topped with pow. Formations capable of causing even those apathetic to nature to take pause and tilt their necks back a few degrees. With no rays escaping through the thick drape of mist, the sinking sun looked like a full, ancient moon.
All I could see was a dense black army of lodgepole pines, standing at attention at the base of the mountains. As I stared, I wondered how long the image would last. When will the last evergreen in the Tetons give out? When will the last snowflake dance its way down to melt on the peak of the Grand? I used to see the natural world as a thing unchanged, the seasons like spokes of a wheel that would spin on and on, long after I sip my last, polluted breath. And I found deep, primal comfort in that—a living thing whose continuum was promised. Lately I find myself dwelling on its ephemerality, suddenly understanding it as no less vulnerable than any of us. If there was a word for this, this mourning of nature as I simultaneously try to enjoy it, would I discuss it more? I can’t help but think that stronger lexicon would better facilitate conservation of the natural world.
Buried by the sounds of capitalism and consumption, I worry that the awakening needed to fight global warming is happening too slowly, in too-small pockets of society; that our species will dwindle from its own too-much. If Gen Z is able to create a language for their zeitgeist, we can surely create one for the new world developing from climate change. Words that empower us by implying possible action, or frighten us into change before we face virulent consequences.
I returned to New York on a 64-degree February day. Rather than calling the weather “unseasonably warm” that morning, my friend and I referred to it as “warning weather,” which felt truer to the disquiet hanging heavy in the damp air.
Walking through the city, I tilted my head back to see the Metronome looming above the burlesque of Union Square, just as I had to view the Tetons days before. I remember the first time I noticed the smooth ticking of the 80-foot-wide digital clock as a teen. Back then it counted the time, to the second, to and from midnight. As of 2020 the functionality changed, and it turned into the “Climate Clock”—it now purportedly counts down to the date at which the effects of global warming will have become irreversible. I looked twice to make sure I read the numbers correctly: 6 years, 168 days, 11 hours, 50 minutes, and ten seconds.
In the background I heard a college student explaining what the clock was calculating. “Damn, that’s kinda wild,” his friend responded. “Well, I don’t know if ‘wild’ is the right word but, you know.”
Featured image: Climate protestors holding up signs with different slogans on them. Photo by Gary Knight, 2019.
Stevie Chedid is a Lebanese-American writer living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and the Adirondack High Peaks region. She is the recipient of the Michele Tolela Myers Fellowship at Sarah Lawrence College where she is pursuing her MFA in fiction. Her non-fiction has been published in various publications, including Greenpointers and Adirondack Life. Instagram. Contact.