"Climate change" vs. "Global warming"

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So, over on Facebook I opined that it's now time for Mr. Obama to get his ass in gear about global warming. I further opined that it was time to stop referring to it by the namby-pamby term "climate change" and get back to calling it "global warming." Boy, did that incite some strong responses!

As I said there and will reiterate here, "climate change" may be a descriptive term in a bland way, but it's way too soft and weaselly. "Climate" as a scientific term is just not understood well enough (or at all) by most of us, and "change" is just, well, change. It says nothing about the degree or direction of the change, about whether it's good or bad, and it even leaves some dangerously stupid pundits enough wiggle room to say, "Hey, change is no problem. We'll just adapt."

"Global warming," on the other hand, is direct and scary, and we need to be scared by it. We need to be shitting our pants because of it. "Global"—it affects all of us, everywhere. "Warming"—this identifies the most direct effect of the most critical element of the climate-change equation, to wit that if we keep dumping more and more carbon into the atmosphere, the average global temperature will keep going up faster and faster, leading to every other bad outcome, like increased sea levels, decreased permafrost, increased ocean acidity, increased extreme weather events, and so on. The most important thing we can and must do to stop climate change is to stop that temperature rise.

Now let's all change our underwear and call Congress (202-224-3121) and the White House (202-456-1111) and tell them now is the time to get very serious about halting global warming.


Don't believe me? You cannot possibly be informed about the urgency of this matter unless you're reading journalists like Elizabeth Kolbert and Bill McKibben. Go back and read Kolbert's "The Climate of Man" series from The New Yorker seven and a half years ago, then read McKibben's recent Rolling Stone article "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math" and reflect on how damn fast climate change is changing for the worse, and how little time we have to ameliorate its effects. And then change your underwear again.

4 Comments

Well... I'm a research scientist, and one of my areas is climate change effects on agriculture.

Note I said, "climate change," not "global warming," and that's the language I'm most likely to use. See, it's not just warming: some places are expected to get cooler, possibly dramatically so. Major changes in precipitation seem likely: some places wetter, others dryer, and with seasonal patterns changed too.

A lot of people in the scientific community use "climate change" because it's more representative of actual effects, and because it closes the "but it's colder in place X" argument, although as you point out it opens other arguments. Nothing is perfect.

It is global warming, and anthropogenic global warming. But at the regional and local scale, it's climate change. Even globally, there's more going on than simply warming.

I'm not alone in this usage: drawing a distinction between global warming and climate change is fairly standard in the scientific community.

I'm not disagreeing with you at all on what I see as your more general point: that scientists are doing a poor job of conveying the importance of AGW and the resulting climate changes to the general public, and certainly not in comparison to the huge amounts of money and PR effort dumped into it by certain industries. I think that intentional campaign to discredit the science and scientists involved is a bigger problem.

There are two separate problems: the way the general public interprets the words that scientists use, such as what "theory" means to a scientist and to the layperson.

The second problem is how scientists use those words when talking to the general public. If you only talk to other scientists, you don't ever have to think about the words you use, because everyone shares the same background and vocabulary.

Frequently, when a scientist goes outside that in group, she still uses the same words, even though they aren't perceived in the same way.

So we need to train everyone better in the ideas of science, and we need to train scientists better to express themselves to the public. That means that popular science has to be recognized as a valid part of a scientific career, which is a whole different issue.

People should be scared of global warming, and what it's going to do to them and to the rest of the world. How to convey that adequately? I don't know: I can do it at a small scale, to a room full of people, but I don't know how to change the national/global discourse.

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