Beyond Words - Language Blog

Global Warming vs Climate Change: A Blog Action Day Word Discussion

In honor of Blog Action Day 2009, here is an exploration of the language used in the climate debates:

Today there exist an impressive number of environmental publications, blogs, and websites dedicated to tracking and, possibly helping solve, global climate change. , for example, prides itself on “making lemonade out of looming climate apocalypse.” The website has monitored and reported on various environmental action news items since 1999, but today it is 100% devoted to global climate change. Its articles address transportation, politics, agriculture, and various other “green stories” as a way to examine climate change from every possible angle. Small blogs like Fred First’s, Fragments from Floyd, chronicle both the global and extremely local aspects of climate change. His focus on the small mountain town of Floyd, Virginia, separates the blog from others, although his science journalism is on par with any major newspaper or magazine.

It seems like everyone has an opinion about climate change—whether it’s happening, whether we can do anything to solve it, whether our politicians are doing enough to address it (or spending too much time addressing it). It’s an issue that is important to everyone—even if it’s one that isn’t deemed as important as other issues like the global economy or healthcare. It’s hard to ignore the news that “the Arctic Ocean’s permanent blanket of ice around the North Pole has thinned by more than 40% since 2004” Guardian, or that “the United States must cut emissions 100 percent by 2020—in other words, quit carbon entirely within 10 years” Grist.

While some argue that most scientific studies blow the results of climate change out of proportion, it’s hard to ignore scientific study after scientific study claiming the same thing: we, the entire world, are in trouble. There’s no turning back, but we’ve got to move forward.

One of the main issues with global climate change is the terminology—do we call it global climate change or global warming? The term global warming was first used by Wallace Broecker in his 1975 Science magazine article “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” According to NASA, Broecker’s use of global warming broke with the established term inadvertent climate modification.

Inadvertent climate modification referenced the fact that while “many scientists accepted that human activities could cause climate change, they did not know what the direction of change might be.” In 1979 the National Academy of Science picked up the term global warming, but the term was only applied to surface temperature change. All other changes to the climate—weather, natural disasters, etc.—were referenced by the term climate change. In 1989 the U.S. climate research program switched to using the term global change—the U.S. Global Change Research Program. By this time, however, global warming was the term de rigueur in media sources. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, global warming was used in most news, tv, radio, and online media sources.

The difference between global warming and climate change is important however. Global warming, as noted by NASA, references “the increase in Earth’s average surface temperature due to rising levels of greenhouse gasses.” Climate change, on the other hand, refers to “a long-term change in the Earth’s climate, or of a region of the Earth.”

Unfortunately, the Oxford English Dictionary throws in conflicting definitions. According to the OED, global warming is “A long-term gradual increase in the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere and oceans, specifically one generally thought to be occurring at the present time, and to be associated esp. with side effects of recent human activity such as the increased production of greenhouse gases.” Climate change, on the other hand, is “an alteration in the regional or global climate; esp. the change in global climate patterns increasingly apparent from the mid to late 20th century onwards and attributed largely to the increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by the use of fossil fuels.” While there these two sets of definitions don’t conflict too much, the emphasis on long-term versus short-term (or open-ended time parameters) is important in the climate change debate.

My personal experience with global warming/climate change emphasizes this important linguistic distinction. Throughout my adolescence I was told that global warming was a farce because plenty of places experience freezing cold temperatures, “people are dying of cold in Europe,” etc. The emphasis in popular media on the term global warming opened up room for uneducated dissent. In itself the term connotes warming, that the Earth, as a whole, is warming everywhere. Climate change, on the other hand, specifies a changing climate, one that is warmer in some areas and cooler in others. Hence, the criticism that some places are colder now than they used to be so global warming can’t be true is problematic when the correct language of change is applied.

In her study, Do the Terms “Global Warming” versus “Climate Change” Matter to Public Perceptions, Lorraine Whitmarsh found that:

“Global warming” is more often believed to have human causes and tends to be associated with ozone depletion, the greenhouse effect and heat-related impacts, such as temperature increase and melting icebergs and glaciers. The term “climate change” is more readily associated with natural causes and a range of impacts. Furthermore, the term “global warming” evokes significantly more concern, and is rated as “very important” by more respondents, than the term “climate change.” Finally, more people consider individual or public action to be an effective means of tackling “global warming than do so for “climate change”; while a higher proportion believe planting trees could mitigate “climate change” than it could mitigate “global warming.”

Whitmarsh’s study reveals a more contemporary public opinion quandary. The distinction between climate change and global warming in my past focused on the validity of a misunderstood scientific term. Whitmarsh’s study of the UK’s perception of global warming vs. climate change found that global warming indicates human influence, whereas climate change is unrelated to human activity—global warming seems possible to mitigate, whereas climate change is more the fate of nature.

While the two terms, thanks to the media, seem inevitably interchangeable regardless of actual definition, there might be some hope for the future. Newspapers and other mainstream media sources rarely reference global warming, instead they use climate change to address the alternately warming and cooling globe. Hopefully in the gradual turn from one term to another public perception will catch up and grasp onto climate change, and the fact that it is indeed related to human activity and that yes, we can do something to affect positive change to the planet.

Photo by Right Brain.