books climate change

The four phrases of a new climate normal

In his book Thank You For Being Late, Thomas Friedman tells a story of visiting Greenland and hearing first-hand how people could see their environment changing. He noticed that there were four recurring statements that showed how climate change is redefining what we consider ‘normal’. I expect you’ll have heard similar things yourself:

  1. “Just a few years ago… but then something changed”. For example, not so long ago you could ski in April in Greenland. Or you could walk across the ice, whereas now you have to go around.
  2. “Wow, I’ve never seen that before”. Climate change is creating new experiences in the natural world. It rained in December in Greenland recently, for example. That was a first for most people, as it’s usually too cold. My mum pointed out an incidence of this in her own garden this year, showing me the roses that were in flower in January.
  3. “Usually, but now I don’t know any more”. As the natural world changes, it becomes harder to predict seasonal change. The rains used to begin in a certain month, but now we don’t know when they’re going to arrive. A seasonal river that was always there isn’t any more. Bird or animal migration patterns that people have followed for generations don’t happen like they used to.
  4. “We haven’t seen something like that since…” The phrases above come from ordinary people observing the world around them. This one is from the scientists, who have studied the long term trends and know a bit about when the world last saw these conditions: CO2 levels haven’t been this high since the age of the dinosaurs. The Arctic hasn’t been ice-free in the summer for 2.6 million years.

These sorts of phrases illustrate some of the reasoning behind the UN’s decision to use the term ‘climate change’ back in 1988, rather than ‘global warming’. Change and disruption are the key features of living in a warming world. As individuals we might not notice a one or two degree rise in average temperatures, but we will detect the changes as a result – the unpredictable seasons, more extreme weather, changes to well established patterns in nature. What is normal is redefined, and we have to adapt.

Have you heard any of those four phrases lately where you are?


  1. With anything like this you have to be aware that if you are looking for something, you will notice it more. Doesn’t necessarily mean it is being used more.

    It would be interesting if someone like the OED researched the prevalence of these phrases over the last 150 years as the answer could surprise you (or nor, I have no idea).

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