By Faye Flam
AS SCIENTIFIC terms go, “climate change” is lame. It sounds like something created by committee. And it’s hard to understand as a crisis when we also hear scientists talking about ice ages and other natural changes to the climate happening throughout earth’s history. “Global warming” is something people have worried about for years, though. It’s essentially another term for the same thing, but conveys a planet-wide danger.
There’s good evidence that global warming is exacerbating the wildfires raging in southern Australia, but when we call it “climate change,” non-scientists may well wonder what the connection is and how it could have been averted. Call it “global warming,” though, and it’s intuitively easy to understand that if the world is getting warmer on average, then of course some hot places will get even hotter, and eventually some really hot places, such as southern Australia, will go up in flames.
Yet nobody seems to be talking about global warming these days.
Scientists sometimes argue that “climate change” is a broader, more accurate term — encompassing a wider range of phenomena. That’s fine for climate scientists communicating with one another, but the term is too broad to convey much of anything to the average person. And that’s a problem, because the future hinges on non-scientists mustering the political will to do something about it.
In 2014, researchers from Yale and George Mason Universities surveyed 1,657 Americans on the two terms, and found that many people were concerned about global warming, while far fewer were concerned about climate change. The latter term left people feeling disengaged and confused about what it was supposed to mean. (I wrote a piece about this report back when it came out.)
Is global warming still a scientifically correct term? Scientists recognized a century ago that at 93 million miles from the sun, our planet would be frozen to the equator if not for certain heat-trapping components of our atmosphere — especially carbon dioxide.
By the early 20th century, scientists predicted that burning coal would increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which would in turn lead to a warmer planet. And now those predictions have come true — as increasingly sensitive measurements show, the total carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased more than 45% and the temperatures of our atmosphere and oceans have warmed exactly as predicted.
How, then, did the term “climate change” come to dominate its more descriptive predecessor? Some news organizations have pointed to memo, intended to be secret, from George W. Bush adviser Frank Luntz. In it, Luntz proposed avoiding the term “global warming” because it might scare people.
But the term “climate change” also caught on among scientists, who have argued that it’s more encompassing, including all the side effects of the carbon dioxide buildup — not only warming, but also changes in rainfall patterns, sea level rise, more dangerous storms, floods and droughts. Seen that way, “climate change” should be the scarier term, but ironically, the Yale/George Mason survey found non-scientists had the opposite reaction — global warming carried a much stronger suggestion of potential catastrophe.
Scientific terms, like all words, can take on a life of their own. They emerge and stick through historical accident. The term “big bang” to describe a prevailing theory of cosmology, for example, has come in for years of criticism because, among other reasons, the birth of the universe would not have made any noise.* But as science writer John Horgan put the matter in a 1995 issue of Scientific American, “Words are like harpoons. Once they go in, they are very hard to pull out.”
According to Dennis Overbye’s book Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, a subsequent, more refined theory of our universe’s origin, inflation, was named by its primary inventor, Alan Guth, after the economic inflation that was going on at the end of the 1970s.
Mammals were named by Carl Linnaeus during the 1700s, and while there are many traits that make our kind of animal distinct from other vertebrates, he chose to label us with the Latin word for breasts. And really, if we’re honest, there’s no evidence that our species, Homo sapiens (wise man) was any wiser than Homo erectus or Homo neanderthalensis.
Nonetheless, these terms are locked in. In 1993, Sky and Telescope Magazine held a contest for readers to replace the big bang with something that better described the origin of the universe. While they got more than 1,000 entries, nothing stuck. And so there’s not much hope in getting scientists or the public to start calling the result of carbon emissions “global heating,” as James Lovelock has suggested, or “global climate disruption,” as former president Obama’s science adviser John Holdren once proposed.
But “global warming” does resonate with the public, it’s scientifically accurate, and it should be revived. It correctly implies a serious problem and creates a helpful sense of urgency. “Climate change” might still be useful in some contexts, but we should make sure that harpoon doesn’t get stuck.
* The name traces its origin to BBC radio broadcasts by astronomer Fred Hoyle, who didn’t agree with the notion that our universe had expanded from some primordial seed. The name big bang apparently didn’t catch on till the late 1960s.