Renaming Climate Change - Does it Matter?
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.
| May 18, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories: Climate Change, Freedman, News & Notes, Science
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