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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 05/18/2009

Renaming Climate Change - Does it Matter?

By Andrew Freedman

* Full Forecast: Gradually Warmer | NatCast *

Global warming. Climate Change. Anthropogenic [man-made] climate change. Climate disruption. Voldemort.

These are the most popular terms, in descending order, which are currently used to refer to the recent phenomenon of increasing global average surface temperatures due primarily to human activities, which is reshaping vast portions of the planet (I may be the only person who uses that last one, but I can't be sure). There are lingering debates about which term is most accurate, and which may be the most effective at achieving certain goals. Yet, as a recent post at the Mother Nature Network (MNN) asserted, rather than constituting productive and healthy debate, these terminology quibbles may themselves be contributing to the slow pace of action to address the problem.

Keep reading for more on the efforts to re-brand climate change after the poll...

'Global warming' is more popular on an everyday, man-on-the-street level, while 'climate change' is used more frequently here at CWG - or at least it should be - since it is more accurate than global warming on a scientific level, and more popular within the scientific community.

Possibly reflecting public sentiment, lawmakers often use global warming instead of climate change to talk about the same problem. For example, in a press release last week on the introduction of a heavily negotiated climate change bill in the House, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) stated that the legislation would reduce "global warming pollution."

Some see a conspiracy afoot if policymakers, scientists or journalists use 'climate change' instead of 'global warming.' In the face of periodic cooling of the earth's climate, they assert, nervous environmentalists and their allies are fearful that their policy agenda may not be accomplished if the public stops being worried about global warming. Therefore, they have simply changed the terms of the debate, and the public is being duped.

I'm puzzled by this extreme reaction to the terminology, in part because the term 'climate change' is not the result of a conspiracy, but rather the product of a search for accuracy.

The main reason for its use is that it better incorporates the fact that there are differences between natural climate variability and man made climate change, and the term 'climate change' better conveys the coexistence of those two features in the climate system. It thereby helps scientists communicate the fact that although each successive year may not be warmer than the previous one, human activities are still resetting the planet's thermostat to risky levels.

In addition, the use of the term 'climate change' better conveys the fact that not all regions of the world are warming, nor are they warming uniformly. The term 'global warming,' on the other hand, incorrectly suggests that every spot on the planet will warm up by the same amount.

And lastly, there is scientific evidence that shows that climate change is likely to bring impacts that are not directly associated with temperature change, such as ocean acidification.

Writing for MNN, former CNN sci/tech/weather unit executive producer Peter Dykstra lamented the continuing efforts to criticize and rework the climate-related terminology, noting lessons from pop culture's disastrous re-branding campaigns, such as "the artist formerly known as prince."

Dykstra wrote, "It's been more than two decades since the world's scientists and policymakers first focused on greenhouse gases and their impact. If we had all given birth to a child in 1988 and hadn't yet figured out what to name the baby, it wouldn't be a good sign that we'd figured out the parenting thing."

Dykstra dismissed the conspiracy theories but also criticized some leading climate thinkers, such as President Obama's science advisor John P. Holdren, for thinking that a new term will provide the key to gaining the public support necessary to enact effective climate policies. Holdren, for example, thinks global warming sounds too benign and therefore favors the more malevolent sounding "climate disruption."

That may be true, and the term is a good suggestion, but I'd like to see some communications scholars weigh in on the need to re-brand the issue before adopting yet another new term.

As Dykstra put it, "All this would be well and good, Dr. H., if it were the scientists who needed convincing. But with polls consistently showing high levels of skepticism among the public, and fossil fuel interests and political hacks seeking to exploit that skepticism, it's the public that needs convincing. And changing names every few years won't get the job done."

I too doubt that switching to 'climate disruption' will itself convince many more people to pay attention to the issue and support actions to address it. Rather, name changing could result in confusion, loss of attention and therefore, rather paradoxically, greater apathy.

By Andrew Freedman  | May 18, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman, News & Notes, Science  
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Comments

How about "bunk"?

Posted by: PowerBoater69 | May 18, 2009 11:36 AM | Report abuse

"Climate change" is best since many of the involved processes tend to be natural rather than anthropogenic.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | May 18, 2009 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Why beat around the bush - the real concern and that which mitigation and legislation target is man-made contributions to the changing climate??

So I vote for "Anthropogenic Climate Change".

It seems to me that most, if not all issues of current concern and attention fall under that umbrella, including the basic questions of whether or not climate change is human caused and, if so, to what extent; where, when and how is it a threat to life, property, and environment; and what can/should societies be asked/required to do to mitigate threats, etc.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | May 18, 2009 12:49 PM | Report abuse

steve,
you're right "anthropogenic" is the key term here. and "AGW" is not quite right because it's more than just warming. denialists think alarmists changed to climate change because we're not so sure if it's warming anymore. it's "climate change" now because warming doesn't cover it.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | May 18, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

There is no catastrophic man made global warming. Judge for yourself -
lower atmosphere temperature
the oceans are cooling

Since it has been COOLING since 2003, throwing out the word "warming" in whatever you decide to call it, is definitely a good idea. ;)

How about calling it "my little imaginary friend who seeks to regulate you to death and tax the crap out of you".

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | May 18, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Why is it that a person (cough.. Mr. Freedman cough..) who is pursuing a master's degree in climate change policy at Columbia University can NOT say what policies he recommends for reducing CO2 output? Does anyone else find that odd?

Is it because he has no recommendations? Or, is it because he dare not tell the public what his recommendations are?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | May 18, 2009 2:23 PM | Report abuse

hi mr. q!
i was counting on a post from you. gee, you say five years now, huh? quite a trend.

andrew, i too would like to know what you think about policy. is cap and trade better or a "carbon tax". i suppose by "better" i'd like two things considered

1) which would do a better job reducing emissions?

2) which is more "politically palatable"?

i read they recently enacted a cap-and-trade thing, so maybe that answers my second question. gosh, i'm glad we're finally doing SOMETHING after 8 yrs of denial and obfuscation.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | May 18, 2009 3:51 PM | Report abuse

The poll choices are loaded. You need a fourth option:

"Climate change is NOT man-made."

Posted by: MMCarhelp | May 18, 2009 6:06 PM | Report abuse

MMCarhelp,
i was joking with what i said about "weather extremes" on that other thread.

of course there no way i would say that now we're in a "opposite-of-a-drought" extreme now.... that's the tricky thing about extremes - they're extreme. it will take a LOT OF YEARS (mr.q) of measurements to determine a trend of "extreme" weather events. and of course projections about extreme weather events are held with much less certainty by scientists than general warming predictions.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | May 18, 2009 6:36 PM | Report abuse

you know, i just changed my mind. it should be AGW. "warming" is the important part. it's the net effect. sure it's change - change in the warm direction.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | May 18, 2009 6:38 PM | Report abuse

Steve and Walter, I agree that the focus is on man's contributions to climate change, at least as far as mitigation is concerned. However, the word "anthropogenic" is inaccessible to most of the public, so I recommend avoiding that in discussions/articles/news segments.

Like many people, I do have opinions on climate policy. But I don't share them here, nor do I let them slant my coverage on this site or elsewhere, because my assignment is to cover climate science, not to editorialize about climate policy. There are a gazillion places on the Internet to go to for climate policy coverage. This is just not the right forum for it.

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | May 18, 2009 7:19 PM | Report abuse

andrew,
what are we supposed to say so the stupid (ok...un/misinformed...) public understands? "man-made"?

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | May 18, 2009 8:56 PM | Report abuse

A quote from Andrew today: "the term,"Climate Change" is not the result of a conspiracy but rather the product of a search for accuracy".

Unfortunately, the "search for accuracy" is not widely reported if it produces results contrary to the "politically correct" mindset.

A world renowned climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen (NASA) recently admitted that his climate model from 1988 was incorrect in it's projection of a 4.2 C increase in temperature by 2100 with a doubling in CO2 levels. His new model predicts only a 3.0 C increase. What will the accuracy of the new model be 20 years from now??

A report will soon appear in "Nature" that throws cold water on long held scientific beliefs about the THC. How can this be???

Last November, Americans elected a President and Congress that will give us a new direction in the War on "Climate Change". Hopefully this war will be more successful than Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty". How invasive will this new direction be?? and will "the juice be worth the squeeze"?? The only certainty in comparison is the huge cost involved.

Democratic Presidential contender Gary Hart suggested many years ago that a person or society would be wise to be careful what they ask for, because they just might get it. How much opposition to this new direction will we see, as America gradually begins to understand what this new direction will mean in real terms, both in the short-term and long-term??

Will the "search for accuracy" reveal to us 20 years into the future that this is a futile war with huge cost and few results? We had the human capability to fight poverty. How will we react in the future if new knowledge overwhelmingly says that we do not have that capability with "climate change". That possibility cannot be thrown out by reasonably intelligent persons.

The great question for the future will not be so nonsensical as the proper term to use to describe the mission or adversary, but a serious debate concerning cost vs. benefit within a critical timeframe??

Posted by: AugustaJim | May 18, 2009 9:34 PM | Report abuse

A report will soon appear in "Nature" that throws cold water on long held scientific beliefs about the THC. How can this be???

"thc"? the active ingredient in pot?!

to the extent hanson is revising projections - that's good. it's how science works, responding to new evidence. we can only hope hanson et. al. keep revising down. i sure haven't heard of that hansen thing, but i'm not denying it. unfortunately, i keep hearing how scientists are getting MORE concerned about having underestimated things.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | May 18, 2009 10:17 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Freedman wrote, "Like many people, I do have opinions on climate policy. But I don't share them here, nor do I let them slant my coverage on this site or elsewhere, because my assignment is to cover climate science, not to editorialize about climate policy. There are a gazillion places on the Internet to go to for climate policy coverage. This is just not the right forum for it."

You crack me up Mr. Freedman!

This entire column was about picking the proper name for man made global warming! If that isn't "policy coverage", what is????? Are you going to claim that this column was about "climate science" and not policy?!?!?!

You are too funny! Keep them coming, I need the laughs.

But seriously, you must know that everyone knows that you don't dare post your recommended policies for CO2 reduction because you would have a much more difficult time selling global warming if the public knew what is in store for them, policy wise.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | May 19, 2009 12:48 AM | Report abuse

I will bet that this guy would not vote for anything with "warming" in the name.

--begin quote--
"Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) is a scam, with no basis in science....
....It is obvious that anthropogenic global warming is not science at all, because a scientific theory makes non-obvious predictions which are then compared with observations that the average person can check for himself. As we both know from our own observations, AGW theory has spectacularly failed to do this. The theory has predicted steadily increasing global temperatures, and this has been refuted by experience. NOW the global warmers claim that the Earth will enter a cooling period. In other words, whether the ice caps melt, or expand --- whatever happens --- the AGW theorists claim it confirms their theory. A perfect example of a pseudo-science like astrology."

Frank J. Tipler - Professor of Mathematical Physics, astrophysics, Tulane Univeristy
--end quote--

source of the above quote

While there, check out this one.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | May 19, 2009 1:06 AM | Report abuse

"the idea that co2 is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical."
- rep. john boehner (r (of course) ohio)

i would say the idea that co2 is a carcinogen IS comical.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | May 19, 2009 9:06 AM | Report abuse

anyone know if pielke's guest blogger william dipuccio has published that paper yet? i understand from mr. q that dipuccio's it's quite revolutionary.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | May 19, 2009 9:11 AM | Report abuse

who says you can't be republican and be an environmentalist: rep. john shimkus is concerned capping co2 will "take away plant food."

thank god these people aren't running things anymore.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | May 19, 2009 12:29 PM | Report abuse

UW-Milwaukee Study Could Realign Climate Change Theory

Scientists Claim Earth Is Undergoing Natural Climate Shift

MILWAUKEE -- The bitter cold and record snowfalls from two wicked winters are causing people to ask if the global climate is truly changing.

The climate is known to be variable and, in recent years, more scientific thought and research has been focused on the global temperature and how humanity might be influencing it.

However, a new study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee could turn the climate change world upside down.

Scientists at the university used a math application known as synchronized chaos and applied it to climate data taken over the past 100 years.

read the full article here

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | May 20, 2009 11:48 AM | Report abuse

If meteorologists think that by sitting on the sidelines and not saying a word, they won't be found culpable when the AGW scam unravels, they are grossly mistaken. The public will hold them in contempt for not speaking up. You can't sit quietly on the sideline and watch the public get bilked out of billions of dollars and not expect the public to hold you accountable when the truth gets out.

Just something to consider.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | May 20, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

mr.q,
here's the rest of the story from Kyle Swanson, Tsonis co-author for the paper you referenced:

speaking of the "cooling trend" since ~ 2000.

Swanson thinks the trend could continue for up to 30 years. But he warned that it's just a hiccup, and that humans' penchant for spewing greenhouse gases will certainly come back to haunt us.

"When the climate kicks back out of this state, we'll have explosive warming," Swanson said. "Thirty years of greenhouse gas radiative forcing will still be there and then bang, the WARMING WILL RETURN AND BE VERY AGGRESSIVE."

http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2009/03/02/global-warming-pause-print.html

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | May 21, 2009 8:03 PM | Report abuse

--begin quote--
"In climate, when this happens, the climate state changes. You go from a cooling regime to a warming regime or a warming regime to a cooling regime. THIS WAY WE WERE ABLE TO EXPLAIN ALL OF THE FLUCTUATION IN THE GLOBAL TEMPERATURE TREND IN THE PAST CENTURY," Tsonis said. "The research team has found the warming trend of the past 30 years has stopped and in fact global temperatures have leveled off since 2001."

The most recent climate shift probably occurred at about the year 2000.

Now the question is how has warming slowed and how much influence does human activity have?

"But if we don't understand what is natural, I don't think we can say much about what the humans are doing. So our interest is to understand -- first the natural variability of climate -- and then take it from there. SO WE WERE VERY EXCITED WHEN WE REALIZED A LOT OF CHANGES IN THE PAST CENTURY FROM WARMER TO COOLER AND THEN BACK TO WARMER **WERE ALL NATURAL**," Tsonis said.

Tsonis said he thinks the current trend of steady or even cooling earth temps may last a couple of decades or UNTIL THE NEXT CLIMATE SHIFT OCCURS.
--end quote--

source of the above quote

My keyboard came with a caps lock key too. ;)

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | May 22, 2009 11:48 AM | Report abuse

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