Boost Your Climate Vocabulary Confidence


By Alfred Robert Hogan


As former US schoolteacher Etta Place archly explained to famed bank and train robbers Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who had fled the Wild West into Spanish-language Bolivia circa 1898, yet remained shaky in their grasp of that second language: “Your line of work requires a specialized vocabulary.” And so it goes with we climate activists, who need to both readily understand and be able to easily convey aspects of the No. 1 climate crisis we face in our daily conversations. At the UN COP 24 climate meeting in Katowice, Poland, in December 2018, teen environmental champion Greta Thunberg, then just 15 years old, expressed her astonishment on the Scientists' Warning panel that even most of the journalists and politicians she had been talking with did not know such basic terms as the albedo effect and the Keeling Curve. Indeed, for all of us, learning and practicing key terms you may or may not yet know cold will instill confidence and surety when you talk about the crisis. So, to get you started, here are 10 climate-related words and definitions to master, adapted from online sources:


Albedo effect -- The ratio of how much light and radiation a body or surface reflects to the amount of radiation absorbed. Basically, it says how much of the light that hits a surface is reflected back. Albedo is expressed from 0 (at the low, dark, absorbing end) to 1 (at the high, bright, reflective end), with freshly fallen white snow being especially high in albedo, at 0.95, and oceans only at 0.02 to 0.08. Clouds and deserts also have a high albedo rating. Saturn's icy, white moon, Enceladus, has the highest albedo in our Solar System, at .99, whereas cometary nuclei (the rocks and ice at the centers of comets) have among the lowest albedos, typically about .04. Earth’s albedo–notably on the mostly white continent of Antarctica and the fast-melting Arctic ice--helps regulate temperatures and thus affects climate trends, meanwhile black roofs absorb heat.


Anthropogenic global warming – The well-established theory backed by overwhelming scientific data explaining today's long-term increase in the average temperature of Earth's atmosphere as being caused by fossil fuel-intensive human industry, smelting, transportation, and animal agriculture—and the greenhouse gases they have produced, most notably carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide—since the 1750 start of the Industrial Age, before which CO2 levels had long been steady at about 280 ppm (the level passed 350 ppm in spring 1987 and now tops 416 ppm). This just refers to the climate crisis but specifies that it is being caused by humans.


Carbon budget – The maximum volume of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions allowable to stay below a certain global average temperature rise; we humans add some 42 gigatons (Gts) of CO2-equivalent annually to the atmosphere, and depending on calculations may have only some 400 Gts left in total to have a 50-50 chance of keeping the global average temperature rise by 2030 to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.


Carbon literacy – Awareness of the carbon dioxide costs and impacts of everyday activities, and the ability and motivation to reduce emissions, as individuals, communities, and organizations.


Carbon dioxide (CO2) and Methane (CH4) – The two leading greenhouse gasses, both colorless and odorless; atmospheric CO2 is now 416 parts per million (ppm) by volume, having risen from pre-industrial levels of 280 ppm, and soared past the maximum safe ceiling of 350 ppm back in spring 1987; methane levels have increased some 150 percent during that approximately 270-year timespan

Global warming denialists – Those who deny, dismiss, or express unwarranted doubt about the scientific consensus on climate change, including it being caused by humans, its effects on nature and human society; many now slickly and inaccurately call themselves "climate change skeptics,” (most of whom are really either on the payrolls of capitalist corporate interests).

Tipping points and feedback loops -- Critical thresholds that, once crossed, push humanity into terra incognita, as we really don’t know what could happen after that. Exceeding a tipping point could trigger self-reinforcing cascading “domino effects” processes known as feedback loops, abruptly causing irreversible damages (e.g., rising sea levels). There are certain levels of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming that could cause a sudden increase in greenhouse gas emissions, putting it out of our control. An example of this is melting permafrost, which is more likely to melt due to climate change but releases greenhouses gasses when it does.

Keeling Curve – What Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University in Massachusetts, and many others have called the world’s most important graph, the Keeling Curve depicts the dramatically upward, rapid accumulation of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere, based on measurements taken at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii since 1958; the curve is named for scientist Charles David Keeling, who started the monitoring program and supervised it until his death in 2005, and helped bring world attention to the sharp rise in world CO2atmospheric levels. While some scientists contend that 280 ppm should be the ideal goal, the level passed the maximum safe level of 350 ppm in spring 1987, hitting 417 ppm in May 2020, the highest level in some 2-1/2 million years. As of Tuesday 25 January 2022, the CO2 level measured at MLO reached 419.19 ppm, with only minimal slowing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Current trends, unless somehow reversed, will see that stat exceed 440 ppm by 2030.


Net zero and real zero -- Net zero balances and offsets carbon emissions with carbon removal techniques (such as planting trees), whereas real zero seeks to minimize the problem emissions from ever needing to be offset.


Veganism – The lifestyle and philosophy of not using animal products as food, drink, or clothing, and avoiding them to the maximum extent feasible in general. People can go vegan for environmental and climate reasons, because of the high carbon footprint and pollution caused by animal agriculture, with common additional reasons including animal rights, human health, world hunger, and world peace. The term was coined in November 1944 by English pacifist and carpenter Donald Watson and his future wife Dorothy Morgan. But the practice was championed far earlier, as for instance by 11th-century Arab poet al-Maʿarri. Other supporters of ethical veganism include 19th-century educator and reformer Bronson Alcott, and, quite notably, Fridays For Future founder Greta Thunberg of Sweden, who is vegan first and foremost for ethical reasons.

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For more details on the above terms, here are some example resources:

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) Vegan Starter Kit (based in

Washington DC USA) The Vegan Starter Kit


To further bolster your climate vocabulary, consult these resources, among others:


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